Gehry creates new waves

At the inaugural concert last month for the new Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, Frank Gehry's composition of a billowing, silver surface uniting two theaters displayed delightful variations - from Baroque to modernist. But the most striking melody of this new building is a variation on a work by Aaron Copland, sort of a "Fanfare for the Uncommon Common Man."

In talent and accolades, Mr. Gehry is uncommon, a "starchitect." Philip Johnson calls his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, which opened in 1997, "the most important building of our time."

But his buildings retain the common touch. As Mildred Friedman, independent curator in New York and the foremost expert on Gehry's work, says, "The [Fisher Center's] backside is plain; the whole building is exposed and open. He didn't try to trick it up."

Ever since the early days of his more than 40-year career, Gehry has designed structures for the common man, using humble materials such as chain-link fencing and plywood, to give his creations a raw, spontaneous feel.

At the Fisher Center, Gehry's aesthetic matched his mandate. As Craig Webb, senior partner at Gehry Partners architectural firm in Santa Monica, Calif., who worked on the project, says of Bard president Leon Botstein, "[He] is very much a populist. He strongly believes in making his college open and down to earth. He wanted rugged but expressive materials and a straight-forward design with simple materials and exposed concrete."

Gehry gave him a basic, geometric box as a concert hall, wrapped in a billowing stainless-steel hull. The exterior is baroquely lush. The plain-Jane interior is a paragon of Bauhaus functionality.

"It's absolutely beautiful," says Michael Govan, director of New York's avant-garde Dia Art Foundation. "It literally melts into the sky, knitting the sky and landscape together."

Deborah Borda, executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, whose Walt Disney Concert Hall is designed by the same architect-acoustician team of Gehry and Yasuhisa Toyota, praised the center's siting. "It's unforgettable when you see it in that bucolic academic setting, at the bottom of a meadow with the Catskill Mountains rising in the distance."

Mr. Webb admits the building's exterior was influenced by the undulating curves of the picturesque Hudson River valley, as well as by "Japanese armor and various organic shapes." As for Gehry's signature element, Webb confirms, "There's always fish. It's so deeply in Frank's psyche."

Although radically inventive in form, the structure is "welcoming," Gehry says in a press release. He explains, "Its scale is user-friendly and inviting. Its entry canopy is not a marquee; it's more like a covered porch, a place for visitors to mingle, to enjoy a sense of community."

Inside the concert hall, form and function merge. "The design grew out of acoustical requirements," Gehry continues. Even the fanciful, squiggly bands of Douglas fir on the concrete walls - one of few adornments in the spare interior - are inspired by practicality. "The use of wooden strips, like Frank's drawings, is quite extraordinary and does affect the acoustics," Ms. Friedman says. "They were not just for fun, but it is fun."

Bard College president Leon Botstein called Gehry's festive facade "a brilliant surprise" and the building "a source of inspiration for those who work in it." For the musicians, "it's an acoustic marvel," with clarity of sound and deep bass, Dr. Botstein says, "a pleasure and a challenge - similar to when someone gives you a great violin to play."

The Fisher Center, 90 miles north of New York, is composed of two separate venues - a 900-seat concert hall adaptable for opera, symphony, dance, and drama and a smaller 300-seat Black Box theater. The center will serve the arts-centered college's 1,450 students during the academic year and, in the summer, host professional musicians at the Bard Music Festival.

If Gehry's Bilbao museum is any indication, the Fisher Center will put Bard on the map. In its first five years, according to a study by the Bilbao staff, more than one million people visited each year. (In its first four years, the museum's economic impact on the Basque city exceeded ten times its start-up investment.)

Botstein hopes the Fisher Center, "a world-class house where new things can happen," will become a destination for cultural tourism. Programs in the $62 million center will emphasize experimental forms of aesthetic expression, which typically do not attract a mass following.

The unconventional design, resembling both an armadillo and a mutating mushroom, takes risks. "That's what artists really do," says Merce Cunningham, whose modern dance company performed as part of the opening festivities.

"His design for us has changed the way we think about programming," the Philharmonic's Ms. Borda says. "It's a building that invites you to dream, and that's the mark of genius."

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