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Ewan Branda

September 13, 2015-March 20, 2016
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Frank Gehry is architecture’s most successful outsider. Despite being portrayed as the leader of the so-called L.A. School of the 1970s and 1980s, Gehry distanced himself from that community, declaring instead a preference for the company of artists. Like all solitary travelers, his origins were mysterious. His work seemed to be without precedent, and from the moment his early houses made their appearance on the international stage, no other architect has provoked so much speculation on the sources of architectural ideas.1 That Gehry origin stories invariably look for these sources outside the architectural discipline—whether in the Los Angeles art scene, the software tools of the aerospace industry, or the folds of Renaissance and Baroque drapery—can be explained partially by the time and place in which his work first appeared. Southern California in the 1960s and 1970s was a place shaped by developer expediency, where technological and cultural innovation was the exclusive domain of aerospace, art, and pop culture. It offered redemption from the business-as-usual of architecture’s disciplinary establishment: when Reyner Banham wanted to escape what he saw as architecture’s frustrating disciplinary resistance to advanced technology in the late 1960s, he packed up and moved to Los Angeles. Thus, explanations of Gehry’s prodigious inventiveness generally look outside architecture proper, acknowledging his shadowy past as a mainstream developer architect only as a normative baseline against which to measure the breakthrough work.2

The recent retrospective exhibition of Gehry’s work at the Centre Pompidou and Los Angeles County Museum of Art lays the groundwork for a critique of this tendency. The artists are gone, the computer plays a minor role, and the untidy loose ends of the architect’s inconvenient early practice have been cleaned up. Indeed, the very question of origins has been set aside. Curators Frédéric Migayrou and Aurélien Lemonier have gathered more than 200 original drawings and sixty-five original models, which they straightforwardly present with little interpretive or contextual apparatus beyond short wall texts and a series of video interviews with the architect and his clients. The resulting picture portrays a kind of contemporary Palladio, an intuitive designer with immense, innate talent supported by loyal, enlightened patrons. Given that Gehry remains by any account the most important architect of our time, such a direct architectural treatment is less common than one would think. In contrast to the 1986 exhibition at the Walker Art Center, which gave equal weight to his fish sculptures and buildings, or the 2001 exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York, which presented the totality of his output—from buildings to furniture—in a didactic installation designed by the architect himself, or even the 2003 Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition, which emphasized process through the trope of the design studio, the present exhibition places the building as such at the center of Gehry’s practice, with no fish or furniture in sight. Rather than breaking new curatorial ground in rethinking the ontology of the architectural work, the models and drawings are presented in a straightforward, chronological narrative as objets-témoins offering evidence of Gehry’s considerable formal and technical accomplishments.3

Visitors encounter the work through seven loosely delineated clusters corresponding to roughly decade-long periods of formal development, starting with the experiments conducted largely through the early houses (“Elementarization-Segmentation 1965–80” and “Composition-Assemblage 1980–90”), moving to the breakthrough period that produced Vitra, the Lewis Residence, and Bilbao (“Fusion-Interaction 1990–2000”), toward more recent projects such as DZ Bank and Louis Vuitton (“Continuity-Flux 2000–10” and “Singularity-Unity 2000–15”), before arriving at a survey of the projects currently under way in the office (“Gehry Partners: In the Studio Now”). In describing the architect’s formal trajectory, these categories trace an allegory of contemporary architectural formalism as it evolved from the awkward lurches, complexities, and contradictions of architectural postmodernism and deconstructivism into the smooth forms of the digital turn. Gehry’s career is thus presented as coextensive with the evolution of the discipline itself.

This formalist, periodizing approach raises questions inherent in all projects of categorization: Should a work fit into one or another category? Is there continuity or rupture between categories? Rather than impose a strict taxonomy, the curators, in a manner reminiscent of René d’Harnoncourt’s experiments at MoMA, take advantage of the single-room exhibition halls of both the Pompidou and the Resnick Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) to deploy an informal, picturesque layout that straddles and transgresses categories by capturing foreground and background objects within a single glance. Visitors are thereby encouraged to identify on their own the formal correspondences (what d’Harnoncourt called “affinities”) among projects.4

If this fuzzy logic vividly portrays the topography of work as a whole, it does so at the expense of a precise historical understanding of individual projects. The Lewis Residence, for example, is placed somewhat loosely within a cluster of antecedent and descendant projects, leaving the viewer with unanswered questions about its specific importance in the formal development of Gehry’s work or its place in the canon of computational design. Did it come before or after Bilbao, or did those projects overlap? At what point during its development was CATIA introduced? At several points the historical thread frays completely for no obvious reason. An early competition model for the Disney Concert Hall suddenly appears alongside the final project model from a decade later, and while the differences between the schemes are striking indeed, one wonders why this rich investigation of formal continuities within a given period is so abruptly interrupted. Even more perplexing is the sudden appearance late in the chronology of Gehry’s work for Victor Gruen (1960) and Robert Auzelle (1961). It takes an attentive reader of dates to sort it all out, and one can only speculate on how different our understanding of Gehry’s trajectory would be if these earlier projects had been offered at the beginning of the story.

Visiting the exhibition chronologically, we witness the development of Gehry’s recognizable sketching style. The curators juxtapose arrays of carefully mounted and framed study sketches with large models of the same projects, establishing an almost onomatopoeic relationship between graphic and plastic development in which designs appear to leap from sketch to model without intervening processes. By midway through the exhibition, these initial gestural sketches have solidified into an iconic brand, an immediately recognizable style at once open-ended and precise. In many respects, this emphasis on sketch and model is reasonable, since one of Gehry’s ongoing contributions has been to depose conventional architectural drawing from its central role as the generator of the architectural project. Even the more ambitious drawings such as the crudely drawn but geometrically complex elevations of the Wagner Residence (1978) and the enigmatic pencil on tracing paper plan study for the Schnabel Residence (1986) confirm that drawing played an intermediary or verifying role rather than a directly generative one—a role later filled by the computer. The visitor is nevertheless left wondering how such radically diverse formal proposals could have emerged from such a unified initial gestural language, leaving one to attribute this to the inherent fecundity of the sketch or to the inadequacy of the sketch-model juxtaposition as a theoretical explanation.

Despite these occasional bumps in the road, the visitor arriving at the second to last cluster of projects (“Singularity-Unity 2000–15”) discovers some of the firm’s strongest and most inventive work, including the volcanic encrustations of the National Art Museum of Andorra, and the densely articulated big box of the National Art Museum of China. In the project for the vast, warehouse-like offices for Facebook, Gehry revisits some of the familiar experimental features that marked his early work: an impertinent use of materials, a diagrammatic approach to organization, and a celebration of the indigenous light-industrial architecture of Southern California. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the quality of the work one sees when finally arriving at the final period, “Gehry Partners: In the Studio Now.” While the tiny project for the Boulez Concert Hall remains an exquisite exception, the spec houses, urban studies, and commercial projects are notably unremarkable. In particular, the house for the artist John Baldessari should have been a triumphant return to the art world from where the architect started but instead seems a somewhat tired cliché. At the root of the problem might well be the fact that much of the work in this last room was introduced specifically for the LACMA show and was not necessarily subject to the same curatorial selectivity as the work originally displayed at the Pompidou. As is the case with most Gehry exhibitions, the firm itself had an important role, carrying out the specifics of the exhibition design within the curators’ framework.

More striking than these current projects is Fredrik Nilsen’s spectacular mural photograph of Gehry’s studio looming above them. As impressive as this image is, the anonymous personnel shown buzzing around the models underscore the risks of “starchitecture” hagiography. Of course, there are other instances of this in the show, notably the insistence on the hand-drawn gestural sketch, whose translation into building is carried out by an unnamed work force depicted in large, grainy black-and-white photographs hanging throughout the exhibition. Throughout the exhibition, we see no names other than Gehry’s; all of the wall quotations are his; apart from clients and interviewers, all of the voices in the videos are his. The problem is not author worship per se (a critique that has become a platitude in itself) but rather that such deference gives priority to Gehry the author over Gehry the organizer. The accomplishments of the latter are easy enough to see: wandering through this exhibition, one marvels at his ability to bring together clients and collaborators willing to render their individual authorship and considerable talents subservient to both a greater whole (the project, technology, new processes) and a singular authorial figure (Gehry himself). It thus makes perfect sense that when one closely examines Nilsen’s wonderful photograph, one starts to suspect that it shows models being prepared for this very exhibition. Such an acute awareness of the historical (and monetary) value of the archive is not unique to Gehry’s office, but it takes on a somewhat tragic dimension when one considers the future of a firm so singularly defined in the figure of an author who is surely close to retirement. One wonders, as a colleague and I did, if we are witnessing the last exhibition of its kind on any architect.

It is only in returning to the start of the exhibition, with its abbreviated treatment of Gehry’s early days, that one most clearly sees the effects of the oversimplifications inherent in such authorial consolidation. By opening the narrative with a small number of canonical projects and for the most part ignoring almost all of the architect’s more anonymous early work, the exhibition sidesteps the more complex problems of origins in favor of the simpler explanation of the breakthrough project. Early on, Gehry declared the importance of anonymous commissions such as the offices and plant for the Faith Plating Company (1964), which he referred to as “back-up projects” used as “proving grounds for new ideas.”5 In this first room, the Danziger Studio (prefigured in the project for the Faith Plating Company), the O’Neill Hay Barn, Mid-Atlantic Toyota, and Gehry Residence are evidence of an exploration so broad with sources so diverse that, despite the efforts of the curators to weave a more singular conceptual thread, one is left convinced only of the fertility of Gehry’s imagination and the multiplicity of the work, without any specific insight into its contradictions and inconsistencies.

Nowhere do these contradictions come into sharper focus than in the array of Gehry’s own photographs from the early 1970s of industrial buildings around Los Angeles. “Economically and efficiently built,” the wall text explains, “these buildings are entirely ordinary and pragmatic, without any expression or emotion.” Yet at precisely the same moment when Gehry was snapping these images of muscular steel conveyors, metal silos, and aging factories, the photographer Lewis Baltz published an article reporting on a new, quasi-invisible industrial architecture making its appearance in the suburbs of Southern California, built by companies “whose names obscure the nature of their activities and the identity of their owners” and “are often drawn from the terminology of space exploration, cybernetics, plastics, electronics, and similar new technologies.”6 The wall text accompanying Gehry’s own snapshots might just as easily apply to Baltz’s work, just as Baltz’s description might with minor adjustments apply to Gehry’s photos.

The new topographics of the Southern California suburbs was the natural habitat of Gehry’s early career, and its built environment is too easily dismissed as the architecture of the day job. To recognize this would take away nothing from his creative accomplishment. Gehry’s approach has always been marked by a voracious appetite for forms drawn from a wide range of sources, from the Light and Space artists to the picturesque alleyways of Venice, California. The new corporate and industrial architecture of the region should be no exception. In a particularly painful interview shown on one of the exhibition’s video monitors, Disney’s Michael Eisner attributes the sweeping glu-lam interior of Gehry’s Anaheim Ice to the architect’s memories of childhood experiences in northern ice rinks: Occam’s razor would suggest searching closer to home. The 1970s was a period of great formal and material inventiveness in both avant-garde and corporate architecture in Los Angeles, yet one of the more enduring Gehry origin stories portrays him as distanced from the architectural community and more interested in his relationships with artists. It is easy to overstate this distancing. As the curators acknowledge in their catalog essay, Gehry’s work with the likes of John Portman, that “paradoxical practitioner of corporate architecture,” placed him squarely at the center of this creative flowering in L.A. architectural culture.7 One of the most pronounced features of this culture is the way in which it consistently blurred the boundaries between the corporate and the avant-garde. In a 1979 lecture, Gehry described the mirrored box of the administration wing of his project for the Cabrillo Aquarium as a “little Cesar Pelli building.”8 Whether the reference to this mainstream corporate architect was meant as tribute or criticism is unclear. It was probably both. Gehry’s ambiguous status, particularly within the academy, as an experimental architect too successful to be taken seriously yet too interesting to be dismissed entirely would benefit from a continued study of origins, albeit a more nuanced one. The fact remains that, if you look closely at the famous 1968 photograph, “Family Portrait,” showing Gehry, Bengston, Ruscha, Chicago, Irwin, and other L.A. artists on the steps at LACMA, you can find Pelli himself in the lower right corner.9 Installing this exhibition at that same museum forty years later was an opportunity to explore such contradictions a little further.

How to Cite this Article: Branda, Ewan. “Gehry,” review of Frank Gehry, organized by the Centre Pompidou. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, September 13, 2015 – March 20, 2016. JAE Online. May 4, 2016. https://jaeonline.org/issue-article/gehry/.


[1] As the Los Angeles Times architecture critic John Dreyfuss put it at the time, “It is important to see all of Gehry’s work from a perspective of blissful ignorance, to observe his structures from the childlike viewpoint of one who has no preconceptions about what architecture must be.” John Dreyfuss, “The Courage of His Conceptions—Gehry: The Architect as Artist,” Los Angeles Times (November 7, 1979).
[2] Notable exceptions to this extradisciplinary approach are Jeffrey Kipnis’s assessment of the Lewis Residence and, more recently, Greg Lynn’s analysis in which digital processes are seen as latent in the formal experiments of Gehry’s pre-CATIA work. See Jeffrey Kipnis, A Constructive Madness (film, 2004); Greg Lynn, Archaeology of the Digital (Montreal: Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2013).
[3] The Architecture of Frank Gehry (Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1986); Frank Gehry, Architect (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2001); Frank O. Gehry: Work in Progress (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2003). This straightforward treatment is in contrast to a curatorial trend over the past decade in which the archive is treated as material to be liberally remixed and interpreted. Sylvia Lavin discusses this phenomenon in “Showing Work,” Log 20 (Fall 2010).
[4] d’Harnoncourt most fully realized this strategy in the 1946 exhibition, Arts of the South Seas, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
[5] Peter Arnell and Ted Bickford, Frank Gehry, Buildings and Projects (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1985), 24.
[6] Lewis Baltz, “Notes on Recent Industrial Developments in Southern California,” Image 17, no. 2 (June 1974). Reprinted in Lewis Baltz, Texts (Göttingen: Steidl, 2012), 17. Baltz’s own photographs were published as The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California (1974).
[7] Frédéric Migayrou, “The Organon of Frank Gehry,” in Frank Gehry, ed. Aurélien Lemonier and Frédéric Migayrou (Munich: Prestel, 2015), 18.
[8] Frank O. Gehry, lecture delivered at SCI-Arc, November 7, 1979; http://sma.sciarc.edu/video/frank-gehry-part-one/.
[9] I thank the historian Daniel Paul for pointing this out to me.