The Undisputed Arrival of Frank Gehry : The Experience of Architecture as Art

Being offered at the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown are some choice architectural tidbits artfully presented and a heaping portion of fish shticks.

The fare is the long-awaited retrospective of Los Angeles-based Frank Gehry, whose guileless exploration of symbols, shapes and materials in a range of diverse designs has blurred the traditional lines between art, architecture and kitsch.

Though he is yet to design a major building, Gehry’s singular efforts defying easy categorization (post-modern? punk? petulance?) and his penchant for publicity have made him one of the world’s more prominent and honored architects.

And just as many of his didactic buildings have challenged the way we experience architecture in the shifting setting of the city, Gehry in the limited confines of MOCA has designed an installation that expands our experience of an architecture exhibit.

It is what one would expect from a show mounted by Gehry, especially in a museum he had yearned to design but did not. (That commission went to Japan’s Arata Isozaki, while Gehry got to do the Temporary Contemporary on a much more modest budget.) Assisting in mounting the Gehry show was MOCA architectural curator Elizabeth Smith.


In addition to the usual montage of models, drawings and photographs, featured in the exhibit are four striking constructions that present a sort of architectural language with which Gehry designs. They include a towering ziggurat of dark-stained Finnish plywood, a pair of brightly polished copper and gray lead-coated copper clad rooms, a house fashioned out of honeycombed cardboard, and a structure in the form of a fish.

The fish, replete with sheet-lead scales, dominates the first gallery and invites you to experience the structure. Inside, giving off a weak light, is a translucent lamp sculpted by Gehry in the form of a fish. What this apparent fish fetish has to do with architecture is explained on a panel on a nearby wall that describes a proposed office and apartment complex that Gehry has designed for a site in Dallas.

“The interesting thing about all the fish studies for me has been the ability to capture movement in a built form,” states Gehry. “The movement of the scales of a fish is something I’m trying to transmit into architecture,” he says, noting in particular that the office building for the ambitious Turtle Creek Dallas project comes out of the fish form.

You have to look very hard at the model to see the form and the connection, and harder still to accept it as a major design determinant, or even as a whimsical metaphor, particularly from someone like Gehry, who in his early years so valiantly confronted and incorporated the issues of context, materials and shape.

The fish form is very much evident in the scheme Gehry designed for a waterfront restaurant in Kobe, Japan, and that is presented in Gallery B in an exquisite model, excellent photographs and weak drawings. But in the design, the towering copper-clad fish sculpture of chain-link mesh is simply and, to be sure, effectively used as an advertisement, not as a form giver in the rich Los Angeles tradition of programmatic architecture.

As for the squiggly and sketchy ink and pencil drawings, in addition to being, frankly, not very good, their selection also indicates Gehry’s preoccupation with form, that is, how the structures look as volumes playing against each other or by themselves.

Missing are floor and space studies, or perspectives examining circulation patterns and how the structures actually might work. While architecture is usually identified by the way space is manipulated, it is what happens in that space that really defines architecture.

An example, displayed in the South Gallery, is the Norton House, which Gehry describes as his “pride and joy.” Here again, the emphasis is on the project’s sculptural integrity, with the only hint of how the occupants might experience it a photograph taken from the living room looking out toward the beach. The view is not of the beach, but of the rear of a playful tower Gehry had erected as a gesture to the owner, who once was a lifeguard.

Also in the South Gallery is the plywood ziggurat and copper-clad rooms, the play and contrast of which I think dramatically suggest the sculptural effect Gehry is striving for, particularly in his later, more sophisticated and less financially constrained projects. These include the Winton guest house in Wayzata, Minn., and a house for a sprawling site in Brentwood, both of which are displayed.

There is no mention or hint of fish or whims in Gehry’s comments concerning the Brentwood project or, for that matter, his design of a laser laboratory for the University of Iowa, even though it is located on the Iowa River; for a speculative office complex focused on water gardens adjacent to the Santa Monica airport, or for a residence for the Yale Psychiatric Institute in New Haven to house 60 adolescent schizophrenics. It seems Gehry, when not playing the role of architecture’s aging enfant terrible or pretending to be a carefree artist, can be almost commercial.

Also revealing of a more sober Gehry are the displays of his design for the Loyola Law School and, with artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Camp Good Times. Gehry seems to have viewed both projects as a response to the people and places involved, rather than as a puzzle to be cleverly manipulated into a statement about art and architecture. It is no coincidence that these are his best works to date.

Displayed in the cardboard house and hung from the wall of a passageway leading from the South Gallery to Gallery D is a collection of Gehry’s cardboard furniture. They look raw, cheap and awkward, something for the kids to play with and on, but not too near the fireplace.

Though the cardboard seems like fun, and the snakes and fish fashioned out of Colorcore displayed in Gallery D are cute, it seems to me to be not art or architecture but, respectively, low-grade and high-style kitsch. They are also not a particularly inspiring or representative display with which to end the exhibit. You might want to return to the first gallery, take another look and leave from there.

While Gehry’s investigations of forms and materials have been mixed, weakened, I feel, by his shticks, they have expanded the experience of architecture as an art. His sculptural essays cannot be compared to, say, Labrouste’s building of a lightweight cast-and-wrought-iron infrastructure over the reading room of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, or Brunelleschi’s dome over Santa Maria dei Fiore in Florence. But, as demonstrated by this exhibit, it is significant, if only for its promise and the inspiration of future generations of architects.