Friday, 24 September 2010

Early Gehry, Quirky

Dennis Sharp’s “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Architects and Architects” (Whitney Library of Design, 1991) is the ideal primer for a retiree who wants belatedly to specialize in one of his five Ph.D. prelims(American Art and Architecture). Consider, for example, my least favorite architect, Frank O. Gehry (b. 1929):”One of the ‘punk style’ architects, whose curious, irreverent buildings have been described as “functional sculpture” and Deconstructivist architecture.” (p.62.)

Long fascinated by painting and sculpture, his first notoriety derived in 1972 from his “chunky corrugated cardboard furniture”. “His distinctive exploded-then-reconstructed late architectural style began to emerge in the late 1970’s, when the design for his home in Santa Monica used corrugated metal, an exposed wooden frame and shields of chain link fencing.”

He whined that if Jasper Johns and Donald Judd “can make beauty with junk material, then why can’t that transfer into architecture?” The short answer is that two wrongs don’t necessarily make a right. The public function of a building is what establishes the perimeters of a structure, not the fantasies of an aspiring abstract inexpressivist sculptor. And as Aristotle argued centuries ago, to my complete agreement, the user of the building is the ultimate judge of its value, not any old Pritzker seeker.

Gehry continued his quirkiness with his Mid-Atlantic Toyota Distributorship offices in Santa Monica—a maze of odd-shaped offices painted in different colors. Then Loyola Law School L.A. with an aluminum portico and Romanesque-style chapel made from plywood and glass. Sharp concludes this ritual esthetic genuflection with ultimate praise for the Vitra Design Museum in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany, described as a “jumble of plain white geometric shapes” resembling a Russian Constructivist sculpture. “Inside is a calm top-lit space with galleries linked by bold curving ramps”.

Ah yes, the site of my first Gehric anti-epiphany! Vitra’s exposition history has made it my favorite design museum. But on my first visit I found climbing to that top had exhausted me, ramps or not. I sat down to catch my breath and speculate why I no longer buy the Bilbao principle! (Build a Titanium Rorschach puzzle and front with a Jeff Koons bubble and the cowed shall come.)

I got it. I was exhausted because FOG had designed it outside in. That Johnny Came Lately jumble of plain white shapes was the (literally) breath-taking climb of the ramps! Just as the last FOG I saw MART museum in Herford, Germany deploys tacky plywood as an offbeat entrance to the main gallery.I mean not first class plywood. Tacky tactics. “Get me a Gehry!” is the other-directed refrain of many mindless art museum functionaries to whom the off-beat is ipso facto the innovative superlative!

But a new architectural style may be raising its timid but brave head—“humanitarian design,” exemplified by San Francisco based idealist, Cameron Sinclair, founder of Architects for Humanity. Bilbao exemplifies what I call the Alice Rawsthorn Principle: 90 percent of our designers serve 10 percent of the population. The bottom 10% needs more help. Much more.

This all began in earnest in 1932 when the rich Harvard grad Philip C. Johnson defined style not human service as the main ingredient of Modern Architecture in his defining exhibition at MOMA. Almost a century later, under the more civilized (and humane) MOMA director Barry Bergdoll, human service reenters the global discussion of architecture. See Christopher Hawthorne, “Humanitarian design rises in MOMA’s upcoming ‘Small Scale, Big Change’,” L.A. Times (9/14/10). We need to stop praising the Quirk peddlers and think more about the 90% who are mostly ignored by our designers. I think we’re ready to come to architectural terms with our global neighbors.

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