Mar 3, 2008

A Portrait of the Architect as Artist: Frank Gehry in New York

America’s most famous architect, with a career stretching back forty years, only recently completed his first freestanding building in America’s most famous city. However, Frank Gehry’s few New York projects are worthy of analysis as they illuminate some key themes in 21st century American architecture – the relationship between architect and client, the media representation of architecture as art, and the role of the celebrity architect in contemporary society. Three of Gehry’s completed New York projects: his sculptural addition to the interior of the Issey Miyake flagship store (2001), the iconic ICA/InterActive Corp headquarters (2007), and his unfinished (actually yet to be started) Atlantic Yards are analysed below, and this trio traces both Gehry’s recent career but more broadly may also suggest the post-Bilbao role of the celebrity architect in the 21st century.

The Architect as Creative Genius: Canonization

It is difficult to consider Gehry’s architecture without firstly coming to terms with his media representation as a leading starchitect – he is thus far the 21st century’s best known architect. In addition to guest appearances on the Simpsons and Arthur, Sydney Pollack’s 2006 documentary, Sketches of Frank Gehry, confirmed Hal Foster’s suggestion that Gehry may be America’s “Greatest Living Artist”. Sketches is less a critical documentary about architecture and more of a celebration of the architect as a creative genius. Pollack, who confesses to having no knowledge of architecture, presents Gehry as a stereotypical artist – risk-taking, angst-ridden, and both aesthetically and technically innovative. Pollack dwells on the artist’s troubled psyche (via some pop psychology by his therapist), as well as Gehry’s “freedom of expression” in the face of critical opposition (the latter notably absent from the documentary). Pollack’s cast of celebrity sycophants includes actor Dennis Hopper (who lives in a Gehry-designed house), artist/filmmaker Julian Schnabel (who has himself been recently involved in
real estate speculation) and musician Bob Geldof, whose contribution is a pointless anecdote about his first vision of Gehry’s Vitra Design Museum building while sitting on a bus driving through the German countryside. The documentary opens with Gehry’s sketches (making the clear connection with art) and even the accompanying classical score of strings underlines architecture’s “high art” credentials (imagine the same documentary scored by a fellow Los Angeles 1980s pop export like Van Halen). Pollack’s documentary is the final act in the canonization of Gehry, who, if he wasn’t a household name following the spectacular media success of Bilbao, certainly is now. The documentary is free from any critical commentary except for some vaguely negative comments about Bilbao by a very circumspect Hal Foster that are immediately dismissed by Midred Friedman’s and Julian Schnabel’s counter-arguments.

In his book Design and Crime, Foster traces Gehry’s aesthetic from the primal scene of his Santa Monica house renovation in 1978 and his engagement with pop art to his “gestural aesthetic” of the 1980s and 90s. This narrative is, importantly, one that traces Gehry’s career from a particularly local scene to the designer of multinational institutions. In addition to the use of vernacular materials (chain-link fencing, etc), Gehry’s use of architecture as a kind of corporate advertisement, such as his Chiat Day Building (1985), also connects the architect to his LA context – is it any surprise that the concept of architecture as a single iconic landmark arises from auto-centric LA? From there, it is an easy step to the spectacular architecture of the Guggenheim Bilbao (1997), with the new addition of computer-aided design to help render complex sculptural forms into material ones, thus creating a distinctive work of art. By the late 1990s, then, the aesthetic is fully gestural and expressive, with Gehry’s inner artist finally emerging, and, like a sculpture, each building’s unique titanium shapes are hand-crafted (despite the digitally-aided design).

But how do such personal creative expressions engage with society? Gehry’s cultural centers such as Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, argues Foster, rather than “forums of civic engagement”, become “sites of spectacular spectatorship, of touristic awe” (Design and Crime (and other Diatribes), London: Verso, 2003, p.41). Bear in mind also that Gehry’s earliest work, often claimed to be distinct from these later icons, includes a Californian shopping mall, perhaps the quintessential site of spectacular consumption. For Foster, Gehry’s role as a celebrity artist is that of a social figure who is allowed to be freely expressive – this is the rumpled, angsty creative genius portrayed in Pollack’s documentary. Gehry’s freedom, Foster argues, is “a franchise in which he represents freedom more than he enacts it.” (Design and Crime, p.40-41, my italics) With the spectacular architectural icon, the public enjoy the spectacle of freedom rather than actively participating – our role reduced to consumers of Gehry’s freedom of expression.

Following the success of the Bilbao Guggenheim, Thomas Krens, the director of the Guggenheim who commissioned Bilbao, rewarded Gehry with a retrospective in the Guggenheim’s New York museum in 2001. Here, at the dawn of the 21st century, he was crowned as the most important architect in America (if not the world). Beginning with Guggenheim branches in Bilbao and Berlin, Krens’ aim was a particularly American one – to make the Guggenheim into a global brand, franchising it in a cultural version of McDonalds or Starbucks. And Krens’ expansionist agenda elevated spectacular architecture as more important than content (ie. what would fill all of these planned Guggenheims?) – exhibitionist architecture plus the Guggenheim name equaled massive tourist potential (at least this was the implication of the Bilbao success story). The Guggenheim expansion was slated to continue into the 21st century with plans for a Gehry-designed Downtown Guggenheim unveiled in 2000. Designed as a huge structure at the end of Wall Street, the Downtown Guggenheim was to comprise both a titanium sculptured gallery space with a skyscraper jutting out of it (which, appropriately enough for New York, included luxury condos). While the tragedy of 9/11/2001 is often blamed for the shelving of this Gehry project, Krens’ expansion plans were also not as financially successful as the Bilbao hype suggested, with the failure of a Rem Koolhaas-designed Las Vegas branch and an increasingly precarious financial situation brought on by the spectacular fees the Guggenheim was paying for spectacular architecture (see Deyan Sudjic, The Edifice Complex, London: Penguin, 2005 for more details). All spectacular surfaces with little substance – is it any wonder the major corporate sponsor of Gehry’s Guggenheim retrospective was Enron?

The Architect as Sculptor: Issey Miyake flagship store

Although the interiors were designed by Gordon Kipping (of G TECTS), the prominent feature of the Issey Miyake flagship store (2001) is a sculptural installation by Gehry. The context is the fashionable downtown enclave of Tribeca, and the Miyake store is in a retro-fitted 1888 red-brick warehouse with a cast iron façade and cast iron interior columns. On nearby North Moore Street, a couple of art galleries, an antique store, designer furniture store, upscale restaurants and cafes complete the retro-chic scene. As with most luxury retail spaces, the interior is sparsely furnished – plain white walls, exposed wooden ceiling beams, furniture of silvery burnished metal and a metallic counter. Distinctive hanging racks with oversized wheels suggest mobility and flexibility on the one hand, but on the other, they are an in-joke reference to the rag trade district where such racks were once seen crossing the streets (although the rag trade was never located in Tribeca).

But the prominent feature of the interior is Gehry’s sculpture, “the Tornado”, an undulating strip of titanium that wrinkles through the space like a stiff, silvery strip of fabric. Gehry’s contribution here is literally sculptural, but it self-consciously echoes Miyake’s rumpled shirts and flowing, pleated fabrics. Suckers hold the titanium strip onto the cast-iron columns like post-industrial fungi growing on an old industrial skeleton. Gehry’s Tornado is intended as a creative expression that parallels Miyake’s, suggesting uniqueness, originality, and the innovative use of new materials (although the use of the titanium strip may be simply a creative use of Bilbao leftovers?). The baroque sculpture enhances the space and aestheticizes the retailing of the expensive fashion within (the first jacket I picked up had a $1450 price tag). It provides an appropriate “high-tech meets high art” entertainment to compliment Miyake’s clothing, in much the same way as the giant ferris wheel in the Times Square Toys R Us store compliments the merchandise on sale there. Importantly, Gehry’s sculpture for the Miyake store confirms his status as an artist, and the association with high fashion adds to the exclusivity of his designs (imagine, in contrast, a mass produced Tornado for Target stores? Maybe not so good for the creative genius image?).

The Architect as Icon-Builder: IAC Building

Gehry’s first freestanding building in New York, a corporate headquarters for IAC/InterActiveCorp, was completed in 2007. In the far West condo territory of Chelsea, beyond the retro-chic warehouse galleries and a short walk from the
Meatpacking District, the building is the new headquarters for a diverse group of e-commerce businesses. Gehry’s Chelsea headquarters was intended to create a physical presence for Barry Diller’s fluid and diverse conglomerate of e-brands and services, including, Home Shopping Network, and Ticketmaster. Since 1995, Diller has been acquiring and merging internet-related businesses, but his previous Hollywood career included long-term positions as CEO of both Paramount Pictures and Fox. As well as being fabulously wealthy (#3 on Forbes’ list of the best-paid CEOs for 2007), Diller is also well-known for his large boat, one of the largest private yachts in the world.

This last point is relevant to the IAC headquarters, because the building’s form allegedly evolved out of the client’s love of sailing, the curved glass walls evoke billowing white sails. Ten stories tall, the IAC building comprises five modules of unusual, curved forms at bottom, with another three on top. However, Gehry has traded his signature titanium for glass here, creating a milky glass skin on a concrete skeleton (oddly angled concrete, and oddly shaped glass pieces, but a conventional construction nonetheless). The glass panels were bent onsite, making this building another unique sculptural project. While restrained compared to the uninhibited expressionism of Bilbao, the IAC headquarters is nevertheless a distinctive and highly visible corporate icon on a corner plot, and is striking while driving along the West Side Highway. It is particularly impressive at night, when the luminous effect really makes the building stand out from its dull neighbors. Big, bold and highly visible, Gehry’s “learning from LA” is brought to New York with a building that functions as a three dimensional billboard for vehicular traffic (very few pedestrians make it out this far West). Though currently isolated from its surrounding context of old red-brick warehouses, a Jean Nouvel-designed luxury condo building is slated to be going up opposite.

Inside, Diller insisted on open spaces with plenty of natural light for employees. Though the lobby’s video walls were touted as part of a new public space for the neighborhood, the building is insulated from its surroundings and not especially welcoming from street level – as with most corporate headquarters, the IAC building appears closed and self-sufficient rather than open to the surrounding neighborhood. As a client, Diller was apparently obsessive on details, and the client’s contribution here brings into question the image of Gehry as a creative genius, struggling to express a personal inner vision. Even in the Sketches documentary, you get the distinct impression that Diller and Gehry worked together on this project, with the client’s input on both practical and aesthetic matters as crucial as the architect’s creative expression. But just in case we were beginning to think the sails metaphor was all Diller’s idea, we’re reassured in numerous reviews that Gehry loves sailing too.

The Architect as Urban Planner: Atlantic Yards

Finally, Gehry’s biggest and most ambitious New York project, the
Atlantic Yards, may soon bring iconic architecture to the starchitect-starved borough of Brooklyn. The client is developer Bruce Ratner of Forest City Ratner, one of the biggest developers in the city. Ratner’s best-known developments in Brooklyn to date are the soulless corporate Metrotech complex (early 1990s and ongoing) and the Atlantic Center (1996), an alienating shopping mall that seemed especially designed to serve central Brooklyn’s disenfranchised. Situated opposite the Atlanic Center, the Atlantic Yards project will cover a 22 acre site, and will comprise an arena for the Nets basketball team (recently purchased by Ratner), as well as 16 skyscrapers, mostly filled with apartments. According to Ratner’s website, the Yards will be a $4 billion development, but, according to some opposing analysts, up to $2 billion of this will be public money. While some of the Yards’ apartments are designated “affordable”, it is not clear how this term is defined by Ratner, and critics further suggest affordable housing will not eventuate as it relies on unconfirmed government support. Given the desperate need for affordable housing in New York, this last issue is crucial – starchitecture is not for the poor.

Gehry’s centerpiece skyscraper of the Yards, the unfortunately named “Miss Brooklyn”, is a “curvaceous” glass tower (of frosted glass perhaps?) and seems the most formally interesting of the 16 skyscrapers. Many of the other towers appear to be simply conventional high-rise condo boxes with a jaunty angle here and there. While Gehry has mastered the singular iconic building, it is hard to see how this will translate to urbanism on such a scale. The designs thus far suggest no radical rethinking of urban space and little thinking about the effects on the existing local community. The increased population density, combined with the absence of adequate parking, schools, hospitals or other social services to service such a huge influx of people, all confirm that the proposed Yards is an exercise in simply maximizing profit by squeezing in as many luxury apartments as possible.

While Ratner’s basketball arena and the promise of NBA in Brooklyn is the sweetener to win over the local African-American community, commissioning starchitect Gehry seems to be a ploy to win over the design-conscious local gentrifiers. The website for the Atlantic Yards interestingly states the following for
Gehry’s biography: “Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1929, Mr. Gehry and his family moved to California after living in Toronto, Canada, until he was 18.” The born-in-Brooklyn connection seems less an honest mistake than a fabrication designed to further make the Gehry design palatable to the local community. However, judging from the strong local opposition to the project (which even includes local anti-Gehry graffiti at the site), the ploy seems to have failed, and may yet damage the reputation of the rumpled genius, at least in Brooklyn.

Finally, a particularly disturbing aspect of the Atlantic Yards development has been the threat of eminent domain in order to seize properties from homeowners and business owners still holding out on the proposed site. As recently as February 1, 2008, the Federal Court upheld the right of developer Forest City Ratner to use eminent domain on the proposed site. Eminent domain was originally designed for the state to take private property from individuals for “public use” – to build power lines or railways through farming property – when deemed to be for the public good. However, its use in the Atlantic Yards case amounts to the use of state legal power to aid in furthering private profits. While eminent domain has not actually been used yet, presumably the threat and ongoing legal battles will be enough to dislodge any remaining hold-outs. A mega-development such as the Atlantic Yards is clearly not about the public good or community needs but about the creation of mega-profits. And America’s “greatest artist” is complicit in all of this, providing an aesthetic alibi for profit maximization. But such social issues are presumably not the responsibility of the “artist as architect” whose role here is merely that of providing an attractive aesthetic form for Ratner’s real estate investment.

Starchitecture in the 21st Century: Form Follows Finance

The consistent critical attention to Gehry’s architecture as aesthetically and technologically innovative conveniently ignores its relationship to any broader social context. Art’s illusion of self-sufficiency masks the power relations inherent in such a collaborative and social discipline such as architecture. Returning to the roots of Gehry’s practice, Los Angeles is, not coincidently, the key production site for the creation of a contemporary image-world of glittering digital surfaces, and in this light, each of these Gehry projects can also be seen as architecture driven by media reproduction (that is, they look great as images in magazines and glossy coffetable books). But beyond aesthetics, some recent criticism has focused on the functional failings of Gehry’s architecture (the recent MIT lawsuit is a good example), but even this emphasis on function rather than form sidesteps architecture’s engagement with the social, economic and political realities of the 21st century. Certainly in a New York context, Gehry’s architecture as art fails to engage with the city’s most crucial urban issues: affordable housing, repairing or replacing the decrepit infrastructure and the creation of diverse communities. But for the New York projects of America's greatest artist, the starchitect formula holds true: form follows finance.

Further notes and links

The Issey Miyake store was not Gehry’s first interior project in New York. In 2000, he designed a cafeteria for the new Conde Nast building, but given it is not accessible to the public (that is, I haven’t been there), it is not included in this entry. However, the sculptural use of both glass and titanium relate to the above analysis. Images of the Conde Nast cafeteria can be seen here and here.

More images of Issey Miyake store

A good article on the interiors of the IAC headquarters from Metropolis, June 2007, here.

Gehry has designed at least another two New York projects: a headquarters for the New York Times in 2000 (developed by Forest City Ratner), and an Astor Place Hotel in 2001 (developed by Ian Schrager). Both projects were unrealized, but Gehry’s sketches and models for both are included in Mark Rappolt and Robert Violette, eds., Gehry Draws, London: Violette Editions, 2004.

Finally, a notable absence from Gehry’s published oeuvre is his American Center in Paris (1994). Read the story of this building

Photos of the IAC building by D.J. Huppatz.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The website for Atlantic Yards also gives Gehry's credientials. I was not aware that he studied City Planning at Harvard. What were they studying in the 50s? The sketches of Atlantic Yards are strongly reminiscent of Corbu's Ville Radieuse. Also, the images showing digital models of the Atlantic Yards show how out of context the buildings are.