M A D I S O N _G R A Y |  deep_SIGHT
Assessing the level of his young son's Bobby Fisher-like chess playing skills, Josh Waitzkin's father said, "He's playing better than ever"---to which Bruce Pandolfini, Josh's Grandmaster-level teacher, replied, "How would you know?" "You're right," said Josh's father, whose chess-knowledge, while it may have been several notches above the non-player's,  was not that of a professional's, let alone that of an Einstein-level champion's,  "I wouldn't."  
---recalling the screenplay for "Searching for Bobby Fisher" by Steven Zaillian 
The New York Observer's Hilton Kramer is WRONG!
R I S I N G|To Gehry's DEFENSE
RE: "Gehry's New Guggenheim Is Kitschy Theme Park" by Hilton Kramer
Published on page 1 in the 12.11.2000 edition of The New York Observer
1. I agree with Hilton Kramer’s right-on-target opinion about the pitiful contemporary art scene: 800,000 additional square feet for more of the stuff he rightly deplores, which is what Frank Gehry's new Guggenheim Museum for Lower Manhattan on the East River will at least in part provide, is a scary thing, for sure.

2. But his assessment of Frank Gehry’s architectural proposal itself is another matter.

3. He belittles it and calls it kitsch. He equates it with Disneyland (and doesn't intend it as a compliment). He implies that it's an inferior artistic product of a less than serious architectural mind. The problem is, as the scene from Searching for Bobby Fisher so beautifully expresses (see epigraph above), how would he know? For that matter, even if he were to say it's great, how would he know? He has no instruction in this field as far as I know, does he? His opinion may be entertaining, but surely it's not to be taken seriously.

4. Unless, of course, he were to step over that important line. For example, if he were to set his ignorance in motion—and his comments raise the specter of this ironic possibility—and become the Ellsworth-Toohey-like voice of the NYO (Toohey is the journalistic arch-villain in Ayn Rand's melodramatic but-oh-so-fabulous The Fountainhead) right here in this far-cry-from-anything-approaching-a-New-Millenium-2001-architectural-avant-garde City and lead or encourage a crusade of self-appointed architectural-aesthetic police to stop it, that would be an example of going too far. As it is, not content to diss Gehry's advanced limits-exploding quasi-techno-futurist expressionistic project, Kramer ends by calling for "firm resistance" to it. Hmmmmm, let's see, am I missing something here? Where’s his call for resistance—firm or otherwise—while all the zillion-dollar mediocre hack-jobs that pass for architecture (not to mention the B level buildings by non-hack architects such as Polshek, Stern, and Tschumi—see my additional comments at the bottom of this page) are built in this town every day? I get it, only now, when the certifiable Howard Roark-type genius comes along and proposes to make the real deal in the form of a building so wildly in advance of normal comprehension—to make the first guaranteed contribution to stand-the-test-of-time world-class civic architecture on this island in almost fifty years—does our NYO friend choose to chime in with his clueless we-sure-wouldn't-want-to-have-anything-as-great-as-Bilbao's-got two cents. Like Sonny Liston said, "Life a funny thing." Go figure.

5. So, you know what I say? Hilton, even if you do have the credentials to evaluate this project, you're wrong. So please stay out of it. Or at least keep a low profile. Here's an idea: Use your NYO/New Criterion-clout to take up the fight to build it but keep it empty. You could be the one to secure an indefinite loan from MoMA so that  Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" is the only thing exhibited for the first year of the new Gugg's opening. In fact, all kidding aside, I can't think of a better way to celebrate the centenary of the 1907 of-course-everybody-hated-it-at-first-and-most-people-today-still-don't-get-it Picasso than a 2007 pas de deux between new Guggenheim and the painting to which it perhaps most symbolically owes its dead-serious strange-making genius and explosive artistic freedom. 

6. Sure, the project's got problems. Check out my essay The Ontology of Form: Metaphor and the Camouflage of Abstraction (otherwise known as "The Leviathan and the Water Lily") to read about some of them. (I maintain that the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum's imagery, organization, and form is based (and consciously so) on a whale; and that the Manhattan Guggenheim, though less intentionalized, is similarly subject to various readings of architecture as inhabitable hyperbolized bio-botanical life.) Sure, Gehry needs to redesign a bit—maybe a lot. But I'm talking about throwing out the bath water not the baby.

7. I mean no disrespect, Hilton, but let's hope that your ignorance meets with firm resistance.

8. [Oh, and one more thing...01.01.01] The fact is: The NYO needs an informed architectural critic/observer. The fact is (as I suggested to my former student Eric Fauerbach, see his letter below, which I edited and reshaped, with his permission, to take the form you see here—and which was published as such, sans mention of Madison Gray, funny enough, in the letters section of the December 25 issue of the NYO): The NYO ought to lead the crusade, to champion the cause, to be the voice of enlightenment on the pro-side of this affair.

In other words...

The NYO could choose to be the journalistic advocate of this genuine, unfettered, master-work of serious, intelligent, joie-de-vivre architecture. I can't wait to see the NYO rise to the occasion and speak for this Metropolis on behalf of this yes-keep-working-on-it-because-it-isn't-quite-right-yet-Frank-but-we're-behind-you-when-all-is-said-and-done work of Architecture with a capital "A."

9. See additional comments below: i.e.|MADISON GRAY Responds to ML, Architect, London:

This is a slightly revised version of the e-mail that I sent to The New York Observer 12.11.00. If you agree, let The New York Observer know it. E-mail your comments to them at comments@observer.com. And e-mail your comments to me at MadisonGray@thearchitectpainter.com. For more info about Gehry's project see the GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM.
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1. Dear NYO: In regard to Hilton Kramer's column—and Madison Gray's response to it—I'm with Gray. On the one hand, it is hard to understand how a person with no formal education in architecture can critique such a project. On the other hand, whether Hilton Kramer, from his limited perspective, were to open his eyes or keep them wide shut he might see that this project would add immeasurably to the architectural status of this island. What was the last world-class work of civic-scale architecture built in NYC...the Seagram's Building? It would be great if Kramer were to use his pen to oppose the non-architecture-in-the-name-of-architecture that's being built in this City, and get on the bandwagon to support this project. It's one of the few genuine works of uncompromised advanced architecture to come this way in a real long time. Go Frank! _EF, Architect, NYC
2. Dear MG: I had read [Kramer's] review the day it came out and meant to mention it to you. . . .My take on [his] review was that the reviewer was victim of the following 2 phenomena: (1) Only historic art is really art and is good; (2) It's the old story of the tares and the wheat. . . . Just because the modern architecture of Gehry is occurring at the same time as other pop/modern art doesn't mean it should automatically be lumped in with the whole pot and labeled low-grade ersatz art (we're back to #1). Maybe, just maybe, although modern (I'm just using this term in a very general sense as juxtaposition to the belief that only old art is good art) and occurring at the same time as other failed attempts to break-through to new horizons, IT IS GOOD and IS A BREAK-THROUGH and should be honestly contemplated. _PDH, Not-an-Architect, NYC
3. Dear MG: Well it seems that even in the big city there are people who believe that they know what is best for everyone else and are experts in all fields. In the columnist's article there is this air of bitterness; some how the art world or the one in NYC has dissed him in some way . . . I am reminded oddly of a quote from a an odd place, actually Star Trek the Motion Picture: "Why is anything we don't understand called a THING?" …and this is true, not only do we call them a thing, but we become frightened and lash out! This is what I think is at the root of all this, misunderstanding from someone who was never given the tools to be able to understand. I admit having seen the models and the exhibition of the project at the Guggenheim, that it was a frightening prospect to see a structure that large on the water at the tip of Manhattan... but also understanding that it would also be a great work of architecture. As for Disneyland, actually I think that Disneyland did a lot of good for architecture (see Reyner Banham LA; an architecture of 4 ecologies!), and if Kramer thinks that the museums in NY aren't tourist traps, he needs to get out more.... I guess the most disappointing thing is that being involved in the corporate world of architecture where design takes a back seat to Value Engineering (i.e. how cheap are you!) anything that grand and amazing should be supported even for its flaws! _MM, Architect, Gainesville, Florida
4. Dear NYO: I just read Madison Gray's has-he-got-your-ATTENTION-yet-? blasting of Hilton Kramer's sad objections to Frank Gehry's proposed cooooooooool new Guggenheim for lower Manhattan. Gray may be a bit over the top the way he says it, but what fun to have somebody on the right side of these issues be the one who's over the top for a change, because he's right!!!!!! The way I figure it, the New York Observer could choose to be a CHAMPION of the Gehry proposal and lead the crusade! The NYO could be the educated voice-of-the-people of this city, who've waited far tooooooo long for just such a dynamite invasion of something that could really be called ARCHITECTURE. Hey group, pick up the gauntlet and run with it and lead the CHARGE!!!!! _SD, Architect, NYC
5. Dear NYO: I hope you read Madison Gray's response to Hilton Kramer's terribly ignorant review of Frank Gehry's proposed design for the Guggenheim. Maybe next time have Madison Gray do the review about a subject he's an expert on and let Hilton be the Food critic from now on. _HDP, Architect, NYC
6. Dear MG: You raise good points. I'm in awe of the building possibly getting built, with Giuliani's support. But the groundswell of popular support for Gehry scares me a little. even my parents are his biggest fans (and I really hope they will still be around to see the finished building.) But did Le Corbusier get this kind of support? Did Louis Kahn? What is behind the public support, which has not been typical of great work in the past, except for may the cathedrals of the Middle Ages? It does make me wonder a little. I too hope the building gets built. But I still have some reservations about the site. _RS, Architect, NYC
7. Dear NYO: Madison Gray may not endorse all that Gehry is saying, but he (more importantly) defends Gehry's opportunity to make his OWN statement. Will we listen? _DZ, Not-an-Architect Washington, D.C.
8. Dear MG: Sorry, I can't help you on this one! Unfortunately, I haven't been there, and don't really have an opinion. In general, I think that Gehry is a little self-indulgent. I'm not sure he considers how his users will interact with the project interior enough. But I do think that the new Berlin building is really excellent, and quite unprecedented. I agree with Gehry that it's his best. _ML, Architect, London

continued . . .
|MADISON GRAY Responds to ML, Architect, London:
Dear ML: I sure appreciate your thoughtsthanks! You know, as far as I'm concerned, whatever Gehry wants to build is okay with me. He's earned the right to decide. Let me say it another way: I WANT HIM TO BE THE ONE TO DECIDE. No one on this planetsurely no Hilton Kramer or lay personis in a position to tell him how architecture ought to look, be made, function, or be integrated responsibly into an urban context. He knows. He is the expert. And he'll find one of the countless ways to do it expertly again this time.
So you see, all that matters to me is that he (and the talented people in his office working on the project) approve of it. Whatever scheme Frank ultimately feels really good aboutwhenever he finally says, "Hey folks, we've got it, let's build!" that's good enough for me (that's virtually everything for me)even if I don't like it 100% myself. Ultimately, what's important is for the Big Apple to have a genuine, pure Frank Gehry; in other words, to have an example of pure unleashed artistic freedom and intelligence, of the highest order, by a start-of-the-new-millennium FORM-making genius. Catch my drift? And sure, what he comes up with may have some problemsmaybe even some big problemsthat's okay. I'm not rooting for it to have problems, but I'll take a Gehry with problems any day because the point is this:
Just as Howard Roark said, "My work done my way. Nothing else matter's to me," I say, "Frank Gehry's work done Frank Gehry's way. Nothing else matter's to me." I would say the same about any other architect of near-equal caliber. And, not to put too fine a point on it, I do in fact require the same as a precondition for my own projects, even though they are of far lesser civic significance; i.e., "My work done my way. Nothing else matter's to me."
You know, architecture is a lot like squash (the athletic game not the vegetable). There are people playing the game at all levels, from sub-D to A and beyond. And this city has its fill of D and C buildings by D and C level architect-developers. It also has a smattering of C+/B-/B level buildings—and many of these are by B+/A- level architects. Case in point 1: Lerner Hall, the new student center for Columbia University by the Dean of the Columbia School of Architecture, Bernard Tschumi, is, in my opinion, a B-/B level building by an A-/A level architect. Case in point 2: the new Columbia University dormitory by the Dean of the Yale School of Architecture, oh-this-must-still-be-the-nineteenth-century-hello? Robert Stern is, in my opinion, a C level building by a B level architect. Case in point 3: the new Rose Science Center by James Stewart Polshek is a B/B+ level building by a B+ level architect. Awful buildings are built in this city every day. They meet with zero opposition. Funnily enough, it seems that as a building's aesthetic excellence rises so does the opposition to its existence (the only part of Tschumi's student center that caused the community to cry out, with the usual ignorance-in-motion hostility, I might add, is the project's A level ultra-modern part, wouldn't you know; of course, the community just loves the C level part on Broadway that mimics the 100-year old brick jobs by McKim, Mead, and White next to itwe didn't hear a peep out of them about this intellectual/visual sham because (the illusion of) oldness-for-oldness sake is somehow okay but (the authenticity of) newness-for-newness sake is apparently to be avoided at all cost). I object to and disagree with Tschumi's handling of the Broadway segment of the project. But, and this is the important point, though I am a local citizen of this Columbia community and have to look at this unfortunate missed-opportunity-of-a-building every day (lots of times), I wouldn't dream of rallying to oppose it! Tschumi has earned the right to decide. Good or bad. And I am happy to just lump it, grin and bear it, and criticize it. To have tried to keep it from being built, to have tried to censure Tschumi's creative freedom and independence of thoughtno matter how deeply I might disagree—that would have been truly contemptible. Why? Because, as intensely as I yearn for architectural excellence of the most advanced form to make its appearance here and everywhere, there are higher principles. And respect for an advanced architect's intellectual/aesthetic freedomand the demand that she/he exercise itis the highest principle of all. (By the way, I don't think that Columbia University demanded that Tschumi exercise his—in fact, I'm rather sure they insisted that he not. Look at the result. It's pathetic.)
So I'm just saying that the infrequent occurrence of important, authentic architectureeven if it should turn out to be only B/B+ level (e.g., Wright's Guggenheim)—by important, serious architects (A level) deserves the same respect, the same open-arms gee-we-can't-get-enough-of-this-stuff-acceptance, as the all-too-familiar everyday occurrence of unimportant sub-B level stuff by unimportant architects. Follow?
In the end, whether Gehry invents a B+-level building or an A+++-level one, it doesn't much matter. It'll still be more significant than at least 97% of the buildings ever built in this city. And it will represent 100% purity of expression by an architect whose unique place in the grand history of architecture is already guaranteed. 100% original aesthetic puritythe result of financial support sufficient to sustain it uncompromisedby an architect whose building will be every bit as good, and probably better, than 97% of the art it will enclose; by an architect far more important to art history than 97% of the artists whose work will be represented inside.
Surely no supporter of the arts, let alone any architect, would suggest that such an event is not deserving of enthusiastic, total support.
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