The Art (and Instigation?) of Architecture

Gehry’s proposal for the Corcoran Museum of Art addition, Washington, DC 2004. The design was later tabled due to lack of funding. source:

A few weeks ago, I was surprised to find an email inbox full of swear-word related design updates, all related to Frank Gehry’s recent press conference for El Mundo in Oviedo, Spain.

The topic ricocheting through the social media channels and blogosphere supposedly went as follows:

Gehry was asked by a reporter, “How do you answer to those who accuse you of practicing showy architecture?”

Slowly, Gehry unfurled his middle finger, pointed it up and towards the crowd, and replied:

 Let me tell you one thing. In this world we are living in, 98 percent of everything that is built and designed today is pure s#*@.   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, there’s a small group of people who does something special. Very few. But good god, leave us alone! We are dedicated to our work. I don’t ask for work. I don’t have a publicist. I’m not waiting for anyone to call me. I work with clients who respect the art of architecture. Therefore, please don’t ask questions as stupid as that one.

A radio silence fell over the crowd, as reported by El Mundo followed by a muffled apology that Gehry was “tired from his trip.”

This altercation, if you will, took me on a trip down memory lane of a press tour I attended that was hosted by Frank Gehry (in regards to an exhibition of his museum designs, including his proposed addition to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, a Beaux Arts building in the heart of Washington, DC.)

It also reminded me of the review that I wrote shortly thereafter for the GW Hatchet (my college newspaper) from the perspective of an art major and young writer trying to make an exhibition about architecture sound exhilarating to 10,000 twenty-somethings studying political science and international affairs…

To quickly recap, here is my brief remembrance of the event:

It was fall 2004. I had just returned from a summer in New York, and found myself in the brisk morning air with a small group of journalists,  board members, and of course, Frank. We entered the museum and moseyed casually through the great halls in which the exhibition was displayed. Listening attentively, we scribbled notes as Gehry made comments and conversation about his work, interrupted sporadically by a quiet line of questioning regarding his inspiration as well as how his addition might “relate” to the existing narrative  of the capitol’s historic architecture.

What struck me about the conversation related to Gehry’s competition-winning entry for the Corcoran, a proposal described by a Washington Post critic as “huge metal sails billowing elegantly outward…looking right at home in supposedly conservative Washington,” did not include any talk of his work being too “showy.”

This was an art institution, after all, and both its artists and its constituents were perhaps used to thinking “outside the box,” a term that Gehry continues to take to literal and engineered extremes.

My review at the time also reflected this attitude, and a major takeaway from meeting him; that Gehry’s ultimate desire was for his art to be architecture, and for his architecture to be(come) art:

This show comes in time for the beginning stages of remodeling and construction, ” I wrote, “which will transform the Corcoran into one of Gehry’s unmistakable manifestations of living art. This makes Gehry’s exhibit particularly significant, as it shows Gehry’s projected plans for the fate of the Corcoran Gallery. As a member of the D.C. community, one should attend, if merely to formulate his or her own personal opinion of how the landscape of the new Corcoran will contrast with the old.”

The later cancellation of the project due to lack of funding was lamented loudly by the Washington Post in an article titled “Crushed” by Benjamin Forgey.

So, the time has come it seems to assess the sad loss. It is sad because — let’s see, how simple can I make this — the Gehry building was going to be beautiful… The design was unveiled to immense excitement six years ago, after a high-profile international competition between Gehry and two other famous finalists — Daniel Libeskind and Santiago Calatrava. Then the Gehry design was changed, and changed again, and then again, until it fit the Corcoran site almost perfectly….

Still, the bottom line is that Gehry’s Corcoran joins the short, unhappy list of highly significant modern buildings designed for Washington but not built: Eliel and Eero Saarinen’s competition-winning 1939 design for a Smithsonian Gallery of Art on the Mall; and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Crystal Heights, the stunning mixed-use project he designed in 1940 for the spot where the Hilton Washington stands today.

Both of these potential modernist masterpieces were staunchly opposed by the city’s architectural establishment. By contrast, Gehry’s building won widespread approval. Not that it helped.”

The fact that Gehry was able to collaborate and rally a conservative city amidst the Bush administration to become passionate—not just excited—but passionate! about the potential of a sculptural, foreign sail-like entity to become a bold addition to a relatively homogeneous backdrop, was a feat in and of itself.

In working with the Corcoran prior to the tabling of the project, Gehry was working with one of many clients that did, indeed, respect the art of architecture.

While people are quick to critique Gehry’s work and whims, his disgruntled words at last week’s press conference have once again created a controversy that will inevitably rally people together, like the majority of his projects, to revisit the state of Architecture vs  “building” in today’s (too) quickly developing world.







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