At once mammoth and improbable, it rises amid a tangle of freeway ramps in the industrial Japanese seaport of Kobe: a 75-foot fish made of chain link, its head and tail straining upward into the urban air. The fish, and the thriving Fishdance restaurant beneath it, are among the most recent works by Toronto-born, Los Angeles-based architect Frank Gehry, 58. Working outside the architectural mainstream, Gehry creates sculptural forms in controlled collision, using such lowly materials as chain link, plywood and corrugated metal. But recently he has received large international commissions, and his work is the subject of a major touring exhibition, now at its only Canadian stop, Toronto’s Power Plant Gallery, until Oct. 12. The architect who once said “Being accepted isn’t everything ” has become a hot property.
For Gehry, art and architecture are inseparably fused.
Best known for Los Angeles projects, including the California Aerospace Museum and his temporary home for that city’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Gehry has also collaborated with such noted artists as sculptors Claes Oldenburg and Richard Serra.
And even when he works alone, he is an uninhibited creator. As Henry N. Cobb,
former chairman of the Department of Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design has noted, Gehry’s buildings display an “immediacy, spontaneity and improvisational gusto” more often associated with art than architecture.
Curator Mildred Friedman of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis organized the exhibition and commissioned Gehry to design it. He developed a cluster of one-room structures to house models and photographs of his buildings as well as lamps and furniture of his own design. The show, like many of his recent buildings, looks like a miniature village of disparate
shapes. A rounded chimney-topped form sheathed in copper stands near a tall coil of reddish-brown plywood resembling a squared-off snake—the same shape that Gehry used for a bar adjacent to the Fishdance in Kobe. His furniture—including the varied, durable cardboard chairs he has produced intermittently since 1969—sits in a structure of corrugated paper blocks— part Mayan temple, part Lego.
Glimpsed from around a corner, the most spectacular of the one-room shelters looks like a dirigible covered in lead scales. It turns out to be another of Gehry’s many homages to the fish, a creature that has provided inspiration for his attempts to give architecture a sense of movement. Glowing from within the ribbed, asymmetrical fishtorso are strange lamps: fish and snake shapes with light emanating through their ragged plastic scales.
Gehry’s love of forms dates back to his Toronto boyhood, when he and his grandmother used to construct imaginary cities out of wood shavings and scraps from his grandfather’s hardware store. But he decided to study architecture much later. As a high-school student, he looked up old University of Toronto architecture exams and rejected the profession because the papers “sounded so dull.” In 1947, when he was 18, he moved with his family to Los Angeles. There, while working as a truck driver and installer of breakfast nooks, he began attending school parttime. Encouraged by a ceramics instructor, he enrolled in the University of Southern California architecture program, graduating in 1954.
He set up his own practice in 1962 and by the 1970s had developed a reputation as a brash designer who favored the cheap materials that other architects scorned. One project that generated shock waves was the 1978 renovation of his own home in Santa Monica, Ca. “I took a cute little bungalow and did dirty things to it,” said Gehry. He wrapped two sides of the 1920s clapboard house in corrugated metal, sandwiching a huge tilted glass cube between an original bay window and the tough new metal skin. On another side, bare wooden twoby-fours create an unfinished effect that Gehry compares to a fresh brush stroke on a painter’s canvas.
Although his buildings are actually carefully calculated, Gehry says that he likes them to appear to be unstudied. His California Aerospace Museum consists of a large metal polygon and a stucco box gently squeezing against the narrow,
glassed-in space that divides them. “I really enjoy the awkwardness with which they touch,” Gehry has said of the forms in that building. “It reminds me of the cities we live in and the kind of awkwardnesses of city buildings sitting next to one another.”
One of his major ambitions is to create buildings that mesh with but stand out against their environment. His 1984 campus for Loyola Law School, a Catholic university in a shabby section of downtown Los Angeles, turns inward from the warehouses and run-down apartment buildings around it—but it does not block them out. The campus buildings are at once pared down and dramatic: the chapel, covered in plain, reddish-brown plywood on the street side, turns a wooden-framed glass face to the courtyard. At night, its steeple of glass-fronted cubes resembles an illuminated elevator shaft.
Eloquent spareness also characterizes Gehry’s low-budget renovation of the Los Angeles warehouse he refashioned as the Temporary Contemporary—the facility the Museum of Contemporary Art used while its new permanent home was under construction. The airy white space, with its exposed metal girders and high ceiling, proved so popular that the museum has kept it in use.
At the moment, Gehry has major projects under way in Europe and is about to get into what he calls “those big guys”—skyscrapers. On the day his exhibition opened in Toronto, Gehry learned that a joint submission by his firm and New York’s Skidmore, Owings & Merrill had won a competition to build an 80-storey Manhattan skyscraper for Toronto-based Olympia & York Developments Ltd.
For any architect, a project on that scale is a major achievement. But it is especially significant for an outsider like Gehry. His work has little in common with either of the dominant architectural styles—Modernism’s grid-like regularity or Post-Modernism’s classically inspired columns and arches.
Gehry says that he admires the work of such pioneering Modernists as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, but he acknowledges that the current trend of adorning buildings with details inspired by ancient architectural periods troubles him: “At its worst, it says to young architects, ‘There is no present, there is no future, just look back and copy that stuff and you’ll be okay.’ ” That message, says Gehry, is cynical. Added the architect: “You’ve got to trust that there are people today who have a contribution to make that’s relevant to the time we’re in. That’s what you do: you respond to your time.”
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