The fickle finger of Frank

Frank Gehry giver journo the fingerThe greatest architect in the world flipped the bird at a journalist last week during a press conference in Spain. He later apologized. The best photo of the event is above, from The Guardian, but the best story is by Alissa Walker for Gizmodo.com, headlined “Frank Gehry Says Architecture Today Is ‘Pure Shit.’ ” To demonstrate, she includes photos from the Gehry gallery of architecture. Very nice, Alissa, but in fact he condemned only 98 percent of architecture today, and we all know he counts himself among the 2 percent, working for the 1 percent. Her concluding line: “Hey, no need to apologize, Frank! You’re 85! And you know what? You can keep on building whatever shit you want.”

He knows he can, and he knows nobody will say “Boo!” But it seems that one journalist did, sort of. “How do you answer those who accuse you of practicing showy architecture?”

“Let me tell you one thing. In this world we are living in, 98 percent of everything that is built and designed today is pure shit. There is no sense of design, no respect for humanity or for anything else.” You almost get the sense he is referring to his own work until he goes on to speak of “one group of people who does something special. Very good. But good God! Leave us alone!” He concludes, “Please don’t ask questions as stupid as that one.”

I’m sorry. This is not an intelligent man, or at least not a smart let alone a wise one. He sounds like an average Joe who finds himself at the head of a movement whose rationale disappeared before he could memorize it. His architectural skills are rudimentary, as Allisa Walker’s inventory proves. He slabs a few wacky curves on some cubes, no doubt leaving the design of the space for actual people within those cubes to his associates. He relies on engineers to make sure the titanium swags, dialed up by computer program, do not collapse, crushing the cubes. The mickled up paper that allegedly serves him for inspiration could inspire equal inspiration in a 5-year-old, and does – except the 5-year-old does not have a troupe of influential architecture critics to provide bogus aesthetic theory for the resulting vapidity. And his inability to coherently support his aesthetic is obvious and embarrassing, but he does not notice or care. He only snarls and looks down his nose at everyone else.

I wish I were the recipient of a finger from Frank.

Modern architecture has been under attack by the classical revival for a couple of decades now. But first, renegade modernists generated the brief postmodernist movement in the 1970s and ’80s. The modernists never responded, and did not need to. By then they controlled all the power centers of the field, and everyone who valued their careers had to bite the bullet and toe the line. Almost everyone did. After a few years of decorating the usual glass box with “ironic” arches, gables and the like, postmodernism split into the “modern” modernist movement epitomized by Gehry, which does not condescend to offer any rhyme or reason for any design, and the contemporary classicist movement, which took “ironic” ornament as permission to pursue historical precedent. They took it to heart and branched out, often with considerable beauty, from there. Classical architecture is the only genuine challenge to modern architecture today.

But modern architecture still controls all the power centers, and has no need to do more, by way of intellectual explanation, than to invent big words with vague meanings and knit them together into a curtain that cloaks the nudity of the emperor’s new clothes.

The only thing that gives me pause is Alissa Walker’s description of the care with which Gehry unfolded his finger: “Slowly curling his hand into a fist and uncurling his middle finger toward the sky.” Geepers! What genius! The very grace by which the man gives the finger speaks to the elegant process by which vulgarity erupts slowly into artistic apotheosis! I am dumfounded. I retract all of my past grunting about Gehry.

Only kidding.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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