Mr. Gehry’s Lumpy Mashed Potatoes, Skin-On

I feel very sorry indeed for our friends up north.

The Canadians are generally such sensible, mild-mannered people, that it must appall many of them to see what has been proposed for downtown Toronto this week by the world’s leading “starchitect”, Frank Gehry.  In a press conference on Monday, scale models and plans for building a mixed-use residential, entertainment, retail, and educational development in Canada’s largest city were revealed by Mr. Gehry and his primary backer in the project.  These plans include three new skyscrapers clad in metal “skins” of different types, a museum, and a university campus, among other features.  Reactions on social media over the past 48 hours have spanned from dismissive eye-rolling over the design to a general consensus that the project looks quite literally like a pile of garbage, and moreover that the proposed skyscrapers in particular appear unstable.

A little over a year ago, when I first started complaining about the hideous Eisenhower Memorial which Gehry had been commissioned to design for the Nation’s capital, I went back and did some research on Gehry’s views.  I found two quotes from Mr. Gehry particularly telling.  In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Gehry admitted, “I’m confused as to what’s ugly and what’s pretty.”  That fact is patently obvious of course, from many of his executed buildings and unexecuted plans.

However the other quote has relevance for the good people of Toronto, Mr. Gehry’s home town.  “City planning? Forget it,” Mr. Gehry said.  “It’s a kind of bureaucratic nonsense. It has nothing to do with ideas. It only has to do with real estate and politics.”

It is therefore ironic but perhaps not surprising that this massive complex will be undertaken with the leadership of one of downtown Toronto’s real estate developers, who owns part of the site as well as a number of the buildings around it.  The new museum will house said developer’s collection of modern and contemporary art.  And a theatre currently owned by said developer at the site will be demolished, with a new one to be built in its place.

Naturally any such massive project is going to require political involvement to complete, since you do not undertake a project of this size without government participation in areas such as zoning, licensing, and permitting.  On top of which, presumably Canadian taxpayers will be footing at least some part of the bill for things like road paving, traffic diversion, and utilities upgrades and repairs.  Thus, the very “nonsense” which Mr. Gehry claims to abhor, is the same nonsense he himself will employ, in order to create this city of crumpled buildings.

The real nonsense of course is why Mr. Gehry continues to draw such attention and adulation, 20 years after the Guggenheim Bilbao was plunked down like a lumpy bit of skin-on mashed potato in Spain’s Basque Country.  In looking at that structure, along with the Disney concert hall, the pending Eisenhower Memorial proposal, his failed Corcoran and Paris and New York projects, and now the blighting of downtown Toronto, one has to ask the question: haven’t we seen all of this before?  Making blobby shapes and then covering them in a “skin” seems to be all that Mr. Gehry is capable of doing.  When it comes down to it, is he really such a creative genius, or isn’t he really just a one-trick pony in the world of architecture?

For now anyway, none of Mr. Gehry’s structures actually blot the downtown Washington cityscape,  and presumably the size of this commission in his home town will keep him far too occupied to try to build anything else here in DC for the foreseeable future.  And that being the case, perhaps I ought not to pity the Canadians so much.  Instead, I ought to feel a deep sense of gratitude toward them, for keeping this individual away from my city.  Though that being said, I would not wish a Frank Gehry design on my worst enemy.

Putting on the Big Pants

One of the continued problems with contemporary architecture is its tendency to vacillate almost exclusively between only two extremes: the banal and the kitsch.  On the banal end of things we have an endless parade of glass curtain walls and concrete/metal boxes, sometimes with facing in other materials, which are viewed as safe since they are interchangeable, irrespective of where they are built.  Pick up a contemporary K Street office building from Washington and plop it down in the middle of Stockholm or Singapore amidst other such boxes, and no one would find it strange.  These are the sorts of projects that city planners and landowners tend to like, since they can fill these spaces easily with businesses or residents.

On the other side of things we have attempts to look like something other than a box.  These projects may initially capture the imagination of those planning them, but upon completion strike viewers as ill-conceived or utterly impractical.  Frank Gehry’s now-iconic Guggenheim Bilbao is one example, since for all of its flash and acclaim, the building is leaking and falling apart.  Though my personal favorite has always been Philip Johnson’s dreadful AT&T building in New York, with its ridiculously amateurish, giant broken pediment roofline, that looks as though it was designed by a Looney Tunes matte artist for some sequence involving Bugs Bunny being chased across Manhattan by Elmer Fudd.

However sometimes the project does not even need to near completion, before people realize that there has been a terrible mistake somewhere.  Such is the case with a British-designed building currently under construction in the city of Suzhou, China, a structure known as the “Gate to the East”.  The massive project, which features a pair of skyscrapers connected at the top, is supposed to resemble a triumphal arch, symbolizing China’s arrival on the world stage.  Yet the more people look at it, the more it reminds them of a giant pair of long underpants.  It has caused some in China to (understandably) question why it is that their country seems to be commissioning and building more and more odd-looking buildings from Western architects.

Part of the reason for what we might call a “Wild West” architectural movement in the PRC is that China is one of the few places in the world at the moment which not only wants lots of new buildings, so that it can bulldoze the poor out of the sight of Western television crews, but also has the cash to pay for them.  For somewhat different reasons, the wealthy emirate of Dubai has been another locale for bizarre-looking building projects, such as a hotel shaped like an incomplete sailboat, or artificial islands laid out to look like a palm tree from space.  This has been driven by Dubai very sensibly thinking about what will happen when the oil runs out, so that at least there will be nice, shiny buildings for tourists to look at, as the country morphs into some sort of Koranic Las Vegas.

While China and Dubai are – at least compared to much of the rest of the world anyway – doing just fine economically, those who pour their funds into such experimental architecture ought to remember that much of what they are building is doomed for the scrap heap, thanks to poor design and a pernicious effort to try to make people like things which they simply cannot in good conscience accept as a good building.  Modern untested materials and methods combined with bizarre building shapes often become hated eyesores within less than a generation, even as more traditional construction fades into ruin in a sympathetic way.  Thus, the fact that so much of the formerly grand hotels, public buildings, and homes in places like Havana or Detroit for example, are still standing in a kind of spectacularly beautiful decline, is a tribute to the men who built them.  Meantime, I have yet to meet anyone who thinks that the comparatively recent Boston City Hall and its courtyard, which looks like the setting for some sort of space-age auto-da-fe, is anything but a crumbling, hulking disaster which no one at present has the courage to tackle.

There is much to be said for trying new things in architecture, for by doing so we can create buildings that better serve their purpose.  Imagine how much more pleasant, for example, it is to be a patient in a hospital where all of the rooms receive plenty of fresh air and sunlight via modern methods of air circulation and an expansive use of glass, for those who cannot get out of bed or outside unassisted, and think about how much more hygienic a trip to the market is today than it was 50 or 100 years ago.  These are thanks to improvements in engineering and in architecture in understanding how to effectively use different materials and ways of looking at buildings.

Yet not everything that is new is necessarily better.  Simply because a starchitect tells us that a new building is the latest and greatest thing to appear on the planet since Mr. Obama does not mean that either statement is true.  And in the case of building a giant pair of pants, one cannot help but feel that if the Chinese wanted a triumphal arch, they ought simply to have built one.

The “Gate to the East” building, currently under construction
Suzhou, China

It Won’t Be Pretty: Stopping The Eisenhower National Memorial

On Monday evening the National Civic Art Society (“NCAS”) announced the winners of their competition to design an alternative to the Eisenhower National Memorial, a monstrosity by architect Frank Gehry which will be built in part with your tax dollars, across the street from the Air and Space Museum here in Washington. You can read more about the winning entry here, and you can also follow this link to view the talk given at the event by Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of President Eisenhower. The winning entries presented various schemes for the Eisenhower Memorial that make use of traditional monumental design elements – such as the memorial arch, colonnade, and plinth – all surrounded by landscaping.

Regular readers are already aware of what I think about Mr. Gehry’s design. From the beginning, the selection of Gehry as the architect for this memorial was a curious one. He has made his career out of building things that are quite spectacularly ugly, and while there were many ugly things built during the Eisenhower Administration, Gehry’s vision of a monument to Ike does not fit well either with the rather conservative Eisenhower era, or the Nation’s Capital.

Mr. Gehry himself, in a lengthy interview he gave in 1995, acknowledged that he first became interested in architecture in order to engage in the kind of social engineering that brought us the horrors of Le Corbusier or Cabrini Green. “What got me excited in the beginning were the social issues,” he explained. “I come from a very lefty liberal family in Canada, and architecture looked like it was the panacea. You could make housing for the poor and make wonderful cities, city planning in the future and so on. That was the initial turn-on. That lasted me all the way through school, actually.”

By the time he completed architecture school at the University of Southern California, Mr. Gehry had become more jaded. “When I got out of school I hit the brick wall,” said Gehry. “You can’t do any of that. It doesn’t exist. You can’t do it. There are no clients for social housing in America. There is no program, no nothing.”

What’s more, in the interview Mr. Gehry characterized efforts to work with city planning professionals as something of an obstacle. “City planning? Forget it. It’s a kind of bureaucratic nonsense. It has nothing to do with ideas. It only has to do with real estate and politics.” This perhaps explains why Gehry’s design eliminates a portion of Maryland Avenue from the L’Enfant grid, which city planners have been trying so hard to stick to whenever possible.

It should not be a foregone conclusion, gentle reader, that because of the stature of the person involved that the design of this memorial is a foregone conclusion. The fact that Mr. Gehry is a world-famous architect does not mean that his efforts are unstoppable. As a matter of fact, his plans to deface the historic Corcoran Gallery of Art here in Washington were scrapped several years ago. More recently, a number of cities around the world have stopped him from plunking down his monumental white elephants on the landscape, which ignore local concerns and often deteriorate at an alarming rate.

In Paris earlier this year, the courts revoked planning permission for one of Mr. Gehry’s mishmash structures being built on the edge of the beloved Bois de Bologne park, to house the contemporary art collection of a Parisian billionaire. In exchange, an enraged Gehry characterized those living near the park who did not want to see more concrete covering up green space in the city as “individualistic, uncouth philistines”. His displeasure is understandable given that it is likely at least some of what has been built to date will have to be demolished.

Similarly, the Gehry-designed Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem was scrapped last year following years of court fights and protests that it was going to pave over an ancient Muslim cemetery, although Mr. Gehry himself stated that he was withdrawing from the project for other reasons. And in Brooklyn, the Atlantic Yards project, featuring a monstrous collapsing tower by Gehry, went back to the drawing board following years of protest from the public. Ironically, given Gehry’s above-quoted views on city planning, the project was described as a “corrupt land grab”, a “taxpayer ripoff”, and a “complete failure of democracy” by one of the leaders of a group opposed to the project.

In a lengthy profile piece in the L.A. Times published some years ago, Mr. Gehry was quoted as saying: “My approach to architecture is different . . . I’m confused as to what’s ugly and what’s pretty.” This is precisely the problem. Since Gehry admittedly does not know what is ugly, and clearly neither do our elected representatives asking us to pay for his ignorance, let us go back to the drawing board with someone who is not so confused.  Then, perhaps, we will actually get something pretty monumental, rather than something that is pretty ugly.

Site for the Eisenhower National Memorial
in Washington, D.C.