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Ideas struggling to take shape

Despite its flaws, a MOCA show offers a taste of Frank Gehry's work beyond Disney Hall.

September 11, 2003|Nicolai Ouroussoff | Times Staff Writer

"Frank O. Gehry: Work in Progress," unveiled Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, is a messy show -- and that is both its strength and its weakness. Timed to coincide with the opening of Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall next month, the exhibition is valuable because of the narrowness of its focus. Unlike the major retrospective held last year at New York's Guggenheim Museum, the MOCA show makes no effort to cover the scope of Gehry's output over a 40-plus-year career. Instead, the 12 projects presented are intended to offer a lens into the architect's current state of mind. The overriding theme of the show, which is packed with rough, unfinished models, is the messiness of the creative process -- the long, painful task of transforming ideas into cohesive architectural statements.

This approach would seem a safe bet. Since his groundbreaking exhibition in 1986 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, most of Gehry's shows have generally been organized around the same theme. And it points to one of the most distinctive aspects of his work: its desire to express conflict, its distrust of closed, rational systems.

The problem at MOCA is that the projects seem to have been selected with a casualness bordering on indifference. Two of them, the New York Times headquarters building and the Astor Place Hotel, are not works in progress at all; the commissions fell through several years ago. A third project, for a new library at the Art Center College of Design, is still in the earliest stages of design, barely an idea. The result is a show that is intellectually sloppy -- offering few new insights into the architect's work.

Curated by Brooke Hodge, MOCA's curator of architecture and design, the show opens with a sculpted fiberglass shell originally commissioned by the Gagosian Gallery as the centerpiece of the New York show. The work was never completed, and since then it has gathered dust in a Los Angeles warehouse.

Nonetheless, it looks at home here. The shell's undulating form -- suspended from the ceiling on steel cables -- fills the first gallery. Its translucent skin gives it the appearance of a large gaseous cloud. As one slips around it, the form gently opens up, revealing a womb-like interior. The impression is dazzling, as if a gigantic sheet had been tossed into the air and frozen in space just as it began to fall. But the design's beauty stems as well from the rough nature of its construction. The panels are held together with simple steel bolts. Large curved I-beams support the shell from inside. The crudeness of construction seems to contradict the form's lightness, imbuing it with an unexpected tension. It is the magician showing off his tricks.

The rest of the show offers a more conventional display of architectural sketches and models. The next gallery includes 68 working models of the New York Times headquarters project and the Astor Place Hotel. Dozens of these are arranged on a large plywood table; others are stacked along shelves at one end of the room. The arrangement has the studied informality of an artist's workshop.

The models are made of a range of materials -- clear plastic, wood, felt, colored paper. Taken as a whole, they represent the architect's struggle to come to terms with a wide range of architectural issues, from the quality of materials to structural systems and notions of composition. Among the most captivating of the models is a study for the hotel design clad in soft felt. Stiffened by a wax coating, the felt evokes the flowing folds of an opera cape, its layers parting to create a street-level entry. One immediately thinks of Joseph Beuys' works, or the drapery of a Bernini sculpture. How such ideas would be translated to the scale of architecture is left to the imagination.

From here, one enters the main gallery, which includes a wide range of projects represented in larger-scale models. Among the most exquisite of these is a 1998 design for the Venice Gateway project, a hotel, convention center and ferry terminal that would be connected to the airport in Venice, Italy. Here the evolution of the design is more clearly laid out. An early model shows a series of colorful cascading forms arranged along a lagoon. The final version is more restrained. The hotel is now a composition of block-like forms, raised on stilts, that frame the lagoon on two sides. Visitors would arrive at the corner of the site, slipping between the forms to reach the lagoon, where water taxis would be docked. Above, a series of undulating canopies is supported by a single canted column, a gigantic version of the poles found in Venice's canals.

The billowing canopies echo the gentle movement of the water's surface. It's as if the relatively conventional architectural forms of the hotel buildings were dissolving. As such, the Gateway suggests a portal into the unconscious, a subliminal landscape beyond rational control. It is a perfect embodiment of Venice's essence.

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