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An American Original

FRANK O. GEHRY: The Complete Works; \o7 By Francesco Dal Co, Kurt W. Forster and Hadley Arnold; (Monacelli: 596 pp., $85)\f7

May 02, 1999|JOSEPH RYKWERT | Joseph Rykwert is Paul Philippe Cret professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of several books, including "The Dancing Column."

The first building by Frank Gehry that I ever saw was at the Louisiana World's Fair in New Orleans nearly 20 years ago. Wedged among all the fair pavilions, parodies of historical buildings in tawdry painted stucco, was a steel-framed auditorium; large (it seated 5,000) but modest, its outer skin was all corrugated steel deck and wire net. Its exhilarating effect was due to the cunning interplay of tilted planes, some translucent, others opaque. Poetry had been squeezed from unpromising, unyielding materials and heightened by the way the arena opened to the river. When I met Gehry some months later and congratulated him on it, he rather played it down. It was not false modesty, either. He just did not think the building distinctive enough to carry a signature. Yet its mastery seemed manifest and showed up the supposed irony of the Postmodernism around it for flatulent filibusters, distractions from the real business of building.

In "Frank O. Gehry: The Complete Works," a new monograph by two historians-critics (the Swiss Kurt Forster and the Italian Francesco Dal Co), that auditorium has been given so little space that I could not quite recapture my admiration for it by looking at the summary illustrations. On the other hand, some of the smaller buildings, like Gehry's own house in Santa Monica and the house he built for the Newton family not far away in Venice (one of his own favorites), receive enough coverage to give some indication of that excitement.

Although the New Orleans auditorium was my first view of a Gehry building, I had, of course, heard of him often before, seen publications of his work and listened to many arguments in support of and against him; his buildings provoke dissent and censure as well as admiration and the imitation which almost inevitably follows it. Current praise has focused on his particular mastery of the plastic, non- orthogonal form. Expressionist architects in the 1920s had tried such free forms, yet the right angle has always dominated architecture. Almost all the famous and memorable non-rectangular buildings from the past incorporate some form of a grid deflected into a curve, like the circular temples of Greece and Rome, the baptisteries of medieval Italy or the apses of the great cathedrals. This is not only because designers have found it difficult to conceive and describe their projects in any other terms but also because their builders would not have had the skills to work without such organizational help. Gehry has often done buildings dominated by the grid, but he has also exploited his particular genius at articulating complex form. His houses sometimes become miniature villages made up of interconnected pavilions, linked by bridges and infills whose geometry either defies or augments that of the underlying structure.

Such an elaborate architectural vision requires a design procedure as complex as the resulting form. Because the Walt Disney concert hall in Los Angeles, for instance, was a decade in the making, Gehry could exhibit some 60 variants of the project at the Venice Biennale in 1996. Gehry's design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, though more decisively commissioned and built, went through many metamorphoses before it became the most discussed and described building ever. Forster and Dal Co give the museum about 20 pages, in what amounts to one of the best accounts of that complex building. What is even more fascinating is the inclusion of a projection drawing for part of the shell structure which allows a glimpse into the technical difficulties involved in translating the fluid shapes of the project into a rigid construction.

Over the last decade, Gehry has pushed matters further. The articulation of his buildings as interconnected pavilions is emphasized today by twisting adjoining members in ways which would not have been possible before computer-aided design allowed him to draw and to specify their exact configuration for a builder. The computer has allowed him not only to manipulate shapes but also to circumscribe them exactly. There is no inherent virtue in merely reaching out for the limits of technical ingenuity: What justifies Gehry's exploration is the way he has put computer technology in the service of metaphor and, therefore, of narration. More recently, he has attacked the grid itself--twisting and breaking it to his own expressive ends.

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