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FRANK GEHRY’S REALLY BAD YEAR

For years the architect has been lauded for ushering in a new cultural era. But the climate appears to be shifting.

NANCY MACDONALD September 29 2008
THE BACK PAGES

FRANK GEHRY’S REALLY BAD YEAR

For years the architect has been lauded for ushering in a new cultural era. But the climate appears to be shifting.

NANCY MACDONALD September 29 2008

THE BACK PAGES

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FRANK GEHRY’S REALLY BAD YEAR

For years the architect has been lauded for ushering in a new cultural era. But the climate appears to be shifting.

design

There’s a telling scene in the recent documentary, Sketches of Gehry, where the renowned Canadian architect, typically rumpled, sits chewing the nails of his meaty fingers and Scotch-taping pieces of silver cardboard at random. Bend, cut, tape. He giggles. It’s just like kindergarteneven in mood, which veers violently from fun to frustration. “It needs to be crankier,” says Gehry, suddenly irritated by a blank wall. His partner folds a piece of cardboard into a paper fan, halves it with a pair of scissors, and places it against the once-blank wall. “This is so stupid-looking,” says Gehry. “It’s great.”

Either the guy’s a genius, or he has us all fooled. A decade ago, with the opening of his titanium masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, Gehry helped usher in a whole new cultural era where architects took their place beside celebrities. Dean of the A-list, Gehry’s even made inroads into pop culture. Brad Pitt is known to drop by his Marina del Rey studio, and Gehry once voiced himself in a self-parody on The Simpsons, where Marge invites him to Springfield to design a concert hall to boost the image of the déclassé cartoon city. What a difference a few years make.

On Aug. 21, the New York Times reported that the architect had been removed from the Theater for a New Audience in Brooklyn. Gehry said the announcement came as a surprise; according to the Times, he learned that he was off the project from the reporter who called his cellphone looking for a quote. Bruce Cohen, PR manager for the theatre, disputes this. He says Gehry had been too busy to proceed, and had been aware of the change “for months.” “He’s 80 years old,” said Cohen. “He was driving. My guess is, he didn’t understand the question.”

Whatever the case, tongues are also wagging in Boston, site of another highbrow tiff. In November, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a negligence suit against Gehry (and a contractor, Skanska USA Building Inc.). Gehry designed the university’s Stata Center: a US$300-million series of banana-yellow, white and orange

NANCY MACDONALD

cubes and cones that house MIT’s computer science and artificial intelligence labs, and office space. Celebrated as one of the boldest architectural projects of its era, Gehry said its sloping floors and dissonant angles looked as if “a party of drunken robots got together to celebrate.” The party’s now moved to the courthouse.

Gehry says that construction problems are inevitable in the design of complex buildings. For its part, MIT alleges that, within months of its 2004 completion, the Stata Center essentially started to come apart. Seeking unspecified damages, the university charges that “design and construction failures” caused leaks to spring, masonry to crack, mould to grow, and drainage to back up. John Silber, former president of nearby Boston University, pronounced the building a “disaster.” Gehry considers himself “an artist, a sculptor,” Silber told the Boston Globe. “The trouble is, you don’t live in a sculpture, and users have to live in this building.”

In a few weeks, with the opening of the renovated Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto will get its cultural Xanadu: a blue titanium crown by Gehry. The $275-million projectthe architect’s first major commission in Canada—will be a homecoming of sorts. Gehry has long been associated with L.A., where he’s lived and worked for over 60 years. But he was born in Toronto, and spent part of his childhood in a row house near the AGO.

Alas, the city was a bit slow to the punch. Toronto’s not getting Gehry circa Bilbao: godlike, Teflon to criticism, celebrated the world over. We’ve caught Gehry in the middle of a bad run. He’s not the first architect to have struggled. Norman Foster’s Millennium Bridge in London was closed for two years to correct a scary “wobble.” And some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings were notoriously leaky. Yet the AGO, which hired a building-envelope consultant to oversee the renovation, isn’t taking any chances; after all, it’s not the first time the architect has faced complaints. Three years ago, Gehry was forced to sandblast parts of the US$274-

million Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. He’d wrapped the concert hall—which sits under the blazing southern California sun—in 22 million lb. of high-polished steel. This created an unbearable glare for passing motorists, and sidewalk hot spots that in one place reached 60° C, according to an L.A. County report. An investigation was sparked by neighbouring residents who complained their condos were made uncomfortably warm by reflected sun. Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland has had to install large, rectangular window boxes to ensure students don’t walk beneath the roof of its Gehry-designed building. In winter, snow and ice cascade down its sloping, stainless steel roof, bombarding the sidewalk below.

In Seattle, meanwhile, insulting Gehry’s Experience Music Project has become a “civic sport,” says local writer Erica Barnett. Politicians were sure the Technicolor music museum, funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, would put Seattle on the proverbial “map.” Plagued by continued declining attendance—roughly half the projected 800,000 annual visitors—the city instead landed itself a white elephant. Less than two years after it opened, Forbes magazine named it one of the world’s “10 ugliest buildings.”

Fear not, Toronto: no one expects the new AGO—which reopens Nov. 14—to flop. In fact, you may not read anything critical at all. Last December the Globe and Mail pronounced Gehry’s AGO a “staggering success” a full year before it even opened. Never mind that not a single painting hung from the gallery’s new walls, no tourist had been lured in, and the signature blue titanium skin hadn’t even been mounted to the exterior. There were muddy puddles on the museum floor, yet “Gehry’s AGO already soars,” said Lisa Rochon, one of the country’s top architecture critics—providing a glimpse of the critical handling to which he is often treated.

There’s a “culture of affirmation that surrounds Gehry,” says the well-known art critic and Princeton professor Hal Foster. “The same buildings that leak, burn and moulder would cost any other architect their job and reputation,” says one Manhattan-based critic, who asked to remain anonymous. Yet “major newspapers, art critics and museums” continue to “hold Gehry up,” he says.

“Gehry has had some supporters who have been very well-placed,” explains Francis Morrone, an architecture critic and columnist for the New York Sun. “For a number of

SEEKING

DAMAGES,

MIT alleges 'design and construction failures’ caused leaks to spring, masonry to crack

years, the New York Times had an architecture critic who was not only Gehry’s friend, but would frequently say things to the effect of: ‘Gehry is not only the greatest living architect, he’s the greatest living artist.’ ” Morrone is fingering the late Herbert Muschamp, often credited with turning Gehry into a household name, “ft was a very controversial thing, even as it was happening,” says Morrone. “In New York—and in America in general—if the New York Times says something, then people just automatically believe it. It’s so authoritative.”

Less than a decade after he first started doing avant-garde architecture, Gehry was a global entity and winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize—the Nobel of architecture—hardly the “outsider,” as he is often cast. Sure, the designs were rebellious and outsidethe-box but they were also highly saleable.

To be fair, Gehry has shrewdly managed his own fame. For starters, he was allowed to design his own retrospective at the Guggenheim, leaving out a crucial, critical examination of his work. Sketches, meanwhile, was directed by his close friend, the late Sydney Pollock. The film, a series of fawning interviews with friends and celebrity talking heads like Dennis Hopper and Bob Geldof, left room for only one critical voice; that interview was edited to the point of caricature, giving the film, like the retrospective, the odour of a sales job. Two years ago, when a New York art house started selling F-K FRANK GEHRY T-shirts, Gehry played them brilliantly: he wore the T-shirts to the office, the gym and even shipped them to his critics, neatly appropriating the critical message.

The climate, however, appears to be shifting. This summer, The Economist dubbed Gehry “the one-trick pony’s one-trick pony,” who “merely plonks down the same lump of product time and again across the globe.” His notoriously costly and resource-heavy designs seem increasingly vulgar, given heightened environmental concerns and the softening economy. Indeed, the focus of the profession has turned to green or sustainable design, says Jeffrey Ochsner, professor of architecture at the University of Washington.

Meanwhile, back in Brooklyn, Gehry is dealing with far worse than a lost theatre contract. He’s become a lightning rod for criticism of developer Bruce Ratner’s controversial Atlantic Yards development. The US$4billion project—the largest development Gehry’s ever undertaken—would erect an NBA basketball arena and 16 high-rise towers into what community activists call a “classic Brooklyn brownstone neighbourhood.” The tallest tower—“my ego trip,” as Gehry so unfortunately once quipped—is a rippling glass building.

The activist group Develop, Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, whose advisory board includes actors Steve Buscemi, Michelle Williams, Rosie Perez, writers Jonathan Safran Foer, Myla Goldberg and Philip Gourevitch, calls Gehry’s red, white and blue model “garish,” and “completely out of scale.”

“Gehry has taken a big risk,” says urban historian Witold Rybczynski. “ft is a very big project. And it is in New York, where all the media are. If that project goes bad, it would tarnish his reputation. Instead of being a capstone, it would be a blot on his career.”

Are the wheels falling off the limo of Canada’s most famous architectural export? No matter. It’s onward to Abu Dhabi, land of deep pockets, architectural hijinks and the next big project: a “culturally sensitive” outpost of the Guggenheim. M