Twenty-five years ago, the happening thing in urban redevelopment was the “festival marketplace,” modeled on Boston’s Faneuil Hall. Then came light-rail systems, river walks, neo-retro baseball parks, central-library showcases, and entertainment retail. And in 1997, with the opening of northern Spain’s Guggenheim Bilbao, the Frank Gehry–designed museum.
Characteristically, Washington came late to most of these trends. But the Gallery Place entertainment-retail complex is open, if not finished; a baseball park is looming, and perhaps a new library as well; the Anacostia may someday be recreational; and the city recently broke ground on a light-rail line, albeit one of highly dubious utility. And, if the Corcoran Gallery of Art can raise the remaining $50 million or so needed to cover the estimated $200 million cost, in 2009, an example of Gehry’s squiggly monumentalism will rise near the intersection of 17th Street and New York Avenue NW. Set tightly within L’Enfant’s Euclidian street plan and further confined by D.C.’s height limitations, it’s a site that challenges the architect’s usual metal-clad, squidlike secular temple—and just might improve it.
The Corcoran’s current exhibition of models, drawings, and photographs of Gehry culture bunkers doesn’t use words like “temple.” “Frank Gehry, Architect: Designs for Museums,” a show that celebrates the architect’s work and the Corcoran’s decision to work with him, introduces itself in terms that are more pragmatic than poetic: Today’s museums are “vital components in the process of urban restructuring and revitalization.” It goes on to describe Gehry’s museums in vernacular any Brandweek subscriber could understand: “As urban icons, they have the ability to project a city’s image internationally.” In other words, a Gehry is not just a building—it’s a logo.
Of course, Washington is not Bilbao. Our town already has an ample international profile and more than a few signature buildings. Although the city has pledged $40 million in bond financing for the Corcoran’s addition, the Gehry structure will probably do little for D.C.’s vitality. Some art or architecture buffs will travel here to see an assemblage of steel ribbons nudging the Corcoran’s existing building, but their numbers are relatively small. Indeed, there are already signs that the Gehry surge is ebbing: The architect’s new Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago has gotten mixed reviews, and his plans for a Lower Manhattan branch of the Guggenheim have been halted.
The Corcoran design is in many ways exemplary of the buildings Gehry has devised since discovering CATIA, a computer program originally developed for aerospace design. As usual, the addition would combine curvilinear forms with shiny alloy skins, suggesting an acid-damaged, heavy-metal update on Frank Lloyd Wright. The other museums in the Corcoran exhibition are audacious in appearance but unsurprising in form, function, and siting. For all its seductive newness, Gehry’s style raises a lot of the same old questions about the now-venerable precepts of modernist architecture. And in Washington, it must confront urbanistic problems that Gehry has rarely faced elsewhere.
From the outside, Gehry’s buildings are loud, exuberant, and ostentatiously independent of purpose and structure. His designs are often called “sculptural,” and the architect himself is quick to mention his personal and professional kinship with sculptor Richard Serra, who works with metal plates and slabs. The outsized gestures of abstract-expressionist canvases can also be seen in Gehry’s style, as well as the blow-it-up-big banality of Pop Art. In fact, the sculptor whose work may be closest to Gehry’s is not Serra, but Claes Oldenburg, author of colossal clothespins, jumbo electrical plugs, and the epic typewriter eraser that stands in the National Gallery of Art’s sculpture garden at 9th Street and Constitution Avenue NW.
Another apparent influence on Gehry is that seminal study of American vernacular architecture, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour’s Learning From Las Vegas. This founding text of architectural postmodernism, first published in 1972, distinguished between “ducks”—buildings that fuse structure and purpose—and “decorated sheds”—buildings that don’t. Until he began getting major commissions in the late ’80s, Gehry was a shed-decorator, known for redefining modest Los Angeles houses and shops by wrapping them in corrugated metal, chain-link fencing, and other off-the-shelf building materials.
Echoes of that approach remain in Gehry’s work, yet his more recent designs shine with a new, big-money aesthetic: They’re overpowering, ostentatious, and literally glittery. They’re also, for all their free-flowing contours, more like buildings by the likes of Gropius and Mies than Gehry might care to admit. The Corcoran scheme aside, the eight projects represented in “Designs for Museums” share much with pre-Venturi modernist landmarks: They tend to be hostile to human scale and heedless of their neighbors—which they’d just as soon not have.
Gehry clearly knows some of this. Most of the eight designs are for locations that are either rural or at the very edge of urban fabric. The Guggenheim Bilbao overlooks a river, as do Minneapolis’ blocky, pre-CATIA 1993 Weisman Art Museum and MARTa Herford, a German art museum that’s scheduled to be completed this year. The mothballed Lower Manhattan Guggenheim was supposed to float above a series of East River piers. 1989’s Vitra Design Museum, one of Gehry’s first big cultural-edifice commissions, sits next to a field in Germany. Biloxi, Miss.’s, Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, the least Bilbao-like scheme, is currently being set into an 8-acre park. It’s a Gehry parody of Southern-vernacular cottages scattered in the woods: metal blobs with porches.
Washington’s tradition, of course, is quite different. Many of its best-known museums are neoclassical in style, and the modernist ones yield to neoclassical imperatives. The National Museum of American History and the National Air and Space Museum are streamlined versions of traditional rectangular edifices, and even curvilinear structures such as the Hirshhorn are lined up neatly in the urban grid. The most successful of the city’s grand modernist museums, the National Gallery of Art’s East Building, pays elaborate tribute to one of L’Enfant’s trapezoidal lots. Limited by existing buildings on three sides, Gehry’s Corcoran parcel is even more emphatically urban than any of these buildings’ sites.
The architect’s biggest U.S. museum to date is 2000’s Experience Music Project, which adjoins Seattle Center, the former World’s Fair compound known for the Space Needle. This could be called an urban site, but it’s urban by West Coast standards, which means it’s of moderate density, detached from downtown, and adjacent to low-rise residential buildings. It’s a location that would look suburban next to both Bilbao and central Washington. The building’s principal nod to its surroundings is to allow a monorail to whoosh through the structure, a playful touch that emphasizes the fun-fair aspect of Gehry’s work. Perhaps the most telling detail in the EMP design, however, can be seen in a huge photograph of the building on display at the Corcoran: There, amid the assured swoops and swirls, is a small, nondescript sign that points to the main entrance.
Not being able to find the door is a classic problem of modernist edifices. Such buildings are brash and distinctive but difficult to read—and thus to use. Though Gehry’s larger buildings reject early modernism’s form-follows-function edict, they’re no more respectful of premodernist architecture’s common sense. With their classical detailing, Washington’s traditional buildings divide intelligibly into their parts: roof, base, entrance. This was one of the virtues that the city’s historicist architects retrieved when they spurned modernism in the ’80s. Gehry’s Corcoran addition, however, is a return to hyperstylized confusion. In the models, at least, it presents its bold but unwelcoming façade as a stand-alone monument, not an easily understood piece of the urban whole.
In tribute to Jimi Hendrix, the EMP is supposed to resemble a shattered electric guitar, a likeness that is imperceptible from any ordinary human sight line. This is another way that Gehry’s museums recall their modernist predecessors: They can be understood completely only from the air, or by looking down at an architectural model—the Godlike perspective of the master builder himself.
To judge from the models and photographs, most of the eight projects in “Designs for Museums” are well-sited—which is to say their uncontextual façades are kept at a distance from context. These designs were poor preparation for the Corcoran proposal, which involves a compact property, an adjacent building that must be incorporated into the design, and the city’s early-19th-century street plan. In the past, Gehry has shown himself entirely capable of disregarding such inconvenient settings: L.A.’s 2003 Walt Disney Concert Hall, much praised for its skin-deep front façade, simply turns a blank wall to the street on its three other sides.
The design, cost, and mission of Gehry’s Corcoran annex have changed significantly since 1999, when the architect was selected to devise the long-contemplated structure. The plan is simpler now and more deferential to the museum’s existing building. (An early version featured more metallic tentacles, one of which reached into the hemicycle of the older Corcoran like an alien violating a nymphet in an anime movie.) Perhaps most significantly, the latest design falls back on a familiar solution to the problem of expanding Washington museums: It goes underground. The new structure will contain 270,000 square feet, about the same as Bilbao and too much for the existing lot. So Gehry followed the National Gallery, the Sackler Gallery, and the National Museum of African Art and started digging.
The Corcoran’s truly urban site hemmed in the architect’s essentially anti-civic signature style, forcing him to control his gestures. This is probably a good thing, although it’s hard to say: “Designs for Museums” gives little sense of how the interiors of the architect’s mega-buildings work or of how the Corcoran addition will compare. But then, functionality is not an important quality in a logo; the importance of D.C.’s Gehry is primarily symbolic. The hopes for the building may even be evidence of magical thinking on the part of the museum’s executives and the city officials who agreed to underwrite the project.
Overshadowed by better-funded museums on the National Mall and still scarred by the firestorm that followed its 1989 decision to cancel a show of Robert Mapplethorpe’s controversial photographs, the Corcoran has a heavy psychic investment in its addition. Or at least that’s one explanation of why the museum has zealously pursued the project as its price has grown from $40 million to $120 million to $200 million, and its role has shifted from a new home for the Corcoran’s art school to a new identity for Washington’s oldest art museum—or even for Washington itself.
That’s probably asking too much of yet another Gehry monument, however. His metallic petals and tendrils are now too common to transfigure any institution’s reputation, let alone a city’s. D.C.’s $40 million contribution will help provide merely one more example of supply-side architectural economics: Build more landmarks and hopes the ailing infrastructure heals itself. Even in Bilbao, where a Gehry museum has been credited with a major transformation of an urban wasteland, the building was in fact merely part of a massive redevelopment project that also included a new subway system. Bilbao’s planners seem to have realized that a pricey 3-D logo alone does not change a city.
Not that central Washington needs to be changed. It’s doing fine, and the areas of the city that are poorly served will no doubt continue to be so after this becomes a town with a Gehry of its very own. Ironically, it’s the architect who may gain the most from the transaction: The Corcoran location doesn’t provide the sort of dramatic setting Gehry prefers, but it does hide the blank backsides that even some of the architect’s supporters deplore. Even better, however, it offers a real-world lesson on how to integrate a building into a built environment. The Corcoran hired Gehry in order to stand out, but it just might be teaching him how to fit in.CP