Review

'Frank Gehry' at LACMA is well framed but still needs build-out

Christopher Hawthorne
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Architecture Critic

Has Stephanie Barron pulled off a curatorial miracle? Not quite.

In reshaping the Pompidou Center's major Frank Gehry retrospective for a run at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she is senior curator, Barron hasn't managed to magically solve all the show's problems.

Her version of the exhibition, like the one that appeared in Paris last year, barely scratches the surface of Gehry's unorthodox working method, which has evolved over the years to combine his intuitive design technique with an increasingly sophisticated use of digital technology. 

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It continues to point up a problem with most museum tributes to major architects, namely that they are far too close, and too deferential, to their subjects. (There are, of course, pragmatic reasons for that closeness, including access to the models and drawings that are the basic stuff of architecture shows.) And there's very little information about Gehry's shifting cast of collaborators over the years — which now includes a female design partner, Meaghan Lloyd, and one of the architect's sons, Sam — and how they have shaped the firm's output.

At the same time, the exhibition, which has the simple title "Frank Gehry" and will run through March 20 in LACMA's Resnick Pavilion, has shed a good deal of the starched, carefully sealed conservatism that held it in check in Paris.

It gains new energy from Barron's long friendship and collaborative history with the architect, who has designed the installations for several of her shows, including recent ones on Ken Price and Alexander Calder. (If you're going to stay close to the subject of your exhibition, this one implicitly argues, at least exploit that closeness to full advantage.) The LACMA version also grounds Gehry and his work more securely in Los Angeles, the architect's adopted hometown and in complex ways his muse for more than half a century.

The result is a view of Gehry that is deeply informed if always admiring — and one that is given plenty of room to unfurl, with space at the close of the show for a number of the oversized models that he and his design partners rely on, a major omission in Paris.

Barron has kept the basic structure of the original exhibition, dividing Gehry's architectural output into eight categories: six of them chronological, moving from the 1960s to the present day, along with sections on technology and urbanism.

Around that core Barron has made two central changes. She's made the design of the show (in close collaboration with Gehry's office) refreshingly less formal and constrained, removing the glass tops from many of the models, adding space around them and installing a series of scrims emblazoned with black-and-white photographs of the interior of the Gehry Partners office over the years.

LACMA and Barron have also added an entire room at the end of the show dedicated to Gehry's current work; it's watched over by another huge photograph of the studio, this one in color.

Around the corner from there, near the little gift shop organized just for the show, there's a slide show of Gehry's work for L.A. museums. It includes the exhibitions he's designed for LACMA as well as the renovation of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, a project that even some of his local fans don't know he oversaw.

The loose but canny charisma of the LACMA exhibition is a reflection of the degree to which Barron understands what makes Gehry's best buildings work. Like those buildings, the show pays more careful attention to scale, proportion, light and basic choreography — the movement of bodies through the gallery — than you might notice at first.

If it also fails to confront with any force the weaknesses of the Gehry projects that have slid off track — the Experience Music Project in Seattle, Stata Center at MIT and the IAC building in Manhattan are among the most flawed — it joins not just previous Gehry retrospectives in that reluctance but also Paul Goldberger's new biography of the architect.

The show, finally, is less doggedly retrospective in its gaze than it was in Paris. The final room includes 13 projects in the design phase — and may expand over the course of the show's run to make room for information on Gehry's new role helping to plan a reimagined Los Angeles River.

At 86, the architect has more work than ever. And unlike the last really busy period at Gehry Partners, right before the 2008 economic bust, this time around a significant proportion is local.

The fullness of this final section takes a question hinted at in Paris and expands it to giant, nearly unmissable scale: Is there such a thing as late Gehry style? Is there an approach or a gestural language emerging in these new projects?

To a degree the answer is yes. The red metallic pitched roofs that show up more than once here suggest a renewed openness to certain traditional and vernacular forms — a return to architecture's version of figuration after a long period in Gehry's career, beginning in the late 1980s with the Vitra Museum, an unbuilt house for Peter Lewis and other projects, marked by a pursuit of abstract forms.

There is a noticeable kind of compactness and even a new attention to architectural posture. The work is far from minimal or strait-laced, but it doesn't sprawl and slouch quite the way it once did.

And there are at least faint signs of environmental conscience to go with the social and political ones Gehry has always claimed to be driven by (on some occasions more persuasively than others).

On the roof of one of the new residential projects, a house in Santa Monica, you can make out a row of solar panels, which in Gehry's earlier work were as conspicuous as unicorns. It is perhaps no coincidence that the design team on the house includes Sam Gehry, who was born in 1979.

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Frank Gehry agreed to make over the L.A. River -- with one big condition

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