Exhibition shows how Gehry breaks the rules

An architect who spins metal into artistic gold

There's a new Manhattan Project in town. It may be as revolutionary and explosive in the field of architecture as harnessing atomic energy was for the original. Frank Gehry's design for a new Guggenheim Museum on the East River near Wall Street is a $900 million project that will give Manhattan a building like no other: a billowing cloud of curved planes, pierced by a fractured skyscraper.

The model is one of 36 projects in 24 cities and five countries documented by a retrospective, "Frank Gehry, Architect," at New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum until Aug. 26.

The exhibition includes drawings, plans, models, photographs, video footage, furniture, and the installation itself, reflecting 25 years of practice by the Canadian-born architect's Los Angeles studio.

Gehry shows off his chutzpah in the museum's Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda, where aluminum-mesh drapes droop and swirl from the ceiling. Although they appear airy, each panel weighs several tons. Gehry's intervention highlights not only his brashness in challenging Wright's iconic atrium, but the gravity-defying nature of Gehry's designs.

His projects are almost completely devoid of a basic structural component: right angles. If Wright "broke" the box, Gehry can be said to have detonated it.

The show proceeds chronologically, tracing Gehry's evolution from his "cheapskate" architecture of early California residential projects to an increasingly sculptural approach.

His early work shows the influence of vernacular SoCal culture on Gehry's sensibility. Like the cacophony of Los Angeles freeways crisscrossing the landscape, Gehry's buildings are a hodgepodge of layers and fragments. The Norton Residence (1982-84), on the beach in Venice, Calif., combines a domestic building with an out building shaped like a lifeguard shack. Gehry's own house in Santa Monica, Calif., shows his collage approach. In 1977-78, he wrapped a 1920s shingled bungalow in a shell of chain-link fencing, plywood, and corrugated steel. It's as if he constructed an off-kilter chicken coop around the nondescript house, which plays peekaboo through the quirky exterior.

Gehry's neighbors in similar unaltered bungalows were not amused. Outraged is more like it. A lawyer tried to sue, an architect tried to have Gehry incarcerated, and a bullet was fired through the window. Gawkers turned up, "I wish we had sold popcorn," Gehry has said. The exhibition catalog calls the renovation "the house that built Gehry." The project's notoriety established him as a rebel to be reckoned with.

The interior was just as anomalous. Taking a cue from Pop Art and the industrial vocabulary of Minimalism, Gehry wanted to explore the expressive potential of unconventional materials like chain link and plywood.

"I wanted to prove you could make an artwork out of anything," the architect said. He ripped plaster off walls to expose raw studs and chose asphalt for the dining room floor, prompting architect Philip Johnson to ask: "Am I in the dining room or in the driveway?"

Gehry's tendency to conceive clusters of separate forms rather than monolithic structures is evident in his ongoing design of Loyola Law School (1978-present) in Los Angeles. The campus is a village-like assemblage of disparate buildings Gehry compares to a playful Acropolis.

Gehry's Winton Guest House (1983-87) is unabashedly sculptural and collage-like. Connected buildings (laid out like a pinwheel) assume shapes like a wedge, cone, rectangle, and square. Each is clad differently, with plywood, limestone, brick, or sheet metal.

His "Fred and Ginger" building (Nationale-Nederlanden Building, 1992-96 in Prague) looks like a corseted Ginger Rogers leaning against a top-hatted Fred Astaire. The Ginger tower is on leggy stilts and is sheathed in glass, while Fred is a concrete cylinder.

In a recent press conference, Gehry admitted he is "fascinated with the idea of movement in architecture" and how it can induce "an emotional response." To achieve his complex curves and attain this effect, he now works with computer-aided design and manufacturing.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, which opened in 1997, is a triumph of Gehry's art. Its exterior constantly changes with light and season, as well as the viewer's perspective. Delightful, full of surprises, it reflects the dynamism of the river, clouds, and the city.

Its titanium sheathing looks soft and pillowy, conveying the feel of an artisan's hands in clay sculpture. This surface texture and swooping, animated exterior achieve Gehry's goal - incorporating "a painterly quality into a hard surface material." It's arguably the finest building of the last 50 years.

Frank Gehry is an alchemist for our times. He takes the most humble materials - base metals and cardboard - and transforms them into artistic gold.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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