Franks, a Lot

Twenty-five years of Frank Gehry façades, each a work of art, now occupy the niches on the ramps of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, and then there’s the installation. In the great atrium, Gehry unfurls wide bolts of gossamer chain link that sail through the space. Outside on the upper terrace, he erects billowing canopies against the tall, blocky addition, taking the serene curves of the Gugg to a more riotous place. Gehry’s interventions work beautifully here because his curves play against Wright’s, and because Gehry’s work is rooted in the installation art of the seventies. Then, as now, an artist groupie, he saw his buddies cant walls, rip holes through roofs, and mist spaces with scrim. They taught Gehry to work hands-on, to forsake the control endemic to drafting tables fitted with parallel rules and protractors, to cultivate wildness, rawness, and intimations of chaos. A weekend sailor, Gehry wondered how to design the space between the mast and a spinnaker blown full by the wind, and he shows us just how with this brilliant installation: Gehry sculpts.

Princeton scholar Beatriz Colomina writes in the catalogue for Frank Gehry, Architect that Gehry’s work has no stable meaning and that therefore definitive interpretations can’t hold. Perhaps. But the show presents a clear path, at least, through this protean career, which started, really, as Gehry turned 50. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that great artists spend their careers elaborating a single idea. Gehry has had two, the first coming out of installation art applied on an architectural scale; the second resulting from his long dalliance with the fish as inspiration for his approaches to form and space.

Curated by Mildred Friedman and J. Fiona Ragheb, the show nails idea No. 1 at the start of the second ramp by featuring his famous Santa Monica house of 1978, designed as though a half-dozen of his artist friends had riffed the once sweet Dutch colonial bungalow. The curators may omit the leaping Fishdance restaurant in Kobe (1987), where Gehry first acquired his confidence in building compound curves with the aid of a computer, but they inaugurate the third ramp with the Vitra Design Museum outside Basel (1989), a turning point for Gehry, where he lops off the fish tail and head to develop the torso into turbulent abstractions. With the Disney concert hall in Los Angeles, he employs a program used in airplane design, and previously unbuildable complexities multiply exponentially in one of the century’s great break-out designs (leading directly to Bilbao). The curators start the fourth ramp with the Lewis house (1995), where – after seeing the deeply involuted fabrics of medieval sculpture on a trip – he explores the waves that are the basis of his current work.

The curators of this very robust, multimedia retrospective display high-kicking Broadway showmanship, giving pride of place to large models fronted by Gehry’s spectacular façades. The price of the pizzazz, however, is the visual prejudice of seeing only the good profile. In a Gehry building, it always pays to look around the back, where his careful compositions part to reveal the constituent organization. In the Jay Chiat house in Telluride, the Weisman art museum at the University of Minnesota, and the proposed Performing Arts Center at Bard College, the flowing forms out front mask the conventional blocks with which he masses the interiors. The blocks don’t really melt, even though the streaming ribbons seem to imply liquid space inside. In more recent buildings, such as the School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, the façades do start invading the building, carving out highly spatial interiors. Still, the façade remains the generator.

In this show, a meeting of architecture’s two Franks, Wright’s Guggenheim stands as an object lesson critiquing Gehry’s work and design process: Wright did not subordinate the plan and the cross section to a sculpted exterior, and his spinning bowl of space reminds us that the interior motivates the design as much as the top outside. This exhibition allows them to chat across time. Will Gehry absorb Wright’s example in the new Guggenheim proposed downtown at the foot of Wall Street? So far the models look great on the outside, and promising inside. Gehry is tantalizingly close to becoming the complete architect that Wright was.

Frank Gehry, Architect
Retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through August 26.

Franks, a Lot