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SAM HALL KAPLAN

Gehry Shuns the Architectural Rut

May 07, 1989|SAM HALL KAPLAN

One of the more engaging characteristics of architect Frank O. Gehry is that despite reams of awards and honors--the latest being the prestigious Pritzker Prize--he continues to experiment with his design process and vocabulary.

Many architects who have reached superstar status tend to repeat the architectural themes that brought them fame, regardless of differing sites and projects. Partly to blame are clients, who usually want a signature building--"like the one that won that last award"--and architects with too many thumbs in too many half-baked pies.

Among the genuine talents who, I fear, appear to have fallen into this rut--at least judging from the photographs of their more recent proposals and projects--are Philip Johnson and James Stirling, Pritzker winners in 1979 and 1981, respectively, Post-Modernist Michael Graves and local, Richard Keating.

But mediating his instincts as an artist and his integrity as an architect with the soul of a survivor, Gehry, at 60 years of age, continues to grow, avoiding "isms" being wielded by pandering critics and sycophantic academics.

Each new project in which he is involved appears unique, exploring context, materials and space in a highly individualistic style that demands a response, be it visceral or intellectual.

Such was his house in Santa Monica, which he "deconstructed" then expanded in odd, raw shapes and materials; the Aerospace Museum in Exposition Park, a collision of sculptural objects decorated with a jet fighter; the chain-link-draped Cabrillo Maritime Museum in San Pedro; the Loyola Law School campus, a collage of classical forms; and more recently, Edgemar, a valiant attempt to reinvent a mini-mall in Ocean Park, and his proposal for Disney Hall, a graceful assemblage focused not on itself but a public space.

Some of these projects have been less than successful in their siting, functioning, styling and detailing.

It is hard to find the entrance to the Aerospace Museum; the Cabrillo Museum is awkwardly sited, the law school campus is not very neighborly and the chain-link-wrapped elevator shaft clutters up the small interior of Edgemar.

Yet, the Aerospace Museum makes an important architectural statement in an area desperate for one, the Cabrillo Museum works, the fragments of the law school are a welcome alternative to a monolithic, anonymous structure, and Edgemar, with its exuberant, unfinished shapes, rough edges, clashing materials "reads" Main Street, Santa Monica.

As for the house, it is his castle as well as a legitimate exercise in architectural research and development. I am glad I live near it, not next to it.

And unlike many architects, Gehry admits his mistakes. In a recent interview, when I raised the Edgemar elevator shaft, Gehry generally agreed with the criticism. Such a reply can be disarming, especially to a critic.

He has even admitted that he hates chain link, saying he only used it in an artistic way as an exploratory material because it was so pervasive.

"I'm always learning, trying new things, seeing if they work or don't work," Gehry said. You can say what you will about Gehry's highly publicized art and architecture juggling act with accompanying commentary, which he performs very much in the guileless style of a design-conscious Will Rogers, but one has to respect his talent and spirit.

So what if he has dropped a few balls and has performed some questionable rope tricks as his act has matured. It is nonetheless a class act, from an architectural point of view, entertaining, educating and energizing.

The Pritzker jury summed it up well in its citation:

"Gehry's architecture reflects his keen appreciation for the same social forces that have informed the work of outstanding artists through history, including many contemporaries with whom he often collaborates. His designs, if compared to American music, could best be likened to Jazz, replete with improvisation and lively, unpredictable spirit.

"Always open to experimentation, he has as well a sureness and maturity that resists, in the same way Picasso did, being bound either by critical acceptance or his successes."

It continued:

"Although the prize is for a lifetime of achievement, the jury hopes Mr. Gehry will view it as encouragement for continuing an extraordinary 'work in progress,' as well as for his significant contributions thus far to the architecture of the 20th Century."

And, in particular, of Los Angeles.

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