Frank Gehry's really bad year
For years the architect has been lauded for ushering in a new cultural era. But the climate appears to be shifting.
NANCY MACDONALD | September 17, 2008 |
There's a telling scene in the recent documentary, Sketches of Gehry, where the renowned Canadian architect, typically rumpled, sits chewing the nails of his meaty fingers and Scotch-taping pieces of silver cardboard at random. Bend, cut, tape. He giggles. It's just like kindergarten — even in mood, which veers violently from fun to frustration. "It needs to be crankier," says Gehry, suddenly irritated by a blank wall. His partner folds a piece of cardboard into a paper fan, halves it with a pair of scissors, and places it against the once-blank wall. "This is so stupid-looking," says Gehry. "It's great."
Either the guy's a genius, or he has us all fooled. A decade ago, with the opening of his titanium masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, Gehry helped usher in a whole new cultural era where architects took their place beside celebrities. Dean of the A-list, Gehry's even made inroads into pop culture. Brad Pitt is known to drop by his Marina del Rey studio, and Gehry once voiced himself in a self-parody on The Simpsons, where Marge invites him to Springfield to design a concert hall to boost the image of the déclassé cartoon city. What a difference a few years make.
On Aug. 21, the New York Times reported that the architect had been removed from the Theater for a New Audience in Brooklyn. Gehry said the announcement came as a surprise; according to the Times, he learned that he was off the project from the reporter who called his cellphone looking for a quote. Bruce Cohen, PR manager for the theatre, disputes this. He says Gehry had been too busy to proceed, and had been aware of the change "for months." "He's 80 years old," said Cohen. "He was driving. My guess is, he didn't understand the question."
Whatever the case, tongues are also wagging in Boston, site of another highbrow tiff. In November, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a negligence suit against Gehry (and a contractor, Skanska USA Building Inc.). Gehry designed the university's Stata Center: a US$300-million series of banana-yellow, white and orange cubes and cones that house MIT's computer science and artificial intelligence labs, and office space. Celebrated as one of the boldest architectural projects of its era, Gehry said its sloping floors and dissonant angles looked as if "a party of drunken robots got together to celebrate." The party's now moved to the courthouse.
Gehry says that construction problems are inevitable in the design of complex buildings. For its part, MIT alleges that, within months of its 2004 completion, the Stata Center essentially started to come apart. Seeking unspecified damages, the university charges that "design and construction failures" caused leaks to spring, masonry to crack, mould to grow, and drainage to back up. John Silber, former president of nearby Boston University, pronounced the building a "disaster." Gehry considers himself "an artist, a sculptor," Silber told the Boston Globe. "The trouble is, you don't live in a sculpture, and users have to live in this building."
In a few weeks, with the opening of the renovated Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto will get its cultural Xanadu: a blue titanium crown by Gehry. The $275-million project — the architect's first major commission in Canada — will be a homecoming of sorts. Gehry has long been associated with L.A., where he's lived and worked for over 60 years. But he was born in Toronto, and spent part of his childhood in a row house near the AGO.
Alas, the city was a bit slow to the punch. Toronto's not getting Gehry circa Bilbao: godlike, Teflon to criticism, celebrated the world over. We've caught Gehry in the middle of a bad run. He's not the first architect to have struggled. Norman Foster's Millennium Bridge in London was closed for two years to correct a scary "wobble." And some of Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings were notoriously leaky. Yet the AGO, which hired a building-envelope consultant to oversee the renovation, isn't taking any chances; after all, it's not the first time the architect has faced complaints. Three years ago, Gehry was forced to sandblast parts of the US$274- million Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. He'd wrapped the concert hall — which sits under the blazing southern California sun — in 22 million lb. of high-polished steel. This created an unbearable glare for passing motorists, and sidewalk hot spots that in one place reached 60Â° C, according to an L.A. County report. An investigation was sparked by neighbouring residents who complained their condos were made uncomfortably warm by reflected sun. Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland has had to install large, rectangular window boxes to ensure students don't walk beneath the roof of its Gehry-designed building. In winter, snow and ice cascade down its sloping, stainless steel roof, bombarding the sidewalk below.