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The Unbuilding of Frank Gehry

If I dwell on the glories of Disney Hall, it’s because they dramatize what Gehry might have bestowed on New York, too: a big, ambitious work, powerful and generous enough to act as a focus of civic life. Instead, his best building here is the IAC headquarters, which echoes Manhattan’s twisting shoreline with a series of upended waves. It’s an elegant mixture of stardust and rigor, but you need an ID card to see the inside. At least it’s more than a façade. With the 76-story Beekman Tower, another Forest City Ratner project and Gehry’s first residential high-rise, he has done what New York forces so many architectural auteurs to do: slap a mannerist veneer onto a standard form.

“I started by doing a schlocky New York–style building. Then we analyzed the premium for adding some extra height. We modeled a twisting tower, but that doesn’t work in an apartment building because the plumbing doesn’t line up. At meetings, the layout lady kept saying There’s no Frank Gehry here, I can’t sell it! So I came up with the idea of bay windows.”

Gehry realized that he could preserve an economical structure but shift the windows so that they protruded from a different point in each apartment. Then he could costume those staggered bays in flowing steel. He wanted the dramatic drapery of Baroque sculpture. “I came in and said to a young designer, Do you know the difference between Michelangelo folds and Bernini folds? She said yes. I said, Fine, do Bernini folds.”

For a while, it seemed as though this project, too, would add to the architect’s miseries. Ratner halted construction halfway up and toyed with the idea of saving money by leaving it stunted. Eventually, he extracted concessions from the construction unions, and the tower resumed its upward march. The result will be an ordinary structure in a shiny dress.

The completion of Beekman Tower keeps Gehry yoked to Ratner for now, and the normally unguarded architect has retreated into silence, broken only by a single boilerplate press release. (“We remain extremely proud of our work … ” etc.) Even if he were never to work again, he has transformed enough pockets of the world to make him a Paul Bunyan among architects. He just hasn’t had a chance to change New York, which loved him too timidly and too late.