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GRAND DESIGNS : Frank Gehry, Prophet of 'Cheapskate' Architecture, Makes a Bid for Permanence

May 03, 1987|ELIZABETH VENANT | Elizabeth Venant is a Times staff writer.

Rotundi : "They'd never invite our buildings to their buildings' parties. They'd be afraid our buildings would spill punch on their buildings' floors. . . . When the revolution comes, post-modernism and Frank Gehry will be on opposite sides of the barricades."

CRITICS OF GEHRY'S aesthetics do not agree, of course. They wonder if his work isn't too much akin to the urban detritus he is commenting on.

"He's a brilliant acrobat," says Los Angeles architect Stefanos Polyzoides, a creative formalist.

"It's an ego trip," says noted architecture historian and critic Kenneth Frampton of Columbia University.

Polyzoides : "We see the city as having a structure and history which one can respond to. We're interested in continuity as much as in newness."

Frampton : "One of the problems with some American architects like Frank is a kind of artist-envy. But architecture isn't really art."

Polyzoides : "His work does not engender warmth and love and care on the part of other people; it's about disconnection and alienation . . . it's about values that are temporary and current."

Frampton : "His architecture has no civic aspect to it. It's irresponsible toward the duration and well-being of society."

Polyzoides : "He's making monuments which are by definition permanent, yet he's making them look and feel very temporary."

Frampton : "Frank has this cavalier attitude as to whether it comes off or doesn't. His best work is done on a small scale where building-as-art-object comes off."

Polyzoides : "The work makes a virtue out of constructive carelessness."

Frampton : "It's a comment but it's indistinguishable from the thing itself."

Polyzoides : "Architecture is about building a place in the universe, not about mimicking a depleted, decrepit reality.

"I don't think his work has conceptual bearings deep enough to survive him. I don't think it's architecture for the centuries. Frank's work is about his lifetime."

ON A HOT DAY WHEN the sun flashes off the pavement in a white glare, Frank Gehry is driving down Olympic Boulevard in his black Mercedes. Except for his work, he is conservative and well organized, he explains, "something most people don't realize."

He shops at Brooks Brothers, methodically classes his clothing according to the ebb and flow of his midriff and complains that Berta, who manages her husband's office, never puts papers in the same place, which drives him crazy. "I don't like a mess," he says. "I like to pull order out of a mess."

The mess, for Gehry, is a metaphor for the city, the kinds of raggle-taggle visual conflicts one finds along Pico or Ventura or Olympic boulevards.

"I hate chain-link," he says, passing a block of the fencing, which he nonetheless has translated into a hallmark of his aesthetics. He also hates the faceless ugliness of industrial buildings and the sham of irrelevant greenery in the concrete ponds of parking lots. "How do you think that little palm tree feels up against the Texaco sign?" he asks at a corner gas station. "When I place a building, it's next to all that junk. I accept that stuff that's out there." More or less.

As a young architect educated at the University of Southern California and Harvard, Gehry naively expected high levels of craftsmanship. Working for Victor Gruen Associates, a firm that then specialized in building shopping malls, Gehry first came to grips with what he considers the slapdash quality of the Southern California construction industry.

Later, launching into his own creative business, he reasoned: "Well, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. If that's what you're going to get, then turn it into a virtue. Having watched Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns make paintings that were worth money out of junk, I didn't think that was such a bad way to go. You accept the junk of the culture and turn it into art."

It wasn't long before Gehry's architectural jargon became polemical; as he says, "I see my work as an expression of my political beliefs." In his youth, Gehry yearned to be a politician, but he found himself inadequate as an orator and leader. "I was always a tag-along and I didn't speak very much."

Through architecture, he says, "I found a place where I could say what I believe . . . where I could lead."

Expressing populist tendencies was not only expedient to meet tight budgets, it was also a natural outgrowth of what Gehry calls "my lefty background."

Born in Toronto into a family of Polish Jewish stock, Gehry was raised along with his sister, Doreen, in an atmosphere of tolerance and support for the working class. From his parents and grandparents, he received a religious education (his grandfather was a Talmudic scholar) and the security of a middle-class life. His father, Irving Goldberg, earned a modest living as a small businessman variously running a grocery store and selling arcade machines and household accessories.

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