The Bilbao Effect: Frank Gehry’s Garbage Can Turns Twenty

There is a very interesting article – or rather, pair of articles – in Apollo about the so-called “Bilbao Effect” on cities, twenty years on. Bilbao, as you probably know, is the Basque industrial city in northern Spain, that suddenly became a major international tourist destination even before the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenhiem Museum opened to the public in October 1997. With its reflective titanium surfaces and abandonment of convention, it was the urban cause célèbre of its time: suddenly cities around the world wanted to have something like it, in order to demonstrate their wealth, status, and trendiness.

As the writers point out, the myth of the “Bilbao Effect” is not an entirely accurate one. Bilbao had already made significant efforts to try to improve itself before the arrival of Mr. Gehry. Other cities such as Sydney and Paris had been undergoing significant changes decades earlier, building unusual Postmodern structures long before the crumpled Canadian garbage can rose on the banks of the Nervion River.

Bilbao was of course something new however, in that it was a place which most people had never *wanted* to visit before – not if they could help it, anyway. Despite lacking a history of significant architecture or particularly attractive natural surroundings, and being plagued by some of the most depressing weather in Spain, it suddenly became the belle of the international urbanism ball. The city even managed to find a role as a giant set piece during the frenzied opening sequence of the Bond film, “The World Is Not Enough” – an entirely contemporary confection, since one doubts that Sir Ian Fleming had ever heard of Bilbao.

In a way, the “Bilbao Effect” is no different than the competition to build ever larger and grander cathedrals, which dominated Christian architecture for centuries and turned growing towns into the major commercial centers which many became. Some of these structures were so expensive and complicated to construct, that they were only finished long after they were begun. The massive and imposing Cologne Cathedral in Germany for example, which looks like something out of Gotham City, was begun in the 13th century but only completed in the late 19th century.

These religious structures are, in a way, a moral two-edged sword, which secular structures like the Guggenheim Bilbao are not. The great churches were designed to honor God, and to celebrate the lives of the saints to whom they are dedicated. Yet they are visual expressions of the great sin of pride, as towns vied with each other to see who could build the tallest, longest, widest, or most lavishly-decorated building, in order to draw in the punters. For tourism, be it pious or secular, comes hand-in-hand with income, and what burgher or alderman doesn’t yearn for some more taxation flowing into his coffers?

There are also some more fundamental differences between these ancient religious structures and the secular confections of contemporary starchitects like Mr. Gehry. There is no question that the former were built to last, for despite their great age, most of them have managed to survive major disasters from plague to invasions to bombing raids relatively intact. Meanwhile, the formerly undulating and sparkling Guggenheim Bilbao looks increasingly lumpy and dirty, a fact which the architect blames on the people for whom he built it, rather than himself (natch.) This is as if Leonardo da Vinci – although Mr. Gehry is no da Vinci – blamed the Dominican friars at Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan for the rapid deterioration of his “Last Supper”, despite the fact that he was the one who chose an experimental and ill-advised painting method.

Moreover, the world’s great churches serve a supernatural purpose. Even if pride was involved in their construction, their underlying function remains that of praising God, not man. The motivation for the construction of structures like the Guggenheim Bilbao however, and indeed their underlying function, is to honor those who are already far too pleased with themselves to begin with. Both types of building have elements of pride involved in their construction, but whereas the church leads to the worship of God, the “Bilbao Effect” leads to the worship of oneself.

While none of us will be around to see it, my guess is that roughly two centuries from now, when the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres turns 1000, she will still be filled with worshipers and visitors every Sunday, while the Guggenheim Bilbao will be long gone. It is an easy bet to make, I grant you, because no one will be around to point at me and laugh like Nelson Muntz if I am incorrect in my assumption. And yet, when we take a step back, we can see that throughout human history pride and self-worship, at some point, inevitably fails – particularly when it comes to architecture.

Calling Frank Gehry’s Bluff

Regular readers of these pages know that I’ve been following the plans for a memorial to President Eisenhower, designed by starchitect Frank Gehry, which is to be placed in a park just alongside the National Mall here in DC.  This rather titanic project, which has been in development for years, has yet to see a single spade of earth turned toward completing it.  With costs already estimated to overrun $140 million, it is also becoming something of a cuckoo in the nest of Washington’s monumental core.

This morning WaPo is reporting that the Eisenhower Memorial Commission meets today to look over some proposed modifications to the design, including one which pretty much eliminates much of the signature Frank Gehry style, i.e. using giant pieces of metal “screens” through the park.  As The Post points out, questions were already swirling around the grant of the commission in the first place.  The current re-think however, was prompted in part by concern from Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA), that the screens ought to be eliminated or significantly downsized, in order for the memorial to go forward.  In response, Mr. Gehry has threatened to remove his name from the project altogether.

I say it’s time to call Mr. Gehry’s bluff.

Understandably, Mr. Gehry wants to be able to place one of his pimples on the face of the Nation’s Capital because it is one of the few major international cities that so far has refused him.  Washington is not a large city, nor an innovative one in terms of its architecture, but by nature of what goes on here and the impact that decisions made here have on the rest of mankind, it’s arguably the most important city in the world.  Moreover, coming to Washington without seeing the monuments and museums celebrating the history and achievements of the American people, is a bit like going to Athens and not seeing the ruins of the Ancient Greeks.

When you’re an architect ticking off boxes on your bucket list, you recognize that to build a memorial or museum here in Washington is to enter a pantheon of sorts. Your work is almost guaranteed to be preserved and visited for a long time, unlike, say, an office building or hotel.  You may even have the chance of seeing your work become part of history, as has often been the case with the Lincoln Memorial, for example.  However whatever you are designing and building for this particular city, which is a rather unique place, you have to keep in mind that your audience is not hugely interested in being flashy or trendy, but rather in expressing dignity: these structures are meant to last forever, if possible, not look great for 10 or 20 years and then start corroding and rusting away.

Since the Eisenhower Memorial is meant to serve the American people, by honoring the memory of a great servant and leader of that people, rather than the needs of Mr. Gehry, the simplest solution would indeed be that he remove himself from the project altogether.  No one seems to like his design, particularly not the family of Eisenhower himself.  It tells us nothing about the man from Middle America who helped lead our military to victory in Europe during World War II, or oversaw one of the most prosperous periods of growth in this country’s history.

If we are to have a monument to Ike at all, let it be upright and straightforward, like the man himself, with a minimum of fussiness.  Too much time, money, and ink have already been wasted on this project, with little or nothing to show for it other than wasted taxpayer funds – $25 million and counting – and a slew of hurt feelings.   For $25 million, we could have landscaped the parcel where the memorial park will go, and put up a simple column or plinth with a bronze statue of Eisenhower on it. Residents and visitors would already be appreciating a new space along the National Mall to pause, rest, and reflect on the man and his era.

My bet is that tapestries or no tapestries, Mr. Gehry is not going anywhere.  After all, the opportunities to build a major memorial or museum in Washington do not come along every day.  So for pity’s sake, let’s just stop lollygagging around, cut this thing down to a manageable size, and get the job done.

One of the proposed giant "tapestry" walls of the Eisenhower Memorial

One of the proposed giant “tapestry” walls of the Eisenhower Memorial

Starchitect: The Destroyer of Worlds

In an interview later recalling the first successful nuclear test carried out at Los Alamos in 1945, Robert Oppenheimer famously quoted a line from the epic Hindu poem, the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”  An apt description of what he achieved, the line may sound like the sort of bombastic speech one has come to expect from fantasy films and comic books.  In reality, the quotation is even more contextually appropriate for those who destroy in order to create, for it comes at a moment in which a prince realizes that his enemies on the other side of a battlefield are his family and friends.  The prince is reluctant to attack and try to kill them, but he is eventually persuaded by his charioteer to go ahead and slaughter them anyway, as it is his destiny.

In their sponsorship of much of contemporary architecture, this same sense of prideful, purpose-bent destruction seems to have infected the minds of many of those running our public and private institutions.  In the effort to appear hip and trendy, thereby attracting the fleeting attentions of donors and visitors, too many appear to have been possessed by the idea that in order to improve what they have, they must destroy or so alter it as to ruin what they possess.  Oftentimes they are helped in this endeavour by “starchitects”: those world-famous individuals who provide, albeit temporarily, a sense of cachet to a substantial building project.

One very well-known exemplar of this phenomenon is architect Frank Gehry, whose work and ideas I have deplored on this site many times.  A decade ago, Gehry was retained to add an extension to the Corcoran Gallery of Art here in downtown Washington, just across the street from the Old Executive Office Building.  The design, which would have tacked a huge bit of Gehry’s signature crumpled metal onto one of the most elegant Beaux-Arts buildings in the city, fortunately never came to fruition.  This was thanks to many factors, not least of which was the combination of public opposition and the inability of the Corcoran itself to raise the enormous sums required for building a Gehry project.

This week a group of students, faculty, and others filed a Complaint and Petition To Intervene in D.C. Superior Court, seeking to stop the trustees from breaking up the Corcoran.  Although only mentioning the proposed Gehry extension in passing, the pleadings focus on the inability to raise enough funds to renovate the existing museum, known as the Flagg Building, as evidence of the board’s neglect of its duties.  It may seem axiomatic or common sense to state that you don’t start building a new wing for your museum if you can’t pay for the upkeep of the old one, but the siren song of having a famous architect place his imprimatur on your institution appears to be too strong for many to resist.

Another “starchitect” well-known to the intelligentsia is Norman Foster, who turned the courtyard between the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery here in D.C. into a humid, chlorine-scented glass atrium reminiscent of a circa 1986 Marriott resort hotel.  The last time I strolled through the Kogod Courtyard, as the space is now known, I experienced rather an unpleasant sensation, as if I had wandered into an elderly lady’s bathroom.  I also wondered why on earth you would place such a massive, humidity-collecting space right next to two buildings containing art which is highly sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity.  Lord Foster’s work is yet another example of how a structure may look cool, but makes things worse, not better, for the institution that commissioned it.

Yesterday the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow’s great art museum, announced that it had selected a local Russian architect to design its extension, after a very public falling-out with Lord Foster.  The Pushkin and local architects split over Lord Foster’s ideas for the expansion, which would have involved demolition of several pre-Revolutionary buildings on the site, and his refusal to come to Moscow to oversee the gigantic project. which will cost at least $640 million.  For some reason, in this context I can’t help but think of supermodel Linda Evangelista’s quote, “I don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day.”  To be honest, the design for the new addition is rather inappropriate as well, but I suppose at least it will cost less, since the architect is not at brand-name level as was his predecessor.

Meanwhile, a report in Roll Call this week indicates that investigators from the House Appropriations Committee are now looking into the efforts of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, which selected a rather atrocious and expensive design by Frank Gehry to try to build on the National Mall.  Thanks to efforts by the National Civic Arts Society and others, it is looking increasingly unlikely that Gehry’s carbuncle will ever scar the Nation’s front yard.  Yet unfortunately, a few hundred miles away, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has just announced that Gehry’s proposed renovation and expansion of their magnificent temple to the arts, world-famous even to non-art lovers from the “Rocky” films, will involve alteration of its beloved steps in order to accommodate Gehry’s plans.  Although most of Gehry’s work will be subterranean, it will cost the city between $350-500 million *if* there are no overruns.  In a town still reeling from the recession, this seems rather a lot to take on at the moment.

This institutional obsession with engaging in destruction for the sake of self-promotion is a disturbing way of going about getting people’s attention, a bit like getting a face or a neck tattoo.  In light of the fact that so often the architects being selected for these projects are chosen because of their fame, rather than their merits as a talented and competent practitioner of architecture, engaging one of them for a project which is supposed to last for generations seems the height of folly. In destroying what such institutions are supposed to be preserving and honoring, the only purpose they serve is the further inflation of their own egos.

Entrance steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Entrance steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art