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Sam Hall Kaplan

Art and Architecture of Gehry

August 17, 1986|Sam Hall Kaplan

Two of the latest projects by Frank Gehry in Los Angeles demonstrate well the contradictions that have made the Venice-based designer an anomaly among architects, defying "isms" and demanding attention.

The projects are a practical public library in Hollywood on a mean Ivar Avenue, built on the ashes of the previous library destroyed by an arsonist, and a frivolous, tasty restaurant in trendy Venice.

The library, after its first few months of operation, appears to be a qualified success. The Samuel Goldwyn Foundation, which underwrote the cost of the $3.24-million, 19,500-square-foot structure in the name of Frances Howard Goldwyn, should be pleased. Certainly the patrons and the staff seem to be.

"It has turned out to be not only aesthetically pleasing--I love the lighting--but also very functional," declared branch director Georgette Todd during a recent tour.

Though the Cubist massing of the structure is well-scaled to the street and friendly, not so friendly is the 15-foot wall and wrought-iron gate fronting the street, constructed for obvious security reasons. But the horizontal, light-blue tiles somewhat relieve the impact of the wall.

It is nice to note that Gehry did not use chain-link fence, once one of his trademarks. There certainly is enough of it already in the neighborhood, wrapping parking lots and yards. One does not always have to mimic context, especially if it is commonplace and ugly, but can improve upon it with a more aesthetic selection of materials.

In addition to the wall, not particularly friendly either is the lowered entry court to the library. It cries out for some landscaping or color to soften the austere institutional look. The reflecting pools also need something, if only a few water lilies or a tile mosaic.

Where the library really glows--literally and figuratively--is in the interior. Once past the unfortunately necessary security gates and desks, light bathes the interior through soaring windows, a central clerestory and light shafts. The light draws one up an awkward, curving stairway to an open planned second floor of welcoming reading areas and stacks.

Quite attractive is a well-appointed children's area with informal, carpeted lounging benches, offering the best views in the house, even though the morning sun needs to be screened out. A nice touch also is the movie posters adorning the walls.

There are few surprises, which was a surprise in itself given Gehry's usual penchant for architectural exercises. Rather the Goldwyn library is a fairly simple, straightforward, somewhat austere, well-detailed construction very much in the modernist idiom.

A broad Postmodern pastiche or a provocative Deconstructionist experiment--styles Gehry at times has played with--it is not. Gehry apparently is on a strict design diet, discouraging fattening sugars and disorienting spirits.

As a result, it is not a design, I suspect, that will generate the usual excitement a Gehry design generates among those architects, magazine editors and jury members hungry for something different--as if different necessarily makes a design successful.

In designing the Goldwyn library, Gehry has put aside his often strained attempts to translate art into architecture, to create a piece of sculpture, and concentrated on making a structure with a small "s" rather than an artistic statement with a capital "S."

The result is a building, to paraphrase librarian Todd, that is both practical and aesthetic, which, while not a definition of art, is a definition of architecture.

If the Goldwyn library could be considered a result of Gehry's ego, then Rebecca's restaurant at the corner of Venice Boulevard and Pacific Avenue in Venice is a product of his id.

While not a restaurant critic, I should note that I found the food that has been loosely labeled nouvelle Mexican, different and a delight.

As for the design, said by owner Bruce Marder to cost $1.5 million, it also is different, but not a delight. One phrase that comes to mind is a campy catastrophe; another is a drowned decor.

The total has the effect of a cramped stage set of a nightclub out of a 1950s horror film that has been thrown off some pier and has sunk to the bottom of a bay.

Let me first be positive. The front door is a piece of sculpture that invites gazing, touching and entering. But upon entering, you are forced into a small space fronted with a glass wall and shelves of peppers and garlic. There is no sense of entry, no drama, only confusion and poor circulation.

The small restaurant is made even smaller, more claustrophobic, by being divided into five eating areas, including a private room hovering over a central bar.

Not helping either are decorative log pilings, clogging up one aisle. It is hard to see, which is unfortunate in an eatery where patrons like to check out one another.

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