It Doesn't Get Much Better Than This

Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

In the often cloistered world of architecture, two gargantuan events momentarily held the public's attention in 1997: the long-anticipated opening of Los Angeles' $1-billion Getty Center and the stunning success of Frank O. Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. And both grew out of Los Angeles' fertile architectural culture, the Getty because it is here, the Guggenheim because a Los Angeles architect designed it.

As a national phenomenon, the Getty's public opening Tuesday marked a major shift westward in the country's cultural landscape. As architecture, its scale and ambition may seem overwhelming, but Richard Meier, the Getty's architect, handled a daunting task admirably. Debates will continue into the next millennium over the strategies that formed the center, yet there is little doubt that the museum--the heart of the place--is both a remarkable space to view art and a wonderfully composed urban event. The center is also, for Meier, the culmination of a lifelong effort to hone his version of Modernism to perfection. It is his greatest civic work and an important moment in the city's history.

As for the Guggenheim? It might not be an overstatement to say that Gehry's design marks a turning point in both the career of one of the world's great living architects and in the rich history of 20th century architecture. At Bilbao, which opened in October, Gehry's exuberant, explosive forms wonderfully juggle movement and stillness, great art and everyday life, intimate spaces and an industrial scale.

Looking back, many of Gehry's earlier works seem to anticipate this moment: a giant, undulating gallery evokes Gehry's long-standing, idiosyncratic love of fish forms. The museum's curvaceous atrium echoes an earlier design for a Prague office building. But Bilbao stands apart. Gehry's achievement is in creating a language for a new culture, one that convincingly elevates banal everyday objects--and hence everyday life--to become great art. This is a mature work by a master. It defines the closing of our century as much as the utopian works of the early Modernists defined its beginnings.

And now it seems Gehry may finally bring that mature genius home to roost. After years of delays, controversy, bad planning and cost overruns--Gehry's Disney Concert Hall seems to be back on track once and for all. The long-troubled concert hall project got sudden support from a group of business leaders, politicians and cultural figures.

Museum of Contemporary Art Director Richard Koshalek presented a lavish show of concert hall models at the downtown art institution in 1996 that did much to boost the fund-raising effort. Tireless billionaire businessman-developer Eli Broad spearheaded a fund-raising drive that has raised $168 million in just a year, 80% of the money needed to complete the hall. And this month, Disney Chief Executive Officer Michael Eisner announced the latest of the donations, a $25-million "challenge gift" from Disney that essentially guarantees that construction will start up again, as is now planned, in the summer.

The journey wasn't smooth. Over the summer, Gehry and Broad argued over whether the architect should be allowed to complete the hall's still-unfinished working drawings or whether they should be turned over to another firm. Gehry, it was decided, will complete the drawings. After all, the results are what matters, right?

A few blocks away, in another monumental achievement, Spanish architect Jose Rafael Moneo unveiled his design for the new seat of the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, at a ground blessing ceremony in September at the cathedral's downtown site. This project too had its share of controversy: More than a year ago, church leaders tried to have the old landmark St. Vibiana Cathedral demolished early one morning, without permits, to make room for a new scheme. In the end, a new site was chosen along downtown's Grand Avenue, overlooking the Hollywood Freeway.

A blessing in disguise? The placement has allowed Moneo to connect the church to what many hope will one day become the city's major "cultural corridor" connecting the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Colburn School of Performing Arts, Disney Concert Hall, the Music Center and Moneo's cathedral. And the new site's scale--5.8 acres--has allowed Moneo to create an introverted courtyard scheme whose cool, balanced forms mask a radical redesign of traditional cathedral plans. Moneo is a profound thinker. His design is the real thing, not slick image. (In fact, it is hard to think of another city that can boast such a convergence of architectural talent right now.)

Meanwhile, on the other coast, New York's Museum of Modern Art finally ended a yearlong hunt for a suitable design for a proposed expansion that will double the size of the legendary museum's galleries. The winner was a shocker: Yoshio Tanaguchi, a 61-year-old Tokyo-based Modernist who has never built outside of his native Japan. MOMA had been determined to find a fresh face: It rejected veterans like Gehry, Meier, Renzo Piano and Norman Foster early on because it wanted to uncover a younger generation of architects. Then the museum rejected rising stars like Rem Koolhaas, 53, because his design was too threatening. What it chose, in the end, was above all safe. Arduous search, no risks, solid design.

Two smaller projects also bear note: L.A.'s Frederick Fisher's recently completed design for New York's P.S. 1 in Queens brilliantly transforms a former public school into a 125,000-square-foot contemporary art space by preserving the Romanesque Revival building's raw, labyrinthine interior and adding a tough exterior courtyard composed of tall concrete walls and an imposing entry stair. And in Seattle, Steven Holl's small, jewel-like Chapel of St. Ignatius, set on a formerly dreary lot on the Seattle University campus, is a beautiful balance of urban and spiritual themes. Go see them.

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