February 27, 2015
It’s next time again.
“I like Art that starts fights in bars!”
So said the late great Peter Lewis. (Billionaire, Insurance Industry Legend, Former Chairman of the Guggenheim, Art Collector, Provocateur, Patron and Former Client.)
Mr. Lewis was quoting somebody else but he liked the effect of the quote. He used it all the time when he had to defend contemporary art from folks who felt the art crawl up under their skin and give them an annoying irritation they couldn’t quite scratch. Mr. Lewis died about a year ago but, he would be proud to know his legacy of the critical support of controversial artists lives on. The case can be made that, if not for Peter Lewis’ unflinching and long term support, the career of one of architecture’s major stars would have been forever dimmed. The artist/architect is Frank Gehry and his latest building in Paris has to be seen to be believed.
This gets personal for me because Peter Lewis hired me to document the construction of the house he wanted Frank to build for him. The house never got built but the film got made. The film’s title is a mouthful – A Constructive Madness – Wherein Frank Gehry and Peter Lewis Spend a Fortune and a Decade, End up with Nothing and Change the World. The mouthful comes out mellifluously when Jeremy Irons says it. He narrates the one hour documentary that won Best Documentary in the Montreal Fine Art Film Festival in 2004.
There seems to be two camps. You either love Frank Gehry or you hate him. Why is that?
To coincide with the opening of a stunning new Gehry Building in Paris (the Fondation Louis Vuitton, a contemporary art center in the Bois de Boulogne) the Pompidou museum decided to do a retrospective on Frank Gehry – his first in Europe. The curators pulled this together in only eight months. They needed material about the Lewis House and contacted me to see the TELOS documentary, which I’m happy to say, they adored. The exhibition is the best overview of Gehry I have seen. Some of my enthusiasm for it was prejudiced because the assistant curator was kind enough to give me a tour. Her enthusiasm, articulate insight and her unabashed praise for A Constructive Madness, no doubt contributed to my pleasure of seeing such a well done show. The exhibition is elegant. The lighting is perfection. The curators did a sensational job of cherry picking significant models and drawings from Frank’s remarkable (and massive) archive.
The exhibition has been an unexpected wild success. 2,500 visitors a day! The catalog sold out and is in an urgent second printing. Parisians are hungry for information about Frank Gehry and this superb exhibition is feeding their appetite. There is the allure of controversy surrounding Frank and some people like to be informed. The show called simply Frank Gehry ran through January 25, 2015, but if you missed it in Paris, don’t despair. It travels to Los Angeles and will be shown in an excitingly expanded version at LACMA from September 13, 2015–January 3, 2016. I met with one of the curators there last week and we hope to screen the TELOS Lewis/Gehry documentaries there during the exhibition’s run.
One effective criticism of Gehry that came up as TELOS created a second film on Gehry for Peter Lewis and Princeton University, is that the impact of his buildings depends totally upon their incongruity. You gasp when you see a Gehry building because it stands out from the crowd of the other (normal) buildings in the neighborhood. The critic, Demetri Porphryios (a proud architectural traditionalist) to further amplify his point said, “Imagine a city of Frank Gehry buildings – it doesn’t work at all!” Point taken. However, there seems to be more of a visceral negative reaction to Frank’s buildings by some people and I don’t think standing out from the Architectural crowd is why.
Frank did not make things easier for himself the other day at a press conference in Spain. He was fresh off a plane to receive the Prince of Asturias Prize, an award from the Spanish government for his work on the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. According to Stephen Burgen who attended the press conference in Barcelona and wrote up the story for The Guardian, the first question from a reporter was related to the criticism above, “Aren’t your buildings just all about being a spectacle?”
Frank responded by giving the reporter the middle finger. Burgen reports there was a long silence in the room and then a reporter asked another question about “Would emblematic buildings such as his continue to be part of modern cities?” Gehry then said, “Let me tell you one thing, In this world we are living in, 98% of everything that is built and designed today is pure shit. There’s no sense of design, no respect for humanity or for anything else. They are damn buildings and that’s it. Once in a while, however, a group of people do something special. Very few, but God, leave us alone. We are dedicated to our work. I don’t ask for work … I work with clients who respect the art of architecture. Therefore, please don’t ask questions as stupid as that one.”
The lead for Burgen’s story was this:
Frank Gehry has described 98% of modern architecture as “shit” and given a journalist the middle finger salute at a press conference.
Allow me to defend Frank’s rudeness. Did he mean (as Burgen implies in his lead) that all of modern architecture is shit (except we assume for Gehry’s own work)? I don’t think so. I think he meant that 98% of what gets built, what we see every day – the car dealerships and McDonalds, and crappy sprawling office complexes is not great architecture and that only 2% of what gets built really advances the profession in a meaningful way.
Benjamin Genocchio jumps on the pile writing for Artnet in a screaming for attention headline: As a Museum, Frank Gehry’s Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris Sucks
Critic Geoff Manugh from Gizmodo does the same thing: Frank Gehry is Still the World’s Worst Living Architect
I suppose since Gehry’s architecture is startling (some would say outrageous) the press and the media feels they can rise to his heights by also being outrageous – but the one thing is nothing like the other. It is a far greater accomplishment to build outrageous buildings than to vilify them. Can a critic really think that there are no worse architects in the world than Frank Gehry? Has he ever dined at a Burger King?
I enthusiastically agree with a commentator named sevensixfive on the Archinect Blog who writes in response to Manugh’s tirade in a post called, Reasonable critique or typical Gizmodo link bait?: “Gehry is, for various reasons, everybody’s favorite strawarchitect. … It’s lazy and boring to go after these people, and it just makes everybody look bad. From the cranky tenured old school studio critic who hates computers and thinks this work is everything wrong with ‘kids these days’, to the conservative New Urbanist practitioner who thinks CNC mills (computer driven machines) should only be used to make styrofoam cornices, to the alienated member of the public who thinks anything that looks different or new is a personal attack on his intellectual capacity, to the lazy student who’s always talking about ‘the emperor’s new clothes’ because they don’t want to draw a diagram … I could go on, all of these people are endlessly bitching about Frank Gehry (and they’re all coming out of the woodwork in the comment sections), we don’t need to hear this crap from people like Geoff, too.”
Gehry pushes peoples buttons. Here is a sampling of reader comments from The Guardian about his new building for Louis Vuitton:
“Gehry’s buildings don’t work, they leak, interiors are impossible to navigate … he is just another example of displayed vanity … when the building reverts to the City of Paris in 50 + years what good will it be?”
“Improv jazz is fine in the studio, or club, or at home. It’s fine in an underpass, as you walk past. Whatever your inspiration, architecture is, well, permanent! Whatever Gehry once represented, he is no longer the groovy hippy but megalomaniac and corporate. He’s the Apple and Starbucks. Worse, like Hadid, and others, he’s the flimsy plaything of global wealth.”
For those who love Paris and Parisian architecture comes more criticism.
“…French art and history [is] under threat, … the useless…monstrous…barbarous mass overwhelming and humiliating all our monuments and belittling our works of architecture, which will just disappear before this stupefying folly.”
But this is old news. Written in 1889 in Les Temps and signed by leading architects, artists and writers in protest of Paris’ newest building, the Eiffel Tower. They were equally belligerent. It is fun to look back at their hostility in these comments taken from La Tour Eiffel’s website: .
“this high and skinny pyramid of iron ladders, this giant ungainly skeleton upon a base that looks built to carry a colossal monument of Cyclops, but which just peters out into a ridiculous thin shape like a factory chimney” (Maupassant), “a half-built factory pipe, a carcass waiting to be fleshed out with freestone or brick, a funnel-shaped grill, a hole-riddled suppository” (Joris-Karl Huysmans).
Gehry’s new building for the Fondation Louis Vuitton may or may not be a lasting success but many feel as I do that it is his best creation in a long and distinguished list of architectural triumphs. One well credentialed friend who knows first hand about funding and building contemporary museums said with genuine awe in his voice, “I think I just saw the eighth wonder of the world!”
For his new LV Fondation, Gehry uses cascading water to reflect and dramatically place the building. The light moving on the water is a visual metaphor for flow of ideas inherent in his architecture. Comparisons to sailing ships with billowing sails abound. Click here to watch a short VIDEO The easiest and fastest way to convey the building was through this iPhone video I shot during my visit. Hardly professional but it matched what everyone else was doing. It is almost impossible to visit this building and not want to take its picture and share with your friends. As you walk around, everyone has a smile on their face and their iPhone or camera out to depict and share.
Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic for the NYT and Vanity Fair, who appears in the Lewis House film and makes a crucial comment about it being the “laboratory” for many of Gehry’s projects, wholeheartedly shares in the wonderment.
“Your first instinct, when you see an extraordinary new building that looks like nothing you have ever seen before, is to try to understand it by connecting it to what you know. And so Frank Gehry’s new Fondation Louis Vuitton, in Paris, looks like sails, and it looks like a boat, and it looks like a whale, and it looks like a crystal palace that is in the middle of an explosion…But none of these comparisons matter in the slightest. They’re all correct as far as they go, but they are really only ways of postponing coming to terms with the fact that this building is a whole new thing, a new work of monumental public architecture that is not precisely like anything that anyone, including Frank Gehry, has done before.”
Having seen the building, read much of the criticism, toured the recent exhibition, and made two films on Gehry’s architecture, one thing is clear to me. The visceral, and polarized attitudes about Gehry’s buildings come less from the unusual forms and more from the ideas inherent in the structure. Can a building be both useful (unlike most other works of art), and also (like really good art) be about ideas? If so, what ideas are at the core of Gehry’s architecture? In interviews, he suggests his buildings try to capture the speed and motion of modern life. He tries to capture the spontaneous and the gestural. He told me, “I trust the way I draw and I want to have that feeling represented in the finished building.”
I had to smile seeing the criticism above about Improv Jazz being inappropriate for something as permanent as a building. Miles Davis is a permanent influence in my life. Without the music of Miles Davis my life would be sadly diminished. Knowing what I do about Frank, I think he would love to capture the feeling of Improv Jazz in his architecture. His architecture is all about the expression of transient experience frozen in form. It is very hard to do. It was impossible to do before materials and construction and design techniques caught up with such ideas (but this is a very old story in the history of Architecture).
Great buildings reflect us and change us. I think that is why Gehry either delights or affronts. Some people experience a Gehry building and like those reflections of our crazy modern life and welcome the changes. Others, when they look at Gehry (or Gustave Eiffel) see ugliness and the changes these architectures represent make them queasy (and angry).
Architecture in Renaissance architect Palladio’s time was harmonious, symmetrical and based upon Humanist ideas that encompassed Aristotelean virtues. Frank’s architecture is also a product of its time and times have changed. For architecture today we can add asymmetry, dissonance, new materials, spontaneity and frenetic motion into the mix. It’s like comparing Vivaldi to John Coltrane.
A year or so after his death I’m very sorry Peter Lewis is no longer able to enjoy and approve of these strong reactions to his friend Frank. I was gratified for him when the position we postulated with some trepidation in the Lewis House documentary – that the decade long project was in many ways a laboratory for Gehry’s experimentation – was taken by the brilliant young curator at the Pompidou to be an established set of historic facts.
To examine whether or not Gehry’s latest masterpiece is a success I suppose you need to say, “For whom?”
For the client, Bernard Arnault, (the richest man in France) he got a museum that people are flocking to and talking about and that he intends to donate to the city of Paris. According to published reports he also got an incredible bargain. The free standing building, which is about 41,410 square feet, reportedly cost $150 million dollars. This seems impossible. To put this in perspective the recent renovation of the Cleveland Museum of Art is over $300 million, The Boston Museum’s American wing was $500 million. The new Islamic Art pavilion at the Louvre (30,000 square feet) was $130 million. There is a discrepancy here that I cannot explain.
For Frank Gehry, I would have to go back to a definition of excellence that Peter Lewis liked to use to motivate his employees. He thought the definition of excellence was simply “doing better than you did before.” Frank will always be measured by his success in Bilbao. I think I’m on very solid ground to say his latest building in Paris surpasses what he did in Bilbao with the glittering transparency of glass and water. I know Peter Lewis would have been proud.
Until next time with much love,