Angrily raising his middle figure in response to a reporter who dared ask if his buildings were merely “emblematic”, the starchitect threw a hissy fit: “Let me tell you one thing. In this world we are living in, 98 per cent of everything that is built and designed today is pure shit. There’s no sense of design, no respect for humanity or for anything else. They are damn buildings and that’s it.” Of course, Frank Gehry put his work in the other 2 per cent.
Perhaps he was still smarting over the avalanche of stinging criticism directed at his proposed design for a memorial to President Dwight Eisenhower on the National Mall in Washington, DC. With its eight-story pillars, and massive billboard-like mesh aluminium screens dwarfing a small statue of Ike as a boy, Gehry’s confusing scheme might well qualify for the most unsuitable of its type in modern memory. Talk about “no sense of design, no respect for humanity”. But this is Gehry’s shtick. He once said: “There are sorts of rules about architectural expression which have to fit into a certain channel. Screw that.” Indeed.
With his modernist plan, Gehry, the pugnacious and perennial bad boy (he’s now 85), has once again lifted his middle finger. But now it’s to the Mall’s classically inspired memorials to other US presidents — Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln — and to the nearby great civic monuments of the National Archives and the National Gallery of Art, both designed by John Russell Pope, America’s Edwin Lutyens.
The National Gallery was conceived and financed by Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury for three presidents. Gehry wouldn’t have made much hay with someone like him, a self-confident, discerning, and hard-nosed patron.
Rather, Gehry’s easiest prey are insecure institutional and government clients who, because they fear seeming old fashioned and unhip, don’t mind spending other people’s money on his idiosyncratic signature structures. The costs of these go through the roof (Gehry’s often leak) and they often clash with their neighbours.
The gullible bureaucrats responsible for hiring Gehry for the Eisenhower Memorial put the American taxpayer into the hands of a fashionable architect whose works, quite frankly, are already starting to look clichéd and dated. Fashion eats its own, but the classic style is always just that: classic.
Just compare Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum to the National Gallery of Art, a building whose design expresses the traditional functions of a museum: safeguarding and displaying art. A 20th-century structure incorporating millennia of tradition, it is large, but orderly, reticent and well-mannered. Gehry’s structure, by comparison, is a strutting, fussing cacophony of twisted asymmetrical aluminum that is all about, well, Frank Gehry.
It’s already safe to say that a century hence, Frank Gehry’s buildings will be as out of date as a Peter Max poster, while Pope’s National Gallery of Art, like all great architecture, will still rise above the fashion of its time.