Tuesday, August 25, 2009

PPS vs. Frank Gehry

This evening at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the celebrated architect Frank Gehry talked about his life and works under the questioning of Thomas Pritzker.
Until nearly the end, it was entirely captivating. Gehry was funny, illuminating, vivid, unpretentious-seeming. Over the years I've highly valued chances to hear people at the absolute top of their fields, to compare the experiences of hearing them speak about what they do. Some of them are as good to listen to as they had been to admire from afar. Others (often actors, athletes, visual artists) have no way of conveying in conversation what makes them so impressive in their own metier. Gehry is in the "good talker" category. Then the questions from the audience began. The second or third was from a fairly insistent character whose premise was that great "iconic" buildings nonetheless fell short as fully attractive and effective "public places," where people were drawn to congregate and spend time. He said he was challenging Gehry to do even more to make his buildings attractive by this measure too. Gehry didn't like the question and said that the indictment didn't apply to his own buildings. He said that the facts would back him up -- and as the questioner repeated the challenge, Gehry said that he found the question "insulting." Fair enough. The guy did keep pushing. On the other hand, anyone who has ever appeared in public has encountered questions a hundred times as personally challenging as this. But the questioner asked one more time, and Gehry did something I found simply incredible and unforgettable. "You are a pompous man," he said -- and waved his hand in a dismissive gesture, much as Louis XIV might have used to wave away some offending underling. He was unmistakably shooing or waving the questioner away from the microphone, as an inferior -- again, in a gesture hardly ever seen in post-feudal times. I was sorry that I witnessed those thirty seconds. They are impossible to forget and entirely change my impression of the man. I was more amazed when part of the audience, maybe by reflex, applauded. When the video of this episode goes up on the Ideas Festival site, judge for yourself.
(From James Fallows blog for The Atlantic)

Gehry's famous quote "I do not do context" may cause many landscape architects and urban designers to cringe. Not me. I am glad he does not "do context" because he does not know how. Thats o.k.. He has trained and developed as an architect, and that should be his focus. As a landscape architect, I may have some thoughts and ideas concerning architecture, but I am not ready to design a building. I have no desire to and I might "wave my hand in a dismissive gesture" at anybody who would suggest it falls within my role as a landscape architect.
Now unless Gehry is taking on the site design and demanding his way, I say the blame for the disconnect between architecture and landscape falls on the shoulders of whomever hired him and city officials reviewing the site drawings.

The question asked of Gehry at this forum (by Fred Kent, President of Project For Public Spaces) was a perfectly valid question. It was simply asked of the wrong person.

What do you think?

1 comment:

zach said...

Kent argues that iconic buildings can’t economically support cities? Than what are we to make of Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao? It, in many ways, is the economic engine of that city.

As a student of architecture I hated Gehry. I despised how popular culture adopted him as the father of modern architecture. As I have gotten older, and especially as a practicing professional, I have come to very much respect his approach and position on the role of “design” in modern society.

I am a huge advocate for this celebration of “place” (and an avid reader of Kent’s publications). As someone who very much is interested in place-making, I see architecture as something that lives out of a respect for context – for scale, proportion, landscape, humanity, etc.; but to think this is the sole definition of architecture is presumptuous.

Gehry’s work is grounded in emotion, in instinct and reaction. It is rooted in a search for a marriage between art and science, and finds it purpose through a tireless pursuit of artistic integrity. If the purpose of architecture is to make people talk about architecture (buildings, cities, places, etc.)… one could argue that Gehry truly is the father of modern architecture.

Kent repeatedly proclaims how is if “fixing” iconic architecture all over the world; an argument I don’t know if I would agree with. More approachably I think, is that he is continuing the conversations about the importance of place, space, and the built environment with communities all over the world – conversations that (in many cases) were spawned by revolutionary designs, debates that were started by the works of Dan Kiley, Philip Johnson, Rem Koolhaas, and undoubtedly – Frank Gehry.

Making “places” is a collective effort, a point in time where “building” meets “people” in perfect concert with their everyday routine. They define how the place looks, smells, feels, sounds. While Gehry’s buildings may not complete the transformation of “places,” they are wonderful examples of how the importance of such discussions can be spawned from one building, one artistic gesture.

Define the purpose of architecture however you want, Mr. Kent… but let others do the same.