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Pier Glint

Frank Gehry's proposal for the Guggenheim would float a titanium cloud above the East River, a blaze of light illuminating downtown's dark canyons.

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Thermodynamics tells us that closed systems, unreplenished with new energy, die; by the same logic, cities expire when they no longer grow and change. But rare is a city truly so perfect that it is "finished." Gorgeous Paris was long considered aesthetically complete until the progressive grands projets of the eighties opened its Beaux-Arts vistas and medieval lanes to different forms of modernist beauty and a more contemporary mind-set. Venice, etherealized in mists of time, is still open to change: Even in this most complete, and completely beautiful, place, plans are pending for new buildings.

Smug about its image as the tallest asparagus patch in the world, Manhattan only grudgingly cedes ground to change, and the city we think of as the center of the universe has become, architecturally, conservative and even provincial, keen on gazing on its past architectural glories while relegating the zanier attempts at innovation to a safe distance in, say, California or Ohio (which emerged over the past decade as the new experimental "coast"). Even the Museum of Modern Art, supposedly in the business of originality, relinquished design leadership in 1997 when it selected a retro modernist design for its expansion/renovation. Predicating its style on that of buildings in its immediate context, moma opted for a known quantity and stayed inside the box.

Last week, the Guggenheim unveiled speculative plans for a new downtown branch, proposed for a sprawling East River site on the piers just south of the South Street Seaport. The scheme, by Frank Gehry, is an epiphany of beauty that leaves moma -- and, for that matter, every other building done in New York since the gull-winged TWA Terminal was built at JFK in 1962 -- in the dust. You won't have to trek to the Sydney Opera House, or even to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain: Just take a downtown train to Wall Street. If built, it will rank with the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and Frank Lloyd Wright's original Guggenheim as a wonder of the city.

In his commitment to using architecture as a driving force in shaping the Guggenheim, Krens has consistently raised architectural expectations forother institutions . . .

Gehry is proposing a cloud -- more specifically, a cumulus cloud of titanium -- to hover some 100 feet above the water at Piers 9, 13, and 14, at the foot of Wall Street. The nebulous apparition will envelop galleries for architecture, the post-1945 part of the permanent collection, education, traveling shows, and art and technology, and it will be pierced by a 40-story tower housing executive offices, possibly a restaurant, and amenities for corporate and individual sponsors of the 550,000-square-foot structure. Gehry lifts the billowing folds of the $500 million building to assure views of the river from the street and the FDR Drive, and he plants a skating rink among floating parklike terraces that bring the city to the water's edge. Visitors enter the museum surrounded by water and ice, at the base of a glass foyer so vertiginous it makes you feel as though you were falling up. A master of perspectival illusion, Gehry transports the body by accelerating the eye through space. The lines of this building induct you into its movement, pulling you into its turbulent dance. As with a vigorous Abstract Expressionist painting, the strokes are gestural and the eye roams the complex façades without stopping. Curvaceously open-formed, Gehry's Guggenheim is a portrait of energy, and the turning forms guarantee plays of light shining against involutions of shade. It will look alive.

The watery site heightens the fact that unlike the sheer Cartesian cliffs in the background along South Street, the design belongs to a nonlinear family of forms more akin to the mountains, waves, and swirling leaves of nature than to man's gridded world. If, as Churchill said, "we shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us," Gehry's Guggenheim is intriguing because its manifest freedoms are liberative. Like a John Cage score composed outside regular measures of time, Gehry's fantasia exists outside a regulating space structure: He thinks beyond the grid. Still, this magisterial scheme, done with associate Edwin Chan, is not a piece of improvisation tossed off lightly but the work of a virtuoso at the height of his powers.

As real as the models seem in the show, "Project for a New Guggenheim Museum in New York City," which opened Wednesday at the uptown Guggenheim, the design is just a speculative sketch. Director Thomas Krens, fresh from his success with Gehry's spectacular Guggenheim in Bilbao, is heading into another lap of his long-running high-wire performance, proposing with breathtaking audacity a design much more sophisticated than even the Bilbao. More than twice the size of that building and many times larger than the Wright Guggenheim, the new Gehry has a critical mass and power of radiant attraction capable of shifting the city's center of gravity south toward the harbor and recasting the collective mental map of New York.

Krens correctly believes that a ranking art collection and a spectacle building add up to a destination point greater than the sum of its parts. Mayor Giuliani has reportedly so far declined invitations to see it, and city-planning director Joseph Rose, who visited the Gehry office in Santa Monica, told the architect the building would not be built because it would block the classic postcard view of lower Manhattan. Somehow, cities often fight their own landmarks-in-the-making. Especially because the design is dazzling and self-confident rather than bland and meek, the Guggenheim should brace for opposition, ranging from passive-aggressive indifference to outright hostility. The city is considering the proposal, along with others, for the eventual use of the site.

There are reasons to question the building architecturally, but given the vision, they amount to quibbles. We know, for example, that the Bilbao Guggenheim, the immediate progenitor of the New York proposal, is a façade building whose curving shapes have surprisingly little to do with the interior galleries. But in this scheme, Gehry seems to have solved the problem: Exterior forms relate directly to interior spaces. In many ways, the apparently radical buildings in both Bilbao and New York are really nineteenth-century structures, with a central atrium feeding a ring of galleries, as in a Beaux-Arts design. With an armature clad in sheets of metal, their structure and surfaces actually resemble Eiffel's Statue of Liberty.

With his ambitious building program, Krens has emerged, de facto, as the foremost architectural curator in the United States. In his commitment to using architecture as a driving force shaping the Guggenheim, he has consistently raised architectural expectations for other institutions and even for the field.

But the ambitious building program has taken its toll elsewhere. Collections have suffered the most. Since he famously deaccessioned a Kandinsky, a Modigliani, and a Chagall to buy the Panza Collection of conceptual and minimalist art in 1990, Krens has not seriously expanded the collection (unlike moma, whose well-oiled engines of acquisition have scooped up rare works). The whole question of building a post-1945 collection has not been systematically addressed. Exhibition quality and content have also been uneven. The Guggenheim mounted an intellectually vacant motorcycle exhibition in 1998, and it simply got the wrong show when it opted for traditional Chinese art over contemporary art in "China: 5,000 Years" that same year. October will bring a questionable show dedicated to the work of Giorgio Armani, who has contributed $15 million to the museum's coffers.

No institution has been more defined by its architecture than the Guggenheim. Even when Wright's Guggenheim is empty, visitors come to admire the spaces. That is a hard act to follow, but Gehry is succeeding with designs that, like good churches, are inspirational. Robert Rauschenberg recently said he's giving 100 paintings and sculptures and a selection of drawings to the Guggenheim on the strength of the Gehry designs, on the condition that it be built. Artists want their works displayed in museums that are significant.

The spaces inside the Wall Street Guggenheim have been only tentatively designed, but on the evidence of the show, even simple boxlike spaces will tap into the aura of the exterior. At Bilbao, the shell alone convinces visitors they are entering a very special precinct. Galleries that are plain and simple bask in the lingering afterimage of the exterior. Visitors see the paintings differently.

The same may be said for how the proposed Guggenheim could change attitudes about New York. As object and as symbol of innovation, the museum promises to leave a strong afterimage of Manhattan for anyone who has stepped within its spell. With its unexpected beauty, it is the rare building that will alter the way we see and understand the city. It will be the postcard of postcards.


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