Maneuvering through the crowds milling the ramps of the Guggenheim Museum for the Frank Gehry retrospective reminded me of 1959, the day it opened. Serendipitously, I found myself in line behind Adlai Stevenson waiting for a first glorious look at the Wright work only surpassed in brilliance by Falling Water. Since I despise celebrity culture, I declined to schmooze with one of my political heroes. However, a half hour later our paths crossed again in front of a Cezanne. I succumbed. "Governor, how about I take a picture of you to bait my Republican students at the University of Pennsylvania?" Not missing a beat, he replied: "Nothing more far out than a Cezanne, please." (A few weels later, the New York Times reported that his most avant-garde of friends had been indoctrinating him with forays in SOHO." )
No such innocence in Gehry Land. When I ran into him at the reception for Sir Norman Foster at Mies' National Gallery in Berlin palavering with a gaggle of former Pritzkers, I joked, "What do Pritzkers talk about at affairs like this?" "Stealing each others commissions," he replied jauntily. Since the other schmoozers included Renzo Piano, Kenzo Tange, and Richard Meier, no chance of that. The Titan of Titanium is, he and his flacks insistently remind us, sui generis. They couldn't steal his style even if they wanted to, ruler of his computer domain as he is. The question is: is Frank Gehry an architect?
The question really came into focus for me at a Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition at the Vitra Design Museuma in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany in 1999. I suddenly found myself exhausted after climbing to the second floor to finish my visit. Why? The steep staircase was a function of his funky outside Higher Goofy facade. He doesn't design his buildings inside out. Outside in, no matter what it does to the program. His fancy facades, his shtick, rule. And I also was squinting, to scrutinize the prints. Why? Same reason. Insufficient illumination because of his outside-in designing.
Gehry, I decided on the spot, is a walk through sculpture maker, all aimed at proclaiming his genius--even if the inappropriate designs lead to such a monumental failure as his American Center in Paris. Ironically, his new Deutsche Bank in Berlin by the Brandenburg Tor, thanks to the iron hand of German architect Peter Mittmann, has the curlecuing contained in the atrium, entertaining the customers who are curlecuing in their own ways. To put a Gehry facade outside in the Brandenburg sector would be a gross insult to the German visual heritage. Schinkel trumps Gehry, just as the Berlin Guggenheim down the street is as unremarkable on the outside as its exhibitions are remarkable on the inside.
You say, "How about the Bilbao?" I'm glad you asked that. For except for the humungous space he has reserved for his buddy Richard Serra, art's answer to a floundering steel industry, the spaces are ill conceived for the calm viewing of art. (Try the new National Gallery in Berlin's Kulturforum if you want to see architects serving painting and sculpture instead of competing--unsuccessfully in my judgment--with their sisters arts as Gehry so often does.) His Weismann Gallery at the University of Minnesota, on the other hand, is full of glare in the galleries because the Titanium Exteriors take over from both Art and the nearby Mississippi.
Gehry's ouvre, this is to say, is a triumph of shtick over style. A great architect doesn't depend on a gimmick (computerized titanium) to land commission after commission from clients more interested in being connected with the hottest genius of the day than with solving their own problems. Great architects like I.M.Pei, Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava make each assignment the occasion for a unique solution of a client's problems. Shtickmeisters force every client's program into one highly sellable cliche. Gehry's hegemony in contemporary architecture is an outward sign of the inner lack of judgment our cultural elite betrays by their herd instincts. Running with the pack is the key to preferment and promotion.
How different, say, was Louis Sullivan is his series of farmer/labor community banks in small midwestern towns. The interior of banking needs prevail, but his "jewel box" aesthetic rewards each of these small towns with an icon for the ages. I never tire of visiting Owatonna, MN the first jewel box I savored, back in 1968.
I have since relished them all, using Greyhound to get to these far flung glories. I'll never forget my visit to his THRIFT inscripted jewel in Sidney, Ohio. I had spent the night with my graduate school roommate in nearby Dayton, so I was the only passenger on the earliest service. When we broke onto the New England green of a village there, I asked the driver if he'd give me a few minutes to ogle the Sidney bank. "Sure," he replied congenially. "I need a good smoke to keep awake." As I climbed back on the bus, he observed, "You know I've passed that bank a hundred times and I never noticed how beautiful it is."
I smiled to myself. What an allegory about Americans ignorance of their visual heritage. Ask the first fifty people walking down Broad Street who Louis Sullivan was and you'd draw a blank. Alan Iverson? 100 percent. Oddly, you'd probably get a high percentage of Gehry's if you showed them a photo of Bilbao with its utterly disgusting Jeff Koons' "sculpture" of a pooch pushing up daisies in front of the Gehry icon. At least I will admit that Gehry is a better sculptor than Jeff.
But architect? Only by the screwiest of criteria.He's a walkthrough sculptor all the way. Don't let those spun aluminum screens he's hung from Wright's luminous skylight deceive you. Long after the Harley Davidson and Armani exhibition are visual history, the Wright will reassert itself. Thomas Krens may think he's serving History by using this show to fund his Gehry Dream by Battery Park. He'll only be stealing from the public schools which are dying from lack of supererogatory millions. Our cultural life has come to this: Showing off, instead of showing up.