Above is Frank Gehry laughing all the way to the bank. His latest paean to his genius sits in the background, which happens to be the Bois de Boulogne, the vast park at the western edge of central Paris. Soon to open there is his exploding Crystal Palace – an already conventional likeness that like any likeness one can see if one wants. Paul Goldberger, in his risible paean to Gehry called “Gehry’s Paris Coup” in Vanity Fair, sees more, much more deeply into the myth – oh, excuse me, the legend – of Gehry.
It is too easy to defenestrate a building and its architect when the one, contrary to resounding acclamation, is the latest parody of the other. Except for his merely tedious proposed memorial to Dwight Eisenhower in Washington, the Fondation Louis Vuitton looks like every other building he has designed since his Guggenheim Bilbao. It is in glass rather than titanium, and it blights a park rather than a city street, but in every other regard it is Gehry copying his own past. Not a crime, but neither is it genius.
Gehry’s patron is the luxury conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessey Louis Vuitton. The Fondation Louis Vuitton will mainly house the art collection of LVMH’s CEO, Bernard Arnault. Goldberger has won the critical droolathon, filling up the biggest imaginable bottle of lux bubbly with his assertion that the building “has the potential to develop a brand even more potent than that of LVMH: that of France itself.”
But readers attuned to the logrolling of establishment architecture critics had better take care, in perusing Goldberger’s enthusiasms, that their rolling eyeballs do not twirl their optic nerve to smithereens. With this article Goldberger has outdone Gehry in twisting his materials into a structure of pure fantasy. “This building is muscular, and it is delicate: it is a linebacker with the moves of a ballerina or, if you prefer, it is Moby-Dick with the athleticism of a sailfish.”
If so, then so is almost every other Gehry building since Bilbao. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a fish? Is it a sail? No! It is a super exploding Crystal Palace! A new Eiffel Tower! A new logo for France! (Get thee to a nunnery, fleur-de-lis! “Gehry, who is now 85, continues to push himself forward,” hyperventilates Goldberger, “as Picasso and Wright did late in their careers, relentlessly determined that, however important his past work may be, it must serve for him as the foundation for something more than a mere dénouement.”
Once one gets to the other side of Gehry’s “Wow!” factor, his genius is highly suspect. By pretending to violate the laws of physics, his budget-busting buildings attract almost as many drip pails and lawyers as masochists. His defensiveness in confrontations with the public and critics is cringe-inducing. An interview with Gehry is a mixture of platitudes, banalities of urbanism, dubious attempts at insight, and poorly disguised expressions of self-regard. (Of the Fondation’s advantageous but far from novel strategy of stacking pizzazz atop plain rectangular boxes for art, he effused: “I could do neutral galleries, and I could do me at the same time.”)
Someday an architect will gain fame for buildings even more ridiculous than those of Frank Gehry, and she will be acclaimed the new avatrix of architecture-as-sculpture. I fear she is already upon us, but Gehry refuses to fade away.