The other Frank as “outsider”

Gehry’s Luma Tower (center right) in the context of historic Arles, France. (whitewall.com)

In the runup to Frank Lloyd Wright’s birthday on June 8 – he was born in 1867 – Frank O. Gehry is being touted as the world’s most famous architect. Frank Lloyd Wright will never take second billing, in my book, to Frank O. Gehry. FLW is one up on FOG for having been a great architect, at least for the first half of his career. The other Frank has not approached that mark over an entire career.

You ever heard Gehry referred to by his initials? Not I, though I am aware that FOG did name a yacht he designed for himself Foggy. It may be the best thing he ever designed. (I wrote about it long ago in “Frank Gehry’s H.M.S. Foggy.”) At least fewer people are forced to look at it.

Architizer recently ran a piece called “Is Frank Gehry Counterculture?” by Pat Finn, subtitled “And should he be? What do we want from our leading architects anyway?” Most people want buildings they can relate to, that don’t get in your face. Frank Lloyd Wright spent the first half of his very long career designing buildings people could relate to, especially his low-slung Prairie Style houses in the Midwest. The last half of his career he designed buildings that do get in your face, that only his mother (or Frank Gehry) could relate to. Too bad.

Frank Gehry is not an icon of the counterculture. He is an icon of the globalist establishment, the brand of the one-percent. He may imagine himself an avatar of the “Épater la bourgeoisie” (“Shock the rich”) meme embraced by artists more than a century ago. But he misunderstands himself. In fact, he is just an asshole.

This is demonstrated by his attitude toward the public that must suffer his monstrosities. For example, of his recent cultural facility, the Luma Arles building (pictured above), he scornfully rejected local critics of its design:

We fit into [the context], but I can’t explain it. I respond to every fucking detail of the time we’re in with the people we live with, in this place. You know, I believe that’s the most important thing to do. To live in the place and time you are in and what the issue is, you know, even with these fucking masks.

Though I sympathize with that last bit, it’s hard to know what to make of this. Arles is a historic town. Luma Arles does not fit into its context. Does it truly respond in detail to the time and people and their place? Hardly. He says that’s “the most important thing [architects] do,” but what he really does is to reject what is appropriate for the time, the place and the people. His designs embody precisely what people don’t want, not what they do want. If you read the quote carefully, you will see that this is what he is saying. He is just pretending he cares about context and what people want. Here is author Pat Finn’s astute analysis:

Gehry does not feel he needs to address the concerns of those who miss the old Arles. These people, one imagines, are motivated by nostalgia, a reactionary sensibility that deserves no sympathy. When Gehry says he “can’t explain” his building, he implies that he shouldn’t have to.

At the beginning of this article, author Pat Finn, apparently unable to find a Gehry quote that straightforwardly describes the “Épater” attitude, drags in architect Peter Eisenman to thumb his nose at architecture that most people prefer: “If we make people so comfortable in these nice little structures, we might lull them into thinking everything’s alright … when it isn’t.”

Is that really what we want from our leading architects? Finn concludes his article with a baffling revelation:

Frank Gehry has made tremendous contributions to architecture in his six decade career. Many of his buildings, including the Guggenheim Bilbao, 8 Spruce Street, and Fondation Louis Vuitton, are among my personal favorites. At his best, he adds movement and dynamism to urban landscapes dominated by severe right angles and interchangeable steel and glass towers.

Huh? This after all the abuse he has heaped on Gehry? But let’s not let Finn get away with mischaracterizing so much of Gehry’s work. “He adds movement to urban landscapes dominated by severe right angles and interchangeable steel and glass towers.” Mostly, no. Rather, he inserts his twisted buildings into otherwise lovely historical environments, the contrast with which gives them their only interest. Either way, contrasted with bad urban landscapes or good ones, his architecture is parasitic, surviving only at the sufferance of its neighbors.

Frankly, Gehry, aside from his flaws as an architect, is not very articulate and, for that matter, is hardly a genius. As in his quote above, he communicates with his finger, as he did not too long ago at a press conference in Spain when a journalist had the temerity to object to the design of his buildings.

Gehry flipped off his questioner and added, “Let me tell you one thing. In the world we live in, 98 percent of what gets built and designed today is pure shit. There’s no sense of design nor respect for humanity or anything. They’re bad buildings and that’s it.”

For once, Gehry not only spoke clearly, he was right. Could he truly be too modest to grasp the extent of his influence on architecture today?

Arles, France, before the Luna apartment building, showing Roman ruins and historic roofscapes..

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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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9 Responses to The other Frank as “outsider”

  1. carlanicoledepetris says:

    My reaction to see the tower I question who gave the permit to destroy a beautiful town

    Like

  2. David, The photo leading your column is as articulate a statement as any we could make with words. I shall endeavour to have my say with fewer than 1,000 bon mots. Over a sea of red-tiled roofs, two towers, one Romanesque, the other Renaissance, rise above the houses of Arles. Though of different periods and styles, they stand side by side in harmony. One is austere, aesetic, the other, calm, reasoned. The yellow stone walls and red roofs of the town permit much variation, different dialects, and yet they all speak the same language. And then, that…thing..that crumpled turd of aluminum foil screams “look at me!” like a chocolate-smeared toddler running unchecked through a church service. Honestly, do any self-professed Modernists actually see with their eyes? How can any reasonable person not look at that photo and not be disturbed? I’ve been saying it for 40 years,”The Emperor has no clothes.” My profession is hopeless.
    E

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    • I applaud your eloquent thoughts, Eric. Your description of why the two traditional towers work so well with each other and with the town is perfect. Your horror at Gehry’s turd is understandable and evocative. It calls to mind James Curl’s description of modernists as seeing not with their eyes but with their ears. Perfect. Whatever they see, they regurgitate the same meaningless rhetoric. It does not matter what is before their eyes: that simply cannot see it.

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  3. Milton W. Grenfell, arch. says:

    His anger and foul language are as detestable as his constructions (not be be dignified with the terms architecture or buildings).

    Like

  4. John the First says:

    “he scornfully rejected local critics of its design”

    The quote which follows is tendentiously interspersed with the usual, what I would call ‘forcible Americanisms’, apparently the man could get away with such apish imbecilities.

    “Most people want buildings they can relate to, that don’t get in your face.”

    “what people don’t want, not what they do want”

    “It may be the best thing he ever designed.”

    What intriguing virtuosity and rich sophistication of language.

    “In fact, he is just an asshole.”

    How awesome plain.

    “Let me tell you one thing”

    Apish boasting designed to enforce the upcoming infantilism.

    “gets built and designed today is pure shit”

    No doubt, but..

    All this reminds me of an American woman who regularly writes to me, she is educated at the higher American institutions of education, though employing a style of expressions which makes it not recommended to read her prose before, during and after dinner, not in the early morning and before bedtime, and the rest appears to be made of all too forceful infantilisms, invented between visiting Mcdonalds and Wallmart? Is not the American language culture a direct ‘in your face’ style of language?

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    • Interesting suggestion, John. I suppose “American language culture” is just that, and here maybe I am just as guilty. Although simplicity of style is to be encouraged, not necessarily obscenity of style.

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  5. Anonymous says:

    And I would put EVERYTHING Gehry has ever designed well into the middle of the 98%.

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    • Do you mean, Anon., that all of the portion of Gehry’s work that has been well designed is in the middle of – that is, is responsible for – the 98 percent? I would say that there is no portion of Gehry’s work that is well designed. The bulk of it, based on mickled up sheets of paper, or all of it, is poorly designed, and is logically responsible for much of the 98 percent. I think that’s what you mean to say, yes?

      Like

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