- 1. Few of us ever experience the frisson of awe and humility that
accompanies pure genius, but fortunately there is art---which
allows us to experience it vicariously through the works
of others. And there is little doubt that such a feeling strikes all, except
perhaps those with ice in their veins, who step into the large room on the
second floor of the Guggenheim Museum in NYC to behold the digital-age wonder
of Frank Gehry's architecture.
- The ongoing exhibition, "Project for a New Guggenheim Museum in New York City,"
features two projects: Guggenheim Bilbao,
the celebrated project completed in 1997 (the end of the last century, as
it were) in Spain; and Guggenheim NYC, a proposed Y2K project, on the East
River of Lower Manhattan, which, if realized, would mark Gehry's first presence
in the Big Apple. No small feat (or feet, as I'm fond of saying). Although
in my estimation the project is not without perplexing deficiencies (it's
a tough nut to crack), nonetheless such an event would be cause for inhabitants
of the great metroplis, which has contributed surprisingly little to the record
of the avant-garde in architecture,
- The overall spirit of the exhibition? Exhileration! The kind
inspired by the presence of an abundance of signs of relentless labor, daring
poetic spirit, and the realization in material form of what one might have
considered possible to construct only out of the impalpable stuff of the imagination.
The high-ceiling room brims with energy. You see raw study models, pristine
final models, a proliferation of process drawings, including digital modeling
studies, and an extra large, stunning (and revealing) photograph of Bilbao
on the wall where a silent video of the project plays on a flat screen monitor
The words of architect Raymond Hood leap to mind: "Genuine,
vigorous beauty." That's how Hood described
his own project, one of New York's best, the soaring limestone-clad steel
structure that functions as the Queen on the chess board of Rockefeller Center, the 1933 RCA (now
GE) Building. And though cut from radically different aesthetic cloth, Gehry's
exhibition and Gehry's architecture could be summed up the same way.
- "You can
observe a lot by watching." _Yogi Berra
- 2. Funnily enough, I found myself thinking of the theatrical phenomenon
I experienced at the underappreciated Broadway production of Andrew Lloyd
Weber's "Jesus Christ Superstar." There are two moments in the show
when an upstage cross comprised of hyper-incandescent lightbulbs is turned up full. It is literally a blinding
light. You have to turn away. Or close your eyes.
- At the Guggenheim, there is no doubt that you are surrounded
by tremendous artistic gifts made manifest in inhabitable
form. Dazzling light. But there comes a moment when
you realize that you need to open your eyes and see. Which is of course the
job of a critic. And no doubt, professionals---practitioners of architecture,
as well as educators---and everyone inclined
to consider the deeper problems of art, would want to do the same.
- And when we open our eyes, what do we see? Ah, where to begin
. . .
- "The breaking
of a wave cannot explain the whole sea." _Vladimir Nabokov
- 3. Well, perhaps Vladimir Nobokov's assertion that "the breaking
of a wave cannot explain the whole sea" could function as a suitable
mental anteroom to our detective work. Especially if we could determine what
the breaking of the wave
is. And I would suggest that it is the idea of . . . expression.
- "What I am after, above all, is expression," wrote Henri Matisse in 1908, during the unique period
of explosive chemicalization of modern art at the beginning of the twentieth
century. A seismic thought-shift that (1) released artists from the presumption of representational
verisimilitude; that is, from the idea that the purpose
of art was to be a camera-like mirror to the exterior world of Nature; (2)
produced the radical idea of formal
autonomy---what the British critic Clive Bell, in his 1913 book Art, called "Significant Form"; that is, form
that has value and meaning---significance---in its own right;
and (3) introduced the idea of integration and ambiguity of Figure
and Ground; that is, the blurring of the difference between an object and
its field---such that a building and
its site, for example, might have the same density, complexity, and reciprocity of forms and spaces comprising the aesthetic field as the still underappreciated Cubist paintings of Braque and
Picasso. The upshot was to give rise to abstraction and the
formulation of the idea, which has descended principally from Cézanne's perfectly
balanced optical-intellectual approach to art, of art as research into form.
Matisse's paintings contributed in substantial ways to various aspects of
all these phenomena. They were his means of achieving the "expression"
that he was after most of all. And, though the conceptual
and connotative basis of Gehry's art is very different from Matisse's in many ways,
the object is the same. What Gehry is after, above all, is expression.
- Perhaps more than just "above all." Which calls
to mind Cézanne's succinct commentary on the degree to which Monet's lovely
paintings, such as his 1906 "Water Lilies,"
are evidence of deeper things: "Monet is just an eye---but what an eye!"
And raises the question: To what degree is it justifiable to similarly conclude
that Gehry is "just expression---but what expression!"?
- Ultimately, the answer to this question requires determining
what comprises not only the visceral essence of Gehry's architecture but its ontological essence as
well. In other words, what is Gehry expressing?
If expression is the "breaking of the wave," what is "the whole sea"? Or is expression itself all there is? Architecture, some
inner empirical and intuitve thing, as expression, pure and simple. And, if
this were in fact to be the case, so? What's wrong with the idea of art as
pure visual expression? Does this in any way devalue its cultural worth? What
more does there need to be in art? What more is there? What's wrong with Monet?
Or those drip paintings of Jackson Pollock?
kinds of lines, straight and curved, and among the straight the horizontal
and vertical, and among the curved those that are closed and those that droop
and rise, have different immediate esthetic qualities . . . lines express
the ways in which things act upon one another and upon us . . . For this reason
lines are wavey, upright oblique, crooked, majestic . . . they seem in direct
perception to have even moral expressiveness."
_Roland Root, The Psychology
of the Curve," Camera Work (1906)
- 4. Given that Gehry himself has little to say about his work, perhaps
not the most encouraging sign of its profundity, we are forced to infer its
meaning and intentions from the visible evidence. Which is fair enough. And,
rather propitiously, within days of seeing the Gehry Guggenheim show, while
mulling over the kinds of questions posed above, I stumbled upon an unusually
satisfying and didactic exhibition
of drawings and paintings at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) in Williamstown, Massachussettes. The quote above by Roland
Root is stenciled on the wall, by way of introduction.
- The exhibition, "The Lines of Early Modernism: American
Works from the Collection," organized by Vivian Patterson, associate
curator, with Jennifer A. Greenhill, provides a simple, intital framework for classifying
Gehry's expressionism. A framework consistent with my own earlier work on
the relationship between Gehry and the music-paintings of Wassily Kandinsky,
which I will recap in a moment (see Section 10, below). Leading us, ideally,
to uncover in this flamboyant, iconoclastic architecture what Paul Klee described
as the "the prehistory of the visible."
- Though only on view through December 17, the thoughtful one-page
gallery guide by Greenhill, and the quotations stenciled on the walls, which
I was sure to write down, will fortunately endure. Ultimately, it is an Art
101 lesson, presented with insight and intelligence. on a fundamental
dialectic in visual structures between straight and
curved lines (i.e., linear and curvilinear). It's intended to convey the "expressive power" of
line, as well as its dichotomous sources, associations, and emotional and
aesthetic impact. And to remind us that this was the subject of international discourse on form early in the last century. (In contrast to the recent exhibition
at the nearby, more renowned Clark Art Institute, which offered an art-as-cultural-history-and-ethnography
lesson on the influence of Orientalism in 19th-century American art, this
exhibition's unambiguous emphasis on intrinsic issues of form is refreshing.)
- "Line is fundamental to almost any artistic
expression," starts the gallery guide, "When an artist puts pencil
to paper or paintbrush to canvas [or mouse to mousepad . . . or makes an architectural
model], it is through line that his or her ideas first find their form. Yet,
for American artists working in the first four decades of the twentiethc century,
line was far from simply a means of recording artistic impluse. Its expressive
quality was a prominent topic of debate in art and even scientific circles.
. . . Above and beyond being central to art making, line could have even moral
- The general consensus was apparently that curves are more beautiful than straight lines because they are less demanding on the eyes
and/or they evoke associations, for example with a smile or natural landscape, that are innately
more statisfying, natural, "moral," and, therefore, superior.
- Works by John Marin, Lyonel Feininger, Irene Rice Pereira,
Alfred Stieglitz, Theodore Roszak, and Joseph Stella, derived from the angular
geometries and often complex linear networks of the built (i.e., "architectural,
structural") landscape are juxtaposed to works by Marsden Hartley. Arthur
Dove, André Kertész, Charles Demuth, and Georgia O'Keeffe, derived from delight
in the sensuous forms of the natural landscape.
In other words, the sources and images of machine-Culture, exemplified by straight-lines, are viewed in opposiiton to
the sources and images of biomorphic-Nature, exemplied by curves. Art inspired by the aesthetic properties
of other human-made artifacts versus art inspired by innocent Nature herself. Moreover, as the museum guide explains, "several
images, such as the Hopper [Morning in a City, 1944] and Charles
Demuth's 1917 Trees and Barns: Bermuda, bring architectural spaces and organic forms together,
showcasing both the harmonies and the conflicts between the two."
- If the paintings of Hopper and certain precisionist works
by Demuth represent, not unlike those of Matisse, the dialectical
confluence of these two archetypal aesthetic sensibilities,
then the works of O'Keeffe and Feininger represent, like those of Kandinsky and Mondrian, non-dialectical
extremes. And the defining moment of the show is represented
by the calculated placement of an oil by each painter on either side of the
dividing wall. Stenciled on the wall adjacent to Feininger's taut, straight-edged,
angular-kinetic Mill on Atlantic, 1932, is this 1910 quotation by
- ". . . the relationship of lines, so
confused and intricate in scenes like a railroad station or a machine shop,
factory, derrick or skeleton structures of a building . . . need special consideration.
The variety and the irregularity of such lines, in which the straight and
angular will predominate, may be compared to the unresolved discords, unrelated
harmonies . . . of the modern French composers. Debussy mastered these apparently
incongruous elements sufficiently well to construct novel combinations of
sound that, after all, are pleasing to the ear."
- On the wall to the left of O'Keeffe's 1922 "Skunk
Cabagge" (shown below, 2nd image from left) is a quotation by Lewis
Mumford. By way of preface to this quote, Greenhill notes in her museum guide
that "O'Keeffe also painted the rigid, piercing vertical structures of
the modern cityscape, prompting Lewis Mumford to commend her versatility":
- "The point is that all these paintings
come from a central stem; and it is because the stem is so well grounded in
the earth and the plant itself so lusty, that it keeps on producing new shoots
and efflorescence, now through the medium of apples, pears, eggplants, now
through leaves and stalks, now in high buildings and skyscrapers, all intensified
into symbols of quite different significance ."(Lewis Mumford, quoted in Anita Pollitzer, "A
Woman on Paper: Georgia O'Keeffe" (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988),
is in some respect an art, which must be learnt." _William Herschel,
18th-century British astronomer
- 5. You could easily
imagine adding Gehry's projects to this exhibition of American art. It's as
if the exhibition had been intentionally designed to function as Part 1 of
a threshhold to his work. And were you to place Guggenheim NYC (model photos
below) next to the Georgia O'Keeffe, even more would become clear. You would
begin to sense that for Gehry it's not simply a matter of prefering the intuitive,
aesthetic expressivity of idiosyncratic curviliear form, in the abstract. Affinity with the representational content of O'Keeffe's work is no less important or palpable.
Were we to include his recent proposal for The New York Times building
(vertical photo of b&w model below), the affinities between Gehry and
the bio-botanical art world of O'Keefe would
be equally obvious.
- On the other hand, it's important to note that the Guggenheim
NYC scheme's central "tower" (seen in the
model photos above), amid the surrounding tremulous curvilinear metal foliage,
provides an expressive linear counterpoint. Not part of the earliest schemes, this vertical structure,
like a toothpick in an hors d'oeuvre, was added in order to provide a contextual reference to the prototypical highrises
of the city in general and the ones across the street
specifically. In its faceted angularity, this later component of Guggenheim NYC is more like Feininger
than O'Keeffe---though only in terms of
its form, not
its metaphorical, biomorphic role in the composition, as I'll explain in a moment. You can see
this even more easily when Gehry's tower is compared to Feininger's bluish
"Baltic" landscape painting (above), which I've rotated from the horizontal
to the vertical. Moreover, if Gehry's overall scheme is compared to another
Feininger painting, his more anomalous, Robert Delaunay-like, proto-Cubist
"Gelmerode" (last image in the sequence above), the underlying affinities
(linear versus curvilinear) can seem, admittedly, all the more ambiguous and open-ended. Food for thought.
- [Professional thought-experiment (as Einstein liked to
say): If you put your abstract, lateral-thinking lenses on, you can see that the "Gelmerode," if looked at
as a map, could be almost like looking at the Guggenheim NYC scheme from
a helicopter right above it. In other words, it's almost like an architectural floor plan of Gehry's project,
in which Feininger's luminous light-filled faceted shapes stand for Gehry's
shiny titanium. I say almost, . . . because the Feininger, in its
beautiful implications of asymmety, inequities, fragmentation, and incomplete
enclosure around a central void, is a more advanced plan than Gehry's,
which emphasizes the opposite attributes of circular enclosure and diagrammatic
symmetry around a central solid. Moreover, the center of the "Gelmerode,"
again reading this irregular figure as a spatial void
in plan, is further complexified and rendered dramatic, interactional, and
conceptually advanced by virtue of two main gestures: (1) the building's open
relationship to the street-side "cityscape"
(the left side of the painting) versus it's closed, and therefore different, relationship to the water-side "landscape" (the right
side of the painting); and (2) the thin linear cut that extends to the "building's"
periphery at the top of the frame, which further denies any naive impulse to sameness and approximate symmetry.
In short, the Feininger offers instruction in how to formulate an advanced, architect-painter minded floor plan;
one that is inherently centrifugal in its forces, fractured, and spatially contingent with its site.
In many ways, as I will note again later, Gehry's plan is the antithesis.]
you like me to make it curly or straight?" _Hair Stylist overheard
at Vidal Sassoon
- 6. In point of fact, the
linear/curvilinear (Culture/Nature) dichotomy provides a base-level way of
categorizing all four proposals for The Times (below). Of the four,
only Gehry's is clearly in the organic-form camp. Affinities between Pelli's
scheme (right) and O'Keeffe's "Skunk Cabbage" suggest the possibility
of an ambiguous organo-prismatic formal realm in between, and cause
us to see both building and painting in a slightly new light. I am more sure
of which proposal to reject, Foster and Partners (second from left, a sad
scheme indeed), than which one I favor. I need more information, and it's
a discussion for another day. But suffice it to say now, that these proposals
really make you reflect about the difference between advanced form-making
and architectural styling.
Plus they don't exactly exude intellectual profundity, do they? And surely
any building for The Times should have an intellectual bent to it,
one would think. But if I had to pick, while it would be difficult not to
choose Gehry's project if for no other reason than that it is by
Gehry, I like the promise of Renzo Piano's design (left). As seen in this
model-view, it appears to respect certain conventions in architecture, such as site-influenced displacement (the vertical piece is shifted to one end) and differentiation
of a building's base from the superstructure (though their interrelationship is up in the air, so
to speak). And l associate it with the aesthetic sensibility of Irene Rice
Pereira's beautiful drawing in the WCMA show, however unlikely that Piano
himself would see his project in those terms. Most of all, there's the promise,
though unlikely fulfillment I would suspect, that the four sides of the diaphonous
planar tower would be marked with circumstantial visual and cerebral gestures
that give unique but interrelated identity to the four different sides---perhaps a
"writing of the walls," thereby suggesting a self-referential semantic
dimension. [Follow-up note 11.14.00: Gehry has withdrawn from the competition.
Additional views of Piano's design, as published in The Times, are
disappointing. They reveal that, rather than tending towards an advanced aesthetic,
the design tends in the opposite direction towards the ordinary and aethetically
challenged. But we shall see...]
- [NYT 9.14.2000, B10]
- Listen to the language that Times reporter David W. Dunlap uses to descibe
Gehry's project. Relying almost solely on references to nature, clothing,
and food, Dunlap says it's "...a proposal for a tower with an undulating
facade, wrapped in twisting, sinewy planes that blossom at the top and bustle
at the bottom; not unlike pappardelle pasta on a colossal scale."
- "I like
nature but not its substitutes." _Jean Arp (1913)
- 7. So, in our search
for the underlying motivation of Gehry's farout digital curvy-wurvy expressionism,
for the origins of his form making, we have thus hit upon an important consideration,
which situates him within a larger historical, even American, tradition. On
the surface, it involves a simple aesthetic predilection. Deeper down it involves
a philosophical problem, one that relates to the sources of form, and the
origins and identity of art. One that ultimately relates to the structure of architecture's relationship to Nature.
- In other words, as we look for ways to successfully traverse
the contours of Gehry's mental geography, we find ourselves wrestling with
the not insignificant question: To what degree are these architectures, Guggenheim
NYC and Guggenheim Bilbao specifically, which are so uncompromisingly expressive
and seemingly, at least on initial impact, the height of avant-garde abstraction,
- And, to the degree that they are not purely abstract---to the degree that they are architectural expressions or representations
of pant life or other biological forms, rendered inhabitable---have they truly
been, to use Mumford's phrase, "intensified into symbols of quite different
- What are we to conclude from the discovery that Guggenheim
NYC, as the aerial photo of the model (full view and closeup below) plainly
shows, is like a Water Lily, on a lily pad, with a retilinear block through its center functioning
as the flower's pistil?
- Crross section of flower: 1 filament,
2 anther, 3 stigma, 4 style, 5 petal, 6 ovary,
7 sepal, 8 pedicel, 9 stamen, 10 pistil, 11
- [from Britannica.com http://www.britannica.com/mw/art/flower.htm
- And what are we to conclude from the discovery that Guggenheim
Bilbao, as this photo of the completed building (below) plainly shows, is
like a whale---a Leviathan---tail (spout?) and
all, stretched resplendent along the water's edge?
- Surely, it raises important questions about the role
of metaphor and representation in architecture. About the origins of Form. About the relationship of Form and Content. About the illusion
and reality of abstraction. About poetry and
profundity. About architecture's ontology . . . about the structure of architecture's relationship to Nature.
- "Did I
ever tell you that you look like the Prince of Wales. I don't mean the new
Wales. I mean the old Wales. And believe me, I know a whale when I see one." _Groucho Marx to Margaret Dumont in the movie "Horsefeathers"
- 8. If Gehry has presented us in these two projects with a notion
of architecture as a representation
of larger-than-life plants and animals, metalicized
and semi-abstracted, am I the first to notice it? Well, I am certainly the
first, as far as I'm aware, to state it categorically and to aver that this
is Gehry's unequivocal intention. Moreover, I am the first to question it.
And ultimately to ask, especially at Guggenheim NYC, whether more shouldn't
be expected of an advanced architecture.
- Here's an example of the fuzziness and equivocation on the
part of other observers with respect to the flora-fauna connections and Gehry's
intentions. It involves an extended passage by Julie V. Iovine, a Senior Reporter writing on
architecture and design at the New York Times, in Guggenheim Bilbao/Guggenheim New York,
a small book that I bought in the musuem store. (The New York part
of the book is about the original Frank Lloyd Wright building.) Iovine reports
that associations with flowers (rather than a marine creature), are typically
inferred from the form making at Guggenheim Bilbao:
- "While the exfoliating titanium strips
of metal that crown the atrium's exterior are routinely referred to simply
as the petals of a blossoming rose," writes Iovine of
Guggenheim Bilbao, "Russian constructivists, German expressionists, Italian
futurists, and Fritz Lang's "Metroplolis" have all been invoked
to describe the atrium's interior (Gehry himself told the artist Coosje van
Bruggen that he'd been partially inspired by Henri Matiss'es paper cut-outs)."
- As to the degree that Guggenheim Bilbao connotes a sea creature,
Iovine starts out well:
- "Perhaps it was no accident that fiercely
independent Bilbao, once the salted cod fish capital of the world, would turn
out to be the ideal site for Gehry, who was taunted as "fish-face"
as a child before transforming the piscine insult into a totem of ebullient
creativity in adulthood."
- Only to miss the point in the end: "The
Bilbao museum doesn't look at all like a fish," continues, Iovine, without a hint of irony.
- "In fact," she says, "it purposely
defies all easy descriptions. Stretched out along the Nervion River in an
industrial neighborhood long past its prime, its quivering titanium flanks
gleam when viewed from the surrounding hills or when glimpsed at the ends
of steets lined with polite nineteenth-century buildings."
- Then, describing observations that more nearly coincide with
my own, Iovine says,
- "Calvin Tompkins, in the New Yorker,
called it first "a fantastic dream ship" and then
a "prehistoric beast." --- Nice.
- ". . .
almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the
same feelings towards the ocean with me"
- _Ishmael, Chapter 1,
"Loomings," _Herman Melville, Moby Dick; or The Whale, 1851
- "By old
English statutory law, the whale is declared "a royal fish." Chapter
24, "The Advocate" _Herman Melville, Moby Dick; or The Whale, 1851
- 1 The Prison,
from "Follies," 1983. Frank Gehry
- 2 Gehry-Serra
Bridge, 1981. Frank Gehry and Richard Serra
- 3 Ship in Three
Stages, 1984. Claes Oldenburg
- 9. The issue isn't whether
Gehry had fish on his mind when he designed Bilbao. Or whether he draws inspiration
from the kitsch "sculptures" of Claes Oldenburg, such as Oldenburg's
Swiss Army Knife project Ship in Three Stages, 1984 (above right). Gehry includes Oldenburg's project,
along with his own fish projects (including the two above), in an early monograph.
- Bilbao, based on Gehry's earlier fish projects (see additional
examples in the Addendum at the end of this article, below), was inspired
by fish imagery, fish surfaces, perhaps even by fish structure, and obviously
by fish organization---it is a piscine organism. It is organized
in architectural plan like a fish, contoured and massed like a fish, has features
that represent identifiable body parts of fish, and a shiny surface (metallic
scales) like a fish. So, although Iovine contends, perhaps wishfully, that
it "doesn't look at all like a fish" (I especially like the "at
all" part), there is every reason to believe that Gehry himself would
be surprised, if not disappointed, to hear this.
- The issue isn't whether Gehry has made a building that looks
like a fish. If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck . . . The issue is
why. And whether it's a fish or a whale. A fish story or
a whale story. Perhaps it's both---simultaneously
a symbol of local industry, cod fishing, and universal meaning, leviathan.
Ultimately, the remarkable tail, which is horizontally flattened, makes me
think that it's more a cetaceous organism than a piscine
one. (I never thought my limited knowledge of aquatic species would
be put to such a test in architectural criticism. How shall we say, these
are uncharted waters?)
- And, if it is desirable that architecture function as simulacra
of fish, whales, and flowers, apart from wondering what other plant and animal
life we might expect to see in Gehry's upcoming projects, the issue is whether
this would be a desirable thing to incorporate into one's own avant-garde
work or teach students of architecture who are looking for inspiration for
form, structure, and symbolism. Let's not forget, for example, that the Egyptians,
Greeks, and Romans obviously thought that literal representations of nature
in stone were desirable, at least with respect to a building's minor elements,
which their papyrus-like and acanthus leaf-like columns and column capitals
reflected. For architects and architectural educators, these are, like fish,
slippery issues, but they're important.
- "The technique
of art is to make objects "unfamiliar," to make forms difficult
. . ." _Victor Shklovsky, Art as Device (1917)
10. I recently wrote
a short article about the expressive power of abstract form
in regard to Gehry's architecture and Wassily Kandinsky's paintings. I called
the article "Frozen Music," as the eighteenth/early
nineteenth-century German philosopher Johann
Wolfgang von Goethe described architecture.
Kandinsky, the leading non-Cubist trailblazer on the road
to abstraction during the first decade of the twentieth century, was among
those painters and architects for whom music was the supreme art. Music
uses an abstract language
to express feelings. Its power is
visceral. Kandinsky wanted the same thing for painting: To use color, line,
and form not to represent the external world but to express the "internal element" of the artist. And to stir the hearts of viewers in profound,
spiritual ways. Wagner, Scriabin, and Schoenberg, the atonal Viennese composer,
at least as much as Cézanne and Matisse, were the fountainheads of his art.
- Schoenberg's new musical ideas emphasized what Russian Formalist
literary theorist Victor Schlovsky would later (c. 1917) define as defamiliarizing, strange-making
devices, such as discordant sounds, melodic-rhythmic
tensions, disruptive cadences, unresolved dissonances, and formal complexities.
"Composition V" (above) is one in a series of "compositions"
and "improvisations" that reflects Kandinsky's interest in these
It was painted the same year, 1911, that his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art and
Schoenberg's book Theory of Harmony were published. (See Kandinsky: Compositions by Magdalena Dabrowski.)
Kandinsky's musical expressions in paint helped liberate
visual form and unleash a revolution in the plastic arts. And I think we're
now seeing paradigmatic reverberations in Gehry's architecture. You could
say that Gehry is a master-builder of inhabitable
Kandinskys---ninety years delayed. Forms
first expressed in two-dimensional paint have been given three-dimensional
life through the solid elements of construction. This isn't unique. From
at least the Renaissance, painting has presaged aesthetic expressions in
I went so far as to maintain in the article that Gehry's
architecture is the "visual equivalent of American jazz, which developed
during the same time that Kandinsky and Schoenberg were working in Europe.
"It is dense, aggressive, complicated, difficult, challenging, unsentimental, crowd-pleasing-and soul stirring, " I wrote, ". .
. 'frozen music.' Like Coltrane playing 'Giant Steps' on the tenor sax."
And I would still maintain that the Kandinsky music-painting
spirit genuinely infuses Gehry's work. In fact, in connection with the recently
completed, and I think mind-blowing, Experience Music Center
in Seattle, seen in the photo from Architectural Record, August
2000, below. Gehry is quoted as saying, "We tried to express
music that comes from a totally unexpected place and changes you."
But now I see, or have reminded myself, that his architecture
is sometimes, as at Guggenheim Bilbao and NYC, more dialectical. It fluctuates
between the music-like expressive power of pure abstract form and the very
kind of representational correspondence with nature that Kandinsky was trying,
though not entirely successfully, to avoid. The Seattle project, which involves
a cultural facility specifically about music, strikes me as largely unsentimental.
But Guggenheim NYC is a different kettle of fish. The big flower (fountain
or ribbon and bow) stikes me as big-time sentimental. You might say that
it's imbued with what Colin Rowe, the twentieth century's most celebrated
architectural writer, theorist, and critic, called the anti-modern "sentiment of sentimentality."
And, as far as Guggenheim Bilbao is concerned, well, I guess
the question is: Is it frozen music or frozen
- "The purpose
of art is to disturb." _Georges Braque
- 11. Gehry asks us, and I suspect he does
it knowingly, to wrestle with this very issue (frozen music, frozen fish,
Some years ago, he designed a project for
Main Street in Venice, California, that included jumbo inhabitable binoculars
(b&w model photo below). Built c.1986 for the Chiat/Day advertising
firm, the Oldenburg-inspired binoculars function as the building's entrance
and as a library for Main Street's occupants.[Gehry explains his close association with Oldenburg and Coosje
van Bruggen in his monograph, "The Architecture of Frank
Gehry," Walker Art Center, Rizzoli, 1986; pp. 152-53.]
- Perhaps it might be compared with Jasper
Johns' Flag (1954-55; Encaustic, oil and collage on fabric mounted on plywood,
42 1/4 x 60 5/8 in.).
If Johns can make "great
art" by painting the American flag, then it stands to reason that Gehry,
or so the parallel assertion would be framed, can make "great architecture"
by building binoculars, whale, or water lily. All are unlikely subjects
of advanced form making, thus disturbing the viewer's assumptions as to what constitutes "art."
In both circumstances, Johns' painting and
Gehry's architecture, the subject matter is made subservient to technical brilliance, if not also parody. It's a way of suggesting that technique is the subject matter. Technique applied to materials
is content. Through the magic wand of the brush, palette knife,
and glue, applied to paint, fabric, and plywood, by Johns. Through the hyperaerospace-engineering
and manufacturing wizardry applied to sheet metal and glass, by Gehry. And,
whereas Johns relies on the device that we might call the camouflage
of representation, Gehry relies on the opposite: the camouflage
That is to say, Johns requires that we see
through the veil of distracting representational content
(a flag) to the masterful technique and expressive angst with which his
paint is infused---which requires examining the painting up close. Up close his
painting is abstract. Gehry, by contrast, impels us to experience the pure
emotion that comes from seeing his masterful technique in the handling of
the aesthetics of materials and light. We are forced to see through this
mesmerizing veil of distracting abstract content to the banality of the representational content
(whale/fish at Guggenheim Bilbao, flower at Guggenheim NYC)---which requires
stepping back and examining the construction from a distance. From a distance,
Gehry's work is representational. (The binoculars project is different;
it's representational up close and from afar.)
With eyes at close range to a
pointilist painting---a Seurat, for example---all you see are dots. Magnificent
dots. Forming a field of dazzling abstraction. But then you step back. And
you see that the painting is not abstract at all. It's a scene of bathers.
Amazing bathers. But bathers nonetheless. So if you inferred from your myopic
view of the fragments that the big picture (I've always wanted to use that
expression in a literal way) would be more of the same, you'd be surprised.
Gehry's architectures for Guggenheim Bilbao/NYC have the
same effect. When you step back, your focus undergoes a shift from emphasis
on technology, technique, and materials, to less physical realities, including aesthetic structure, formal-spatial
organization, subject matter, and symbolism. Bigger things, requiring diagnosis and prescription. You discover
that the amazing expressive abstraction seen up close is not part of an amazing larger abstract structure,
but of a representational one. You find yourself
looking at the equivalent of an American flag, as it were. And you have
finally found out what it is.
- In other words:
- If, as I suggested at the start,
expression = "the breaking
of the wave."
expression = "the whole sea."
the Lord prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah."
glance, it would seem that given a choice between
binoculars, knives, marine life, and plant life, one
would be hard-pressed to know which one to choose for a
building design. But all things considered, there are
reasons, though they may well have little to do with
Gehry's intentions, why the whale was the right choice in
Bilbao. And if Bilbao got a whale, then NYC, as I see it,
deserves a whale, too (whale 2?). What with Herman Melville being from Manhattan. But most
importantly, the whale is a better analog for organizing
a post-Neoclassical, Y2K site-specific architecture.
Because the linearity and longitudinality of Bilbao's organizational schema is successful as an advanced
architectural enterprise, whale or no whale. In other
words, it succeeds as an architectural
- Like a fractal thread, it
weaves through and into the urban fabric, and it does so
with remarkable drama, power, and grace. This leviathan
defines the eventful and extended edge; its forces are inherently centrifugal, fragmentary,
and contngent. Okay, it has a head and a tail
and fins, but as an architecture, as opposed to
technological taxidermy or biomorphic styling, it
nevertheless has sequential intelligence, rich and
harmonically dissonant relationships to the existing
physical context, implying potential for almost infinite extension
into the city.
great books are symbolical myths, overlaid like a
palimpsest with the meanings that men at various times
assign to them." _Clifton Fadiman
- 13. Still, while others would
typically employ the whale, to the degree that their
project were about whales, as a conceptual analog for the project's organization,
not as a perceptual
metaphor for its
physical imagery, there is another way of
"reading" Gehry's project that endows it with
- As I intimated earlier,
instead of the idea of architecture as fish
. . . you could look at the project as being about the
idea of the world as whale. The dormant
Bilbao whale, straddling the flank of the river,
ethereally reflected through metalic and aqueous
surfaces, evokes associations not only with the majesty
and freedom of the deep blue sea, far away, but also with
all that history has endowed the Leviathan. From Jonah to Hobbes to Melville.
Moreover, it allies itself with the indigenous,
ever-present stirrings of the literary tradition of Spain, in the person, specifically,
of the inventor of the novel, Cervantes. Bilbao is a fish story.
Conjuring fanciful and woeful associations with the
windmills, sagas, humor, heroism, imaginations, and inventions of
story-tellers on both sides of the Atlantic. Evocations
of a grand narrative tradition, in which whales are
celebrated as symbols of profound human drama,
redemption, and refuge, breathes poetic life into this
- "The greatest books
arise from a profound level of wonder and terror, a level
common to all humanity in all times and climes,
- but a level so deep that
we are only at times aware of it, and none of us can ever
glimpse it whole.
- From time to time a man---Cervantes or Dostoevsky or
Melville---lets down into this deep well the glorious,
pitiful bucket of his genius,
- and he brings up a book,
- and then we read it,
- and dimly we sense its
- and know that source to be
something profound and permanent in the human
- The mysterious liquid
drawn from this well is never crystalline.
- Rather does each man, as
he looks into it, see mirrored a different set of images,
- points of light,
- and layers of shadow.
- All great books are
symbolical myths, overlaid like a palimpsest with the
meanings that men at various times assign to them."
- _Clifton Fadiman
(Introduction (1940) to Herman Melville's "Moby
Dick; or The Whale," 1851)
- "I looked down
at the chessboard. The move with the knight was
wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from.
Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a
game for knights."_Raymond
Chandler, The Big Sleep (1939)
- 14. On the other hand,
there's Guggenheim NYC. Gehry's early study models show that after an
early phase of making various creature-like
buildings---they look suspiciously a
lot like architect Lebbeus Wood's work---the scheme settled down
to a basic organizational parti (i.e., schematic
diagram) that involved making a ring around a
central void. Presumably intended as a takeoff on
Wright's spiral ramped atrium of the existing
Guggenheim. Eventually the scheme developed to
the present point where what was originally a
void in the center became solid, ultimately in
the form of the tall flower-pistil intruder. As
if a broken piece of a neighboring highrise had
fallen through the glass dome of Wright's atrium.
- But if you look at
the chessboard, Gehry's attempt
to establish some formal-spatial echo of Wright's
Guggenheim by adopting a similar wrap around, ring-toss organizational scheme
is the wrong move. Flower plans have no meaning in this game. It's not
a game for flower plans.
- But cod and whale plans, that's another story.
Guggemheim NYC's flower arrangment is not an advanced
response-strategy to the linear circumstances of the river's edge. But Guggenheim
Bilbao's marine animal plan is. It's a funky chess piece
in an expert
game. It makes the right moves and
reflects the understanding that, in the game
involving building and site, position is
- The NYC project displays
virtuoso views that, when the flower-imagery yields,
evoke clouds and cyclotronic Mobius strips and Kandinsky paintings. It's
like Gehry has cloned Wright's museum, transported it to
Lower Manhattan, turned it inside out, so that the
interior spiral ramps form the exterior surface of the
new museum, then sent 50,000 volts of electricity through
it causing the whole contraption to morph into Bloomingdale's gift wrap. It's an imagistic way
to refer to Wright's architecture. And it makes sense.
All the more reason to toss the ring-toss plan. To
deform, strrrrrrrrrrrrretch, warp, and send it throught
the spin cycle in the same way. To play it, for example,
like Feininger's "Gelmerode," as I suggested
above (Section 5). You'd still have a cool chess piece.
In a game with the right moves. A
- As it stands, the iconology of the flower is bullying the floor and site
plans. Causing them to conform with archery-target type organizational diagrams
that are easy to achieve but which Y2K hypermodern architectures would typically do everything to
avoid (incidentally, archery targets are a favorite
subject of Jasper Johns). Causing them to be insufficient
as conceptual and logistical propositions on important
architectonic and urban levels beyond the purely
metaphorical. It's a curious design methodology: Select a wild-life form or consumer object,
super-enlarge it and position it on a site according to
empirical criteria. Sometimes make it in-your-face and
obvious, like the binoculars project. Sometimes
complexify and disguise it, such that its
representational identity is difficult to discern unless
viewed from the proper angle or distance, like Guggenheim
NYC. Sometimes adopt an in-between strategy, like
Guggenheim Bilbao. Whichever way, the principle is the
same: It's not unlike, I think, arranging the pieces on a
chess board in the shape of a knight.
You may think it's poetic, even deep. Or you may think
it's silly and shallow. Some may not even see it. But
poetic or silly, deep or shallow, discerned or not, such
a move, or sequence of moves, has ultimately little to do
with the game of chess. With what Le Corbusier described
equivalently as "playing intensely the
- It's interesting to note
that Medieval cathedrals are based on a not dissimilar
architectural metaphysic: Their floor plans assume the
shape of the cross---hence the term Latin-cross churches. They make
function and connotational meaning---as well as form-space relationships--subservient
to this one self-referential metaphor in stone. Such
architectures as these (which are not limited to Gehry's
buildings and cathedrals) tend to treat form as idealized
preconceptions. As autonomous
As shapes and configurations---such as a cross, binoculars, and flowers---that respond primarily to the
internal forces of their own reductive logic. They are
generally immune to the repercussions of external forces, such as site-specific physical
circumstances. To circumstantial
events outside the
"frame" that might introduce (desirable)
disruptions into the organizational equation. Form,
rather than emerging contingent, nuanced, and figurally
complex in part from a strategical analysis of the
plastic relationships of the site, is imported to the
site---whole and autonomous. Like
John's American flag painting. It's not a fragment of a larger whole. It's
complete. There's nothing that exists outside the frame,
as in a Degas or a Mondrian painting. As a form-space
phenomenon, it knows only its own identity. In such a
mental system, form isn't invented. It's copied.
And again, literalism is the underlying
methodology. The fact that cathedrals are self-referential raises various questions about
Gehry's work. The cross was the central emblem of the
Medieval Christian church. Cathedrals are literal
translations of this idea into inhabitable form. That is,
they are buildings that convey, in the most simplistic
representational terms, the idea that the Cross is the Church. So, with respect to
Gehry's Guggenheim NYC, can we say that it is similarly
self-referential? That the water lily is the central
emblem of a museum of modern art? That the Water Lily is the Museum? Or, that Gift Wrap is Manhattan? Perhaps this is
precisely what Gehry would have us consider, however
unpersuasive or inchoate such an ostensibly screw-ball
idea might strike us. And, again, it raises this
underlying question: Is such a method of arriving at the
general form of a building a desirable way to make
radical, didactic architectures today? For some, perhaps.
For others, it may well be, ironically, and however
unintentionally, too much an expression of an all-too
familiar hostility to abstraction.
- In the end, there's
something fishy about this Guggenheim NYC
architecture-as-flower scheme. (Or not fishy enough.)
isn't about truth, it's about choices. Some choices are
better than others." _Renée Shadowoire,
17th-century French cartographer
model of Guggenheim NYC includes miniature abstract
scultptures and paintings. They are positioned at
strategic visual moments in the interior. The drama of
looking out from the museum to the river, or vice versa,
in which fragments of art dot your visual landscape,
would no doubt be thrilling. And of course, were the
project to be built, all the art works would be
relatively miniature compared to Gehry's titanic art
object, the building itself.
One of the sculptures
in the model is a Richard Serra. Longitudinal steel
plates, gently warped, undulating and quasi-parallel. For
me, the juxtaposition of the Serra to the Gehry is
telling. Up close, viewing only the immediate
juxtaposition of building to sculpture, distracted by the
camouflage of abstraction, it is poignant and stirring.
But, stepping back, and considering the totality, I was
all the more convinced that an architecture based on an
alternative organizational parti and symbolism would be
far superior. In contrast to the centroidal shape of an inhabitable flower, I imagined a building with the
centrifugal forces and longituidnal disposition of a
mega-Richard Serra abstract
sculpture---or Bilbao Whale II, if you must---gone
completely and marvelously haywire.
Universe is built on a plan ...which is somehow present
in the inner structure of our intellect." _
You might say that
completed buildings are a record of reflection---reflection
not only of an architect's thought, but also of the
thought of the client, and sometimes the society, that
produces it. In a very real sense, architecture is a record of what
matters most to those associated with its realization.
This record is at
least two-fold: visual and ontological. These
intermingling constituents infuse all buildings with life
either shallow or profound, and everything in between.
For all architectures, no matter how consciously or
unreflectively, reveal "the inner structure
of our intellect." They function as an
implicit representation--- i.e., re-presentation---of the
world. That is, as a representation of reality.
It's not insignificant, I believe, that
the word building comes from an Indo-European word meaning to be. That the first architectures were temples,
sacred spaces cut out, template-like, from the profane
space of the everyday world. That the first architects
were astronomer-priests, who marked out this sacred space
for a purpose: The observation of reality. Architecture
began as the ineffable precinct set aside for the
contemplation---the con-temple-ation---of the problem of being itself. And from its
inception, architecture took the form of buildings that
were consciously made to mirror an image of the cosmos,
to the best of people's ability to construe it---such
as four-square, domed, and supported by giant tree-like
columns. We've come a long from such non-scientific,
literal views of the construction of the world. But is
architecture any less inherently ontological? Any less intrinsically
cosmological? Any less a philosophical mirror?
Might it not be, still today, that every work of
architecture---in ways that are unavoidable---is,
implicitly, an image of the cosmos, of reality, as the
architect best understands it to be? How could it be
otherwise? Architecture is, inextricably, the world
as meditation, made manifest in inhabitable
- There are those, such as Le Corbusier, the
greatest architectural form-maker of the twentieth
century, for whom the ideal in architecture is an
equilibrium between advanced visual and deep ontological
forces. Between the self-sustaining plastic properties of
original aesthetic systems. And the deep poetry that
springs from the fountainhead of architecture's own
history and myth. For whom the structure of
architecture's relationship to nature is multivalent and metonymic, as opposed to univalent and metaphoric.
A palimpsest of underlying and overlaid
gestures that evoke secondary, tertiary, and sub-tertiary
associations, on yet another multiplicity of levels. (For
a discussion of the difference between metaphor and
metonym, see "Collage Reading: Braque|Picasso," by Jef7rey Hildner.)
the invisible things . . . are clearly seen . . ."
For example, Le
Corbusier's Assembly Building at Chandigarh, India
(1953-63), is clearly about a mountain, as his early
sketches show (below left). It is a reference to the
surrounding landscape. It is the poetic
heart and soul of the building. But the building itself
is not a mountain.
- The muscular truncated conical form,
emerging from the earth and reaching for the sun,
functions as the principal public assembly chamber within
a larger complex and multifarious building. It is
hierarchically the most important event of the building's
formal-spatial and symbolic identitiy, to be sure. But
this mountain-like chamber, shifted off center,
surrounded by a metaphorical forest of columns on the
interior, is subsumed within a larger geometric
organism. An organism that is inherently dialectical.
Le Corbusier doesn't refrain from making symbolic form
inspired by nature, but he doesn't allow it to determine
either the aesthetic system or the representational
essence of the architecture. The expression of the
metaphor is regulated by the aesthetic system. It is a
principal theme within a dense and abstract larger
entity, which complies with the imperatives of form on
numerous other subtle and contingent levels.
- If anything, the principle assertion is
not of a mountain per se, but a landscape---at
the level of the roof. A human-made larger-than-life
still-life, as out of a Cézanne painting, in poetic
dialogue with the surrounding landscape to which it
refers. And again, this magical and powerful landscape,
including references to the sun and celestial phenomena,
is not the building per se, but merely part of it.
Moreover, it is self-referential. That
is, it evokes associations with architecture's
origins and mythic past. The pyramid refers to
the first significant desert buildings, those of the
Egyptians. The tall rectilinear vertical element can be
construed as "the image of a universal pillar, axis mundi,
which at once connects and supports heaven and
earth," which is how Mircea Eliade describes an idea
that was important to ancient societies (seeThe Sacred and the
Profane: The Nature of Religion, 1957). Eliade explains that "the
mountain occurs among the [ancient] images that express
the connection between heaven and earth; hence it is
believed to be at the center of the world." The
"sacred mountain is an axis mundi," too,
continues Eliade, ". . .consequently the territory
that surrounds it, and that constitutes "our
world," is held to be the highest among countries .
. ."our world" is holy ground because
it is the place nearest to heaven." Le Corbusier's
architectural mountains and columns refer to primoridal
elements of the archetypal construction of the
world. Elements involved in marking out a sacred
place to be. It is a multivalent
architecture that resonates with deep universal
meanings arising out of multiple
connotative elements. And the organizational
structure of the plan is equally didactic and mature.
- The worldview is anti-pop.
Anti-profane. Anti-reductive and anti-univalent. Le Corbusier, too, is after expression.
Perhaps above all: Expression of artistic freedom,
formal-spatial invention, and serious commitment to
the ancient-new idea that architecture "continually
resanctifies the world, because it at once represents and
a complete and successful work there are hidden masses of
implications, a veritable world which reveals itself to
those whom it may concern." _Le Corbusier
Other examples of modern
architectures rich in symbolic meaning, in which the
over-arching identity is not defined by a single and
univalent representation of nature, but by
visual-intellectual systems that support an edifice of ideas, include: Antoni Gaudi's 1910 Casa Mila aka La
Predera (2nd and 3rd photos from left below) [see also my
article on Gaudi];
Giuseppe Terragni's unbuilt 1938-40 Danteum (4th image from left below), which is based on
Comedy; and Le
Corbusier's metaphysical landscape on the roof terrace of
the Unité d'Habitation , Marseilles, France (horizontal
b&w photo below). (The vertical b&w photo below,
first image on the left, is another view of Le
Corbusier's Assembly Building at Chandigarh.)
- Gehry's architecture is no less a worldview.
That of an existential naturalist. Or literal
materialist. Whose heart is aligned with pop art. The
knives, binoculars, and flora-fauna that spark his
form-making imagination are no doubt susceptible to
reverential and poetic interpretation, as I and others
have chanced to say. But, if beneath the surface of
things as they are is an ontological (cetological?)
enterprise largely inchoate and resistant. If his work is
less than a didactic
source of emulation for other
architects, on certain fundamental and primordial levels,
including organizational schemata. It is no mean
achievement that aspects of his work, smashing the
barriers to creative freedom, shimmer with lightning-like
ideas are mine. No one has a right to them except on my
terms." _Howard Roark, from the screenplay
of "The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand
To me, what's most
important is that Gehry has given us a great gift.
Perhaps the greatest gift of all: The words
that few architects have ever been in a position to
declare of their work. Words that ring with the sacred trust that what an architect, or any
artist, gives to the world, no matter how short of a
perfect "10" it may fall, may at least be
assumed to be uncompromised and pure. They're the words of Ayn Rand, spoken by Gary
Cooper (aka Howard Roark) in Rand's screenplay of her
novel "The Fountainhead":
- "My work done my way."
- The next line? "Nothing else matters
to me." And, in the end, nothing else matters to me
either than that Gehry's work is done his way. After all,
architecture is not about truth, it's about choices.
As an abstract painter, hypermodern site strategist,
figure/field theorist, and metaphysical idealist,
interested in heightening perception of architecture's
original, ontological relationship to literature and
astronomy, I would obviously make very different choices.
And as I've said, I'd also recommend that Gehry---and
Guggenheim NYC---make different choices, while continuing to work
within the context of his adopted aesthetic system
- But his work fills me, and I'm sure other
architects as well, with the promise that in our own
little Bilbaos we, too, might experience something of the
same unfettered creative freedom and
abundance of technological, financial, and political
support. That we might, like the "eternal
priest of the imagination," Stephen
Daedalus, in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as
a Young Man, and Frank Gehry,
"discover the mode of life or of art whereby your
spirit could express itself in unfettered freedom."
Yes! Yes! He would create proudly out of the freedom and
power of his soul, as the great artificer whose name he
bore, a living thing, new and soaring and beautiful,