Voice of hope for N.Y. project

Times Staff Writer

Following Monday's announcement that the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation will withdraw plans for a major new Manhattan development due to the rocky state of the U.S. economy, the development's architect, Frank Gehry, says he's not writing off the project just yet.

"They didn't call me to tell me; I was surprised by the paper myself," Gehry said in a telephone interview Tuesday, referring to that morning's news reports that the Guggenheim Foundation's proposal for the $950-million project, which called for a 40- to 50-story structure on three piers overlooking the East River in lower Manhattan, would be scrapped. "Tom [Krens, the Guggenheim Foundation's director] talked to me last week and said they were going to fight on, they weren't going to give up. So, until he calls me, that's where it stands."

Guggenheim Foundation officials were unavailable for comment Tuesday. In a prepared statement Monday, the foundation said it had agreed with the city of New York and the Economic Development Corp. to withdraw the ambitious proposal. Unveiled in April 2000, the plan consisted of a 572,000-square-foot building that would stand almost 400 feet high, augmented with 279,000 square feet of public park and recreational areas. The plan had attracted a commitment of more than 200 works of art from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, as well as the participation of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, a Guggenheim partner museum.

"Given the current situation, the Guggenheim project has to be rethought, perhaps on a more modest level, and certainly in the context of the city's master plan for the development of lower Manhattan," Krens said in the statement.

Foundation President Peter B. Lewis said in the same statement: "The proposal to construct a grand cultural facility on the East River was an inspiring and magnificent concept, and one which could have a profound impact on the economic and cultural life of the area.... I remain personally committed to supporting an extraordinary architectural and cultural project for lower Manhattan.... I am looking forward to seeing this project, on another scale and perhaps at another place, realized in the years to come."

Gehry, who also designed the undulating, metal-skinned Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, said plans for the Manhattan development were never finalized. "It was done as a sketch, so it wasn't a final design; a lot of people took it as a final design," he said. "It was done in a couple weeks. We did a bunch of models to make it look real, because we had to present it publicly. That's always a danger for an architect, because people take that literally -- they say: 'It looks like Bilbao,' that kind of thing. But it was never done, the program was never settled."

Gehry added with a laugh that he never counts on seeing preliminary plans for any of his buildings realized. But he believes that the Guggenheim's current financial troubles -- which have resulted in massive staff and budget cuts as well as the temporary closure of the 15-month-old Guggenheim Las Vegas beginning Sunday -- are merely a sign of the times, and that they could be resolved without permanently abandoning the Manhattan plan.

"The [Guggenheim Foundation is ] doing stuff in Taiwan and Rio de Janeiro," Gehry said. "And Tom [Krens] is a resilient guy. He's brilliant, he's one in a million. He pulled off Bilbao, so who knows?

"I think if you talk to any museum right now, they're all having trouble with their funders -- look at LACMA," Gehry continued, referring to an announcement this month by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that it would put on hold plans for a new building by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, estimated to cost $200 million to $300 million, due to fund-raising difficulties. "I think it's the nature of the world right now."

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