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Frank Gehry's Urban Renewal

Throughout "Frank Gehry" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the repeated and insistent message is that his work "distinguished him as an urbanist," as if trying so hard to convince us that it's true. The curator doth protest too much.

By Julie D. Taylor, Hon. AIA/LA
October 1, 2015

Even though his first name is not exotic, AIA National Gold Medalist Frank O. Gehry, FAIA, has achieved the one-name status of Rem, Zaha, and Bjarke. With a huge exhibition opening in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles and recently introduced plans for the LA River and Watts, he is, at the moment, more ubiquitous than ever. The new “Frank Gehry” exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (on view through March 20, 2016) would also have you believe he embodies another U-word – urbanist.


When viewing an exhibition, I’m compelled to regard the work, the installation, and the curatorial conceit equally to judge its successes. The work at LACMA is incredible, the installation is okay, and the conceit is misguided.


I really like most of Gehry’s work. And for the ones I don’t like (see: Experience Music Project), I’m not alone in my opinion. The exhibition (adapted from Centre Pompidou’s) reads as a “greatest hits,” starting with his own revolutionary house, through Bilbao, and onto Facebook. Consisting of presentation models, scribble drawings, and still photos looped on monitors, the show presents work from Point A to Point Z with little in between. This way of showing architecture to a general audience that is awed by dollhouse models, amused by scribbles, and comforted by photographs does not educate the public on what architects really go through to get to that end point. Without a hint of process, the show actually diminishes the accomplishment of getting such revolutionary work built.


Until seeing the notation of “(unbuilt)” on some labels, there’s little indication of what actually exists. Built work is shown through still photos on too few sporadically placed video monitors, not always near the models. Immediate connection is also thwarted by the monotonous pans of stills and the slow pace of the loop. Inexplicably, and confusingly, monitors also show models and photos of some projects that aren’t even in the exhibition. These “videos” don’t have the inclusive urgency and experiential strength of those shown to great effect at the Guggenheim Museum’s 2001 exhibition, which were actual videos lovingly scanning the actual buildings.


The work is exhibited chronologically under several poetic rubrics: De-composition/Segmentation, Composition/Assemblage, Interaction/Fusion, Conflict/Tension, Flux/Continuity, Unity/Singularity – as well as topics Technology and Urbanism. Exhibition texts exhort the idea of Gehry as urbanist (more on that, later). Even though the exhibit design is credited to Gehry Partners, Frank himself insisted on not being the designer. That’s pretty much the only time others are credited in the exhibition that portrays a staunch, insistent singularity. The legions it takes to produce architecture are nowhere acknowledged. A team is evident only in the office photos blown up and exhibited on scrims, placed chronologically with the work, from the late 1960s to what must be assumed to be the present day. The only one without a tag is in the final “In the Studio Now” gallery of projects currently in progress that are only shown in the LACMA exhibition. The mural is also distinguished as the only one in color and on the wall as a solid image, rather than on an impermanent scrim.


Labeling elsewhere is scant. Model materials range from oak tag and Elmer’s to felt and 3-D printed objects. But, I’d like to know what the actual materials are, and in whose collections reside the models and drawings. Plus, the still photos were probably taken by architectural photographers who aren’t credited. Most egregiously, however, is the absence of credit on plans and renderings from the Gruen Associates office. A beautiful rendering of Clifton Springs Country Club was done by the highly collectible illustrator Carlos Diniz.


For an architecture exhibition with a stress on urban planning, the organization is chaotic, with themes running into each other with no clear delineation. This arrangement actually disavows the artificially separated themes by melding them together.


As a budding art historian, I became disenchanted when I continued to see curatorial texts and labels presented with reckless disregard of what was actually on the walls next to them. Throughout “Frank Gehry,” the message is that his work “distinguished him as an urbanist.” This moniker is used repeatedly and insistently in exhibition texts (which differ somewhat from those presented in Paris) and press materials, as if trying so hard to convince us that it’s true. The curator doth protest too much.


I would not be this judgmental if I weren’t forced to review Gehry’s work in all scales as progenitors of “revolutionary” urbanism. Frank, himself, insisted in front of a gathering of reporters: “When doing a pishy little building, it seems out of context to talk about” the urban condition. Even a row of townhouses or a single home broken into various volumes is posited as urbanist, but creating a mini-city does not make an integrative urban statement.


The evidence of urbanism isn’t supported, particularly when, of the six urban planning projects shown, only two are built. The curators insist this has been an issue for Gehry since the 1960s, when he worked at Gruen Associates. A couple of early plans and renderings literally not showing his hand (but that of Diniz) are on view. Only one built project (my favorite – the Nationale-Nederlanden Building, or “Fred and Ginger,” in Prague) is shown in a site model that includes its urban context. Because a building is in a city doesn’t mean it contributes to the urbanism of the place. “Frank Gehry” is retro-revisionism for the guy who’s responsible for the Bilbao effect, even if unwittingly.


This statement in the exhibition text is true: “Gehry questions a building’s very means of expression, a process that has generated new design methods, technologies, and approaches to materials as he has sought to free architecture from its conventions.” But this statement smacks of backpedaled justification: His pursuit of an architecture in which the negative space among buildings intensifies the city’s energy found one of its most powerful expressions in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Walt Disney Concert Hall.” The concert hall is a great building, but it’s a building that demanded the sidewalk be reconfigured; it changed the urban context literally because it didn’t fit into it.


So, ultimately, what’s behind this Gehry re-branding? Is it to bolster the LA River project? Atone for too much “plopitecture”? Inject gritty realism to the man who has both Don Quixote and Alice in Wonderland on his bedside table? Burnish the reputation of the octogenarian architect?  


What’s wrong with merely beholding beautiful structures that have obviously captured the hearts and spirit of people throughout the globe? Why not present the work of someone whose wonderful drawings and evocative models are as enchanting as the resulting buildings? Text from the excellent 2001 Guggenheim exhibition noted his projects “involved a complete rethinking of the architectural box.” Why is Los Angeles, which Gehry acknowledges has more architectural freedom than other cities, readily cramming his work into an urbanist box? At the media preview, Frank said: “To transmit feeling through inert materials, that is the architect’s mandate.” And that, he does. And very well. And that should be enough for history.


West Coast correspondent for Julie D. Taylor, Hon. AIA/LA, is the principal of Taylor & Company, a public relations and marketing services firm for architects. She is the 2014-2016 Public Director on the AIA National Board of Directors.


Also by Taylor:


Delight & Design: "Provocations: The Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio"

Wonder and joy pervade the exhibition and enchant its viewers. Skip don't walk to experience it. - May 1, 2015


Drawing an Elegant Conclusion: Menil Drawing Institute by Johnston Marklee

Houston: In the somewhat arbitrary hierarchy of fine art media, where painting is king, drawing is often considered less valuable. The new MDI elevates the medium by providing distinguished, respectful home. - April 1, 2014


Monterey Design Conference: 1 Mile of Beach. 3 Days. 20 Speakers. 50 Hours. 100s of Conversations. 1,000s of Ideas

The Julia Morgan-designed Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, CA, will be abuzz at the biennial event September 27-29, 2013. - September 6, 2013


The Blob That Could Eat Los Angeles

The history of our ill-fated Los Angeles County Museum of Art is told in "The Presence of the Past: Peter Zumthor Reconsiders LACMA": I'm fan of Zumthor, but this building could be cool almost anywhere else. - August 8, 2013


Overdrive: L.A.'s Future is Present in its Past