October 22, 2003

Gehry old man

Posted by Curt at 03:37 PM in Art | TrackBack

I was thinking of writing a post in response about Gehry anyway, so when I was more or less invited to at the end of the column, who could resist? It is true that I have always really enjoyed Gehry's designs (yes, even the one in Prague). I would not say that I find them exactly beautiful in the strict sense, but I think that they do possess an immediate aesthetic appeal that is far more compelling than virtually all the modern buildings I see today, especially that of stilted theorists like Peter Eisenmann, who once designed a house with holes in the floor to create a "new interactional experience" with the living-space, or something like that--presumably breaking one's ankle being a part of that. I have been trying to define what exactly I find so attractive in Gehry's buildings, and I think in the end that it is the sense of exuberant possibility in their design (I know that clichéd phrase sounds about as far removed from what it is trying to describe as possible, but be that as it may). When one sees these vaulting, curving steel sheets soaring into the skies, one feels that all of the banal physical constraints that push us into a dreary grid of straight lines and low horizons have been abolished. Gehry's designs aren't at all like those architects that try to attack our aesthetic intuitions by baffling us with a lack of any order or coherence. Gehry makes us think not that everything we enjoy is a lie and an illusion, but rather that we could create so much more, and so many greater things, if only we followed our child-like intuition. That is also why I love Gaudí and consider him to be the greatest architect of the century: in contrast to virtually all of the modernists, even Wright to some degree, who really seem to have exposed an emptiness at the heart of the perfect symmetries that they created which is disquieting to say the least (I could not imagine living in the house that Wittgenstein designed, for example, though Clay might be interested to know that it now houses the Bulgarian Cultural Center in Vienna), Gaudí enacted these fantastic pseudo-mythologic shapes that many of us, subconsciously or not, abandoned all hope of experiencing in real-life after we left childhood, and on such a dazzling scale that we could almost hope to see fantasy once again in our often dull and flat little world. Most importantly, Gaudí's buildings seem to have personality in the sense that they actually do seem to be semi-organic beings inhabited by living spirits. It is in this sense, that of making life apparent in the lifeless and inanimate, that Gaudí is a reviver of mythology equal to Yeats, Tolkien and Stravinsky. This is why I think it so important that the Sagrada Familia cathedral be finished, for a project of such a scale and requiring such patience has not been seen in many a century, and the wealth of detail in sculpture and painting within and without the cathedral stands in stark contrast to the impatient simplification of modern architecture. However, this judgment in regards to Gaudí creates a rather unfortunate contrast with Gehry. For while what amazes me about Gaudí is how his fantasies grow even more intense in close detail, with pillars that look like elephant legs, windows that seem like insect eyes and sculptures that sometimes seem like hexagonal smoke-plumes, there is something undeniably cheap-looking about Gehry's buildings. At a distance the grandeur of the Guggenheim or the Disney strikes one (or at least me), but up close they actually look pretty drab. Look at the Disney's center's entrance hall--it looks sort of cheery and sunny, but in approximately the same manner as the foyer of an elementary school. Or that view of the concert hall itself which you can see in the post right below this: it really does not look like much of a step up from a college auditorium, let alone the great concert-halls of Europe. The shapes that Gehry designs are stunning, and have a primal power which is worth more than a thousand of the overly-subtle and theoretical-minded designs one sees today, but up close one sees that Gehry just does not have much imagination with the little details that seem relatively insignificant in the glossy photographs of the whole building but become dominant in the viewer's sight at two meter's distance. Close-up detail is obviously more important in the interior spaces than the exterior, which I think explains why in case of the Guggenheim so many raves of the building's façade juxtaposed with tepid review of the galleries, and I would not be surprised if the same proves true of the Disney center. At close range a building, especially a room inside it, has to have interesting and attractive non-structural elements, which is where Gehry seems to usually fail: there may be bizarre off-set windows all over the place, but the walls are bare and boring and constructed from cheap-looking materials. The reason for this characteristic failure, in my opinion, has already been off-handedly mentioned by Clay, though perhaps not with quite the right emphasis: it is not so much that Gehry has pretensions on being a sculptor, but that he really is one. The curious blankness and uninspiring quality of the close-up details of his buildings I think is somewhat similar to the effect if say, a five-foot tall sculpture were blown up to a thousand feet: there would be a lot of blank space with no interesting visual effect simply because it was not meant to be seen in those proportions. I think the spectacular lack of proportion in Gehry's buildings is intrinsic to their effect, as they seem to encourage us to the notion that our little private fantasies and dreams can become giant public realities, but that effect gets a little thin up close and even gives one the unnerving impression that these buildings were not meant to be appreciated by beings of our size and visual perspective. Since the author of the Slate article has already noted that Gehry seems to work with more discipline under constraints, perhaps he would work even better with the additional constraint of collaborative endeavor, perhaps working on projects with an architect whose main strength lies in well-designed interior spaces, so as to combine the limitlessness of Gehry's exterior designs with the greater richness of vision of an architect able to enfold people within an engaging and stimulating interior space. I know that I am babbling like a well-trained architectural-glossy sycophant now, but you get the idea. In any case, given that Gaudí built all his important builidings in Barcelona, I think it may not be entirely coincidental that Gehry first established his reputation in another city, Bilbao, which is also the capital of a formerly oppressed minority culture striving to create/revive an alternative artistic heritage in contrast to the dominant Spanish culture from under whose shadow it is just now emerging, because Gehry's work, like Gaudí's, seems to be about reclaiming our early dreams, in a way which is at the same time wholly new.