A Capital Vision With Gehry's Clarity

Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

Now that the stunning response to Frank Gehry's design for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, has established that a single building can turn a fading industrial city into a mecca for the world's cultural elite, a host of art institutions seem determined to emulate Bilbao's success. Before Gehry's museum opened, nearly two years ago, few Americans could accurately pinpoint the city on a map. Today, it is at the center of everyone's cultural radar. And what better way to guarantee that kind of attention than to hire the architect responsible for it all?

So it was not a surprise when, in June, Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art named Gehry as the architect for a $40-million expansion and renovation of the museum's Beaux Arts building at the corner of New York Avenue and 17th Street Northwest, a short walk from the White House. The museum's board selected Gehry over two other respected architects--Berlin's Daniel Libeskind and Spain's Santiago Calatrava--after a yearlong competition. The choice will certainly give the museum the cachet with tourists that all such institutions now crave.

But what makes Gehry such a gifted architect is not his ability to create glamorous images for the covers of tourist brochures. His buildings are first-rate architecture because as their architectural forms have become increasingly euphoric and complex, his plans remain rooted in the practicalities of building. Gehry's best work is highly sensitive to its context; the relationship of its parts is expressed with crystalline clarity. The Corcoran scheme proves that Gehry, despite his new celebrity status, has lost none of his touch. The addition's exuberant forms will transform a staid, cluttered old building into a structure of genuine cultural importance. For Washington, a city of somber realities and political compromises, it will be a stirring tribute to higher cultural ideals.

In the current scheme, still in the early stages of design, the Corcoran's school of art and its administrative offices will be in the new addition, while the original 1897 Ernest Flagg Beaux Arts structure will be completely given over to the galleries. The children's center and restaurant will be tucked behind the existing parapet on the roof, surrounded by a large outdoor garden.

By moving the museum's offices out of the original structure, Gehry will give order to what is now a mix of offices, galleries and storage space. The design strengthens the Beaux Arts building's central axis, extending it from the entrance up the grand staircase and through the main rotunda before connecting it directly to the new wing at the back of the building. On either side of the main entry hall, Gehry plans to create twin three-story atriums, each surrounded by rows of symmetrical columns and balconies. The gesture will visually open up the space, creating much-needed breathing room around what is now a cramped, undistinguished entry. It will also give the building the feel of public grandeur that it so sorely lacks.

Gehry conceived the new addition as two interlocking towers, their billowing forms twisting up deliriously toward the roof. Seen from the street, the addition's rambunctious appearance--pierced by a series of long, sinewy windows--will be a powerful contrast to the hard, repetitive stone surface of the original building, as if all of the artistic ideals trapped beneath the somber stone have joyously spilled out into the open. It is hard to imagine a more perfect metaphor for creative freedom.

By segregating the functions of the school and museum, however, Gehry is also able to question basic assumptions about how we make and view art. Inside, the Beaux Arts galleries will remain straightforward--clean, rectangular rooms pierced by occasional skylights. But the school's drawing and sculpture studios will reflect the undulating surfaces of the new addition's exterior. That decision will ease the minds of those who still believe that art should only be viewed in white boxes. But it also suggests a subtle critique of old-fashioned distinctions between high and low art. If the strong axial order of the Beaux Arts plan represents the rigid hierarchies of 19th century art academies, the school's sculptural spaces suggest a more open spirit of creative experimentation.


Washington, of course, is not a city that traditionally has been open to the new. The only important civic building built there in the past decade is James Ingo Freed's Holocaust Museum. But while the path through that museum's interior is painfully evocative of Nazism's horrors, the building's exterior struggles to conform to the classical motifs of its neighbors. It has now been more than 20 years since the opening of the I.M. Pei-designed East Building of the National Gallery of Art, the last time a truly important modern building was built on the hallowed ground of the Washington Mall. It remains one of the city's most beloved buildings.

So it is a tribute to the seriousness with which the Corcoran board took to its task that both of the other finalists also produced credible designs. In Libeskind's proposal, the new addition resembles an enormous warped box, its two ends twisting up above the roof line of the existing building to offer views of the city. Calatrava's design, slightly more fussy, is marked by a skeleton-like steel-and-glass roof whose enormous brise soleil opens and closes like the wings of a giant insect. Both had the potential to evolve into strong projects.

But it is hard to imagine a better choice than Gehry for the capital of modern democracy. Gehry's architecture is rooted in egalitarian ideals. He has a distaste for established hierarchies, and in seeking to create a bond between the common man and a higher culture, he has developed an architectural language rooted in the complexities of everyday life. At its best, his architecture suggests a culture of inclusion, accessible to everybody. Think of Jimmy Stewart in any Frank Capra film and you get the point. If a building can have a heart, this one's heart is in the right place.

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