When is an annex to a museum not just an annex to a museum? When the architect is Frank Gehry and the host city is Washington, D.C.
Photographs by Pilar Vergara
There’s nothing like the impending arrival of a piece of world-class architecture to ignite a city’s fear of its own inner hayseed. There he was—Frank Gehry, big as life—on the stage in the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art and Design’s Frances and Armand Hammer Auditorium. And there we were, the drab of D.C., scarcely worthy.
Funny how the minute an ultracool architect like Gehry comes to town, some folks here get maniacally insecure and start up with the talk about how utterly uncool Washington is. The people who showed up at the Corcoran’s unusual news conference last June came to drink from the cup of Gehry and, to cement their fealty, barf up every nasty cliche about D.C. that had ever crossed the Potomac. The ostensible purpose of the event was to announce that Gehry had emerged as the choice—out of three finalists, out of 10 short-list candidates, out of 200 long-list candidates—to remake the Corcoran. He’ll attempt the transformation by pinning a freaky, $40 million new brooch on the institution’s beaux-arts bosom at 17th Street and New York Avenue NW.
There seemed to be a good bit of choreography behind the announcement to ensure that it came off as appropriately sober but not stodgy, and, above all, very un-Washington. To one side of the stage stood an architectural model representing the winning proposal by Gehry’s firm, Frank O. Gehry & Associates of Santa Monica, Calif. The wild, wrinkled scheme looked like a signature Gehry work: It appeared as if a gigantic kernel of popcorn had exploded on the north side of the stately granite, marble, and copper Corcoran edifice half a block from the White House.
The New York classicist Ernest Flagg designed the better part of the voluptuous original building in 1897, and Charles Adams Platt, who designed the Freer Gallery of Art, added a west wing in 1928. From the looks of the model of the proposed Gehry design, though, it would have been hard to imagine anything more antithetical to the original Corcoran building than the swirl of crude paper curves and chicken-wire windows that seemed to tumble onto it. Counterpoint was exactly the point.
The news event started with a benediction by Ronald D. Abramson, an attorney and chair of the Corcoran’s board of trustees. Abramson emphasized, over and over, the “very measured, deliberate, responsible fashion” in which the institution’s selection committee had gone about looking for its architect during the previous year. Before he sat down in the front row to resume marking up a legal brief, Abramson introduced David C. Levy, the Corcoran’s president and director.
Levy rose and launched into a cautionary lecture on the perils of architectural competitions. Architects don’t like them, he said, because they tend to turn into beauty contests. He elaborated on the ways in which Gehry, over his co-finalists, the rising Polish illusionist Daniel Libeskind and the Spanish fabulist Santiago Calatrava, had best understood the museum’s needs.
The director also offered a firm disclaimer that this occasion was “not about the presentation of this model,” because the museum and the architect still had a long way to go to develop the final design. His remarks were clearly meant to calm the attendant shock of seeing someone try to color outside the lines usually accepted within the District’s rigid diamond. “Everything is fungible here,” Levy assured soothingly. Then he introduced Gehry himself.
When the 70-year-old architect casually took the podium, he appeared as a rather recessive figure in contrast to the outrageousness of his designs—a dark suit and a shag of white hair. Gehry started by iterating a bit of professional wisdom: The best way to respect a historic building when adding to it, he contended, is not to copy it. “It is always fundamentally dishonest” to do so, he said.
Gehry also explained, with a gesture toward the model, that the scheme on view was “the beginning,” nothing but a diagram of what might finally appear—in 2003 or so—on the corner opposite the Old Executive Office Building. The model’s form was so speculative that, he added, “I’m embarrassed to look at it.”
He needn’t have worried. The cultural custodians of D.C. were practically waiting in line to curtsy before the daring model and the man who had made it. Yet Gehry nonetheless thought it necessary to cram it down our provincial throats. The subtle digs against D.C. began passively but were telltale. Washington “represents a challenge,” the architect said. “And this is one I haven’t really had in my life—to be right in the center of the capital with all the issues that attend making a building here. Even though there ain’t a lot of great new architecture, in my opinion, there’s still a kind of pleasantness, a sensibility here, and it’s something we’re gonna have to understand.”
Gehry took pains to remind the audience that he wasn’t some enfant terrible coming to muck up one of the most intensively planned cities in the world: Of the design, he said famously, “It’s not some souffle we threw together in 15 minutes just to upset Washington.”
Having dispensed with the formalities, Levy and Gehry opened up the news conference to questions. The two sat down around a small table draped in dark cloth to share a liter of cold spring water and discuss the text and the subtext of the design at hand—its meaning to the Corcoran, its impact on the city of Washington. They seemed perfectly simpatico; they would give much the same performance on The Charlie Rose Show a few days later.
As Washington news conferences go, this one was more like a cotillion. There was no question among those assembled that Gehry’s debut here was going to be a masterpiece. What lay in dispute, however latent, was whether all those unwashed, unkempt reactionaries just outside the door could comprehend the greatness of this moment.
The dance opened with the signal slam of the day. A guy in the audience, possibly a graduate student, who claimed intimate native knowledge of Washington, led the witness: Insofar as Gehry was getting to know the “sensibility” here, it was important that the architect acknowledge the city’s “homogeneity” and its status as a “one-industry town,” the guy insisted. “There’s a lot of people who look alike, dress alike, talk alike….Have you given any thought to the notion,” he asked Gehry, “that your new building could provide an oasis in this homogeneous city and could function as a way of inspiring other artists?”
The answer was less provocative than the question, but Gehry took the bait and responded with like-minded condescension: “I guess, secretly, I think all those things, but I wouldn’t presume to, er, proclaim it.
“Who knows?” Gehry continued. “It’s too bad there’s so much homogeneity. It doesn’t speak well for democracy.”
Now, there you have it. People usually hate what the culture of Washington stands for but love its symbols—the temples to great leaders, the neoclassical colonnades of its institutions, the vast open spaces and dramatic views, that stark obelisk at the heart of it all. Gehry, to the contrary, was suggesting that those symbols reflect the fundamental bankruptcy of the city’s main business.
Nobody asked Gehry whether he got the point of this place well enough to compose a credible counterpoint, whether his whimsical interruption of the classical narrative would suit the narrative as well as it did him—basic questions that any working public artist should have to answer. The only remotely tough question came from an older fellow who asked Gehry whether the exterior flourishes of form on his model were structural, or functional…or what? Gehry demurred. “They look like a bunch of cut-up pieces of paper to me,” he said. That’s his version of expressing humility.
He has earned the right to his snobbery. He has produced a great design whose opposition to Washington tradition is precisely what will make it work. If Washington is classical, Gehry is jazz. We’ve seen such counterpoint succeed before in D.C.: I.M. Pei’s National Gallery East Building wanted very little to do, on its face, with John Russell Pope’s West Building, but the synergy is by now taken for granted. (Look at how much more successful that pairing has become than that of Arthur Erickson’s Canadian Chancery across Pennsylvania Avenue, with its hokey attempt to incorporate references to the West Building’s fluted columns. There is a thin line between homage and mockery in architecture.)
It would be nice if we could simply embrace the Gehry design without feeling compelled to trash the city that will host it. Gehry’s scheme may look like a savage critique of D.C.’s squareness, but his impertinence would be nothing without the rectilinear relief Washington furnishes.
Armchair critics are so busy staring at the monumental lock-step quality of D.C.’s streetscape—let alone its social life—that they miss the nobility of its lineage. Most recent architecture in this city is indeed awful. It doesn’t reflect the spirit of the past century, and certainly not the next one, and there’s plenty of blame to go around for that. But it is an elegantly planned city with strong vistas and edges to the streets, and it’s the only place in the U.S. where buildings are consistently framed and flattered by their contexts rather than brutalized by them.
“There are some really exciting forms” in Washington, observes Edward Feiner, the chief architect for the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), who has situated dozens of federal buildings by leading architects in city centers over the past five years as part of his Design Excellence Program. “But you have to look for subtleties and nuances.”
But never mind. The news conference—the message of dowdy D.C. swinging in spite of itself—was a hit. The New York Times and the Washington Post put the story on their front pages. Several other major newspapers and magazines fell all over it. Even those who know nothing about architecture, except that it’s hip to know who Gehry is, got to chattering about the project—something frivolous and forward-looking, for a change, on one of the most staid corners of the most staid quadrant in the most staid city in the world.
Washington’s conformity is often grossly overstated, and the conversation inside the Corcoran news conference verged on caricature. Usually, when a city unveils plans for a new landmark building, the controversy centers around whether the architect is good enough for the city. This time, the talk focused on whether Washington was good enough for Gehry.
“Washington, of course, is not a city that traditionally has been open to the new,” wrote architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff in the Los Angeles Times, having deployed his tongue lavishly elsewhere in praise of Gehry. Roger K. Lewis, whose urban-design commentary the Washington Post wisely buries in the real estate section, asked: “Can Washington handle a multistory collage of curvilinear, twisted surfaces, clad in titanium or stainless steel or stucco or whatever, undulating and thrusting vertically, horizontally and diagonally, as if in motion?” Thousands of readers across the area surely stopped chewing their cornflakes to silently reply: Gee, Roger, I dunno. We’ll have to wait and see.
What would seem to be an opportunity to celebrate a city’s audacious step into a less predictable future instead became another chance to engage in the kind of tedious Washington-bashing that infects so much other coverage issued from this city. The most incontinent musings came from the keyboard of the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Kilian. Apparently wedded to the view that cities are basically alike in nature and character, Kilian painted this picture of D.C. for the folks back home in his dispatch on the Corcoran announcement:
Aside from its substantial African-American community, Washington is probably the most homogenized city on Earth. There are a few fringe neighborhoods with a trifling amount of urban flavor; but essentially, it’s a place of vault-like buildings, with hordes of dark-suited men and frumpily dressed women trudging through its corridors and byways…all of them as cheerful and full of brio as a General Accounting Office report.
It’s been a while since anybody talked about controversial art at the Corcoran. Almost exactly a decade, to be precise. In 1989, the Corcoran made news by canceling a show of photographs, some of them erotic, by the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe. The museum’s director at the time, Christina Orr-Cahall, caved in to congressional qualms about the show for fear of being sucked into the debate over funding by the National Endowment for the Arts. Lots of people hated her for it, and the institution took a hit as well. Some people have never forgiven the Corcoran. To this day, the name itself carries a residual taint
Levy, who arrived in 1991, decided to start by starting over, a move that culminated in Gehry’s selection: It has taken Levy eight years to get control of the museum, resolve its epic meltdown after the Mapplethorpe affair, and get his fingerprints on the place. “There was a question of whether the Corcoran was gonna make it” in the early ’90s, recalls Levy in an interview in his handsomely dark-
paneled office on the first floor of the museum. “So we had to get our feet on the ground, look to our own housekeeping for a few years. And we couldn’t even think about planning for the future.”
Levy ran the classy Parsons School of Design in New York for 20 years before coming to the Corcoran, turning Parsons from a backwater among art schools to a name institution and merging it with the New School for Social Research. He grew up in a family of artists. He plays more than a dozen musical instruments and has mounted his photography at both New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim. In public appearances and in interviews, he is given to
reiterating his ideas about the Corcoran College of Art and Design time and again, yet he seldom repeats himself verbatim. His bearing suggests a man with a sincere vision rather than a phony with a few good lines of art-schtick.
He’s convinced that the few museum-based schools left in the U.S. must retain a firm relationship with their anchor museums. He insists that the Corcoran’s school will not stray from the mother institution. Levy holds studied convictions about how that relationship between museum and school should work: The presence of art should add value to the presence of artists. Most important, he expects the addition of the Gehry building—intended principally for the school—to enhance the symbiosis between the two entities and free up more of the Corcoran’s galleries, which are among the most beautiful anywhere.
“The Corcoran—at least as I see it and as this board [of directors] sees it—is an equal partnership between the museum and the art school,” Levy says. “One of the reasons why Frank is the architect is that he understood better than anybody…that there had to be interpenetrations between the museum and the school, so that the students at the college can really absorb, at some important subliminal level, the lessons of the art in the museum.”
So, if the Corcoran needed a bigger, better building, why not revive the heavy-handed historicist scheme for an addition designed by the local firm of Hartman-Cox Architects, bought and paid for by the museum’s trustees in 1987?
The long answer: The Hartman-Cox scheme “would have to be built really as a spec office building, with low ceilings” Levy explains. “And in order to maximize the FAR [floor-area ratio, a zoning term], it would have had to compress the space in ways that made it almost unserviceable as a museum building or as an art school building.”
The short answer: How dull.
The Corcoran will not be going forward with the old Hartman-Cox design because it’s not sexy enough. Mindful of Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (1997), Richard Meier’s new Getty Center in Los Angeles (1997), and the East Building of the National Gallery (1978), the Corcoran’s trustees know that consumers have come to believe that a place to go look at art should itself look like art.
At its basest level, the appointment of Gehry comes down to a stunt. It’s brilliant jujitsu for a down-in-the-dumps museum trying like hell to get its cool back. Whatever sizzle the museum has been lacking lately in its presentation of art, it will make up for in its patronage of architecture. For the time being, the museum can get by calling on photographer Annie Leibovitz to occupy its outer edge, because the choice of Gehry makes the Corcoran aesthetically unassailable and, suddenly, much more popular. The museum is re-entering the cultural conversation with a new data point, not the one about censoring art in the shadow of Congress, but the one about its bold and risky new physical profile.
The thing is, though: The choice of Gehry is not all that risky. “It’s kind of the safest solution” of the three the Corcoran considered, remarks Martin Moeller, executive vice president of the National Building Museum. “He’s become almost mainstream.” Which makes the design a great coup de marche for the Corcoran. Gehry is an excellent brand name these days. He’s practically the only living architect to enjoy status as a household word. Since he completed the spectacular Bilbao museum, he’s become the world’s biggest pop architect. Bigger than Michael Graves could ever hope to be with his cute little toasters at Target. Bigger nowadays than the ever-protean Philip Johnson, who called Gehry’s Guggenheim the best building of the century, or something like that.
With Gehry, the Corcoran is re-brokering its brand by hitching itself to his. In that respect, it is like almost every other major art museum in this country. Museums—art museums especially—are trying to reconnect with a wired and harried public that can barely stand the thought of heading into some deoxygenated room to look at ponderously framed portraiture. People want creature comforts, with a side of culture. Give ’em a building! Give ’em coffee! Get ’em a sandwich! Sell ’em stuff! They’ll love it!
Museum retailing has taken on a life of its own, and museumgoers are snapping up the goods, spending millions of dollars every year in museum stores and on the Web: You can get Museum of Modern Art playing cards (two decks per box, $16), Guggenheim baseball caps (one size, elastic strap closure, $18), and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art wall clocks (AA battery included, $45). You can almost bet there will be a Corcoran coffee mug with a quick sketch of the Gehry building fired onto its side, and probably placemats and votives, too.
For lots of art museums today, art has become but an excuse to construct full-fledged entertainment destinations. They build media centers, baby-sit the kids, and sponsor trips to Mexico. Museum directors often cast these pursuits as attempts to democratize art. But what they really want from the demos is money. Dedicated to Art and Not Exactly Free to All, if you will. The Centre Pompidou in Paris often gets credit for germinating this idea; its maze of mercantile stimuli draws 2 million visitors a year; only a small fraction visit the museum’s permanent collection.
Thus it’s safe for Levy & Co. to assume that the Corcoran’s new Frank Gehry building will goose the museum’s take at the door by increasing the number of annual visitors from the current count of 400,000. The paradox is that art will become increasingly beside the point to those visitors. They’ll want to see the building first, and, perhaps, only.
The biggest benefit of having a magnet building is that a museum doesn’t have to make a splash every six months to get warm bodies and cold cash through the door. The vagaries of curating, the competition for good work, and the occasional blowup when you cross the lines of taste become less of a crisis when your building brings people wheeling through regardless of what’s inside. Look at baseball: Oriole Park at Camden Yards seems to have all but obviated the need for a decent product on the field. Similarly, a “great” museum is less and less about what’s on the wall.
Other people could have proposed a whopper of a building for the Corcoran, but perhaps only Gehry has the juice to get it built. The Corcoran looked at a lot of emerging design talent in its two-year search, but its selection committee, unlike those of several other U.S. museums recently, didn’t go for an up-and-coming architect (or, thank goodness, for one of Gehry’s legions of imitators).
In 1997, the Museum of Modern Art in New York selected architect Yoshio Taniguchi, virtually unheralded outside Japan, to design a 230,000-square-foot addition to its cramped midtown campus. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is getting all kinds of iconic mileage out of its 1995 Mario Botta building, the one with the zebra-striped oculus in the middle of its bulky brick body. In St. Louis, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts has chosen Tadao Ando, the Japanese mystic of mute forms, to design its new museum; nearby in that same city, the Forum for Contemporary Art has hired Brad Cloepfil, an architect from Portland, Ore., to put together its new home. Cloepfil is an unknown if there ever were one, and he was chosen over such luminaries as architects Peter Zumthor, Jacques Herzog, and Rem Koolhaas.
Ando, it happens, was on the Corcoran’s short list of 10 semifinalists. (The list shrank to nine semifinalists when the Spanish heavy Jose Rafael Moneo dropped out of the running.) Otherwise, the list comprised a small clot of known stars: Sir Norman Foster, Steven Holl, Cesar Pelli, James Stewart Polshek, Peter Rose, and James Wines, plus Calatrava and Libeskind.
The Corcoran line is chanted over and over: This selection committee agonized over its ultimate choice. Still, the other finalists Gehry competed against—each outre in his own way—seem in retrospect to have had but a laughable chance against his marquee name: The zoologically inclined Calatrava seemed to phone in the same overengineered bird carcass he’s been perching everywhere from Lyon to Milwaukee. Libeskind turned in an upset helix of a building that screamed, “Liability insurance!” And, besides, who in Northwest Washington—or McLean for that matter—has ever heard of either of them?
Gehry is not and has never tried to be about the shape of things to come—he represents the shape of things people currently find fascinating. Gehry’s anointment, given the context of other high-profile museum commissions of late, seems entirely predictable. The world has long thrilled to the collisions of his forms, basked in the reflections of his complicated surfaces, and succumbed to the enigma of his organic, improbable spaces. After more than two decades in high-profile practice, Gehry can still shock us, but he can no longer surprise us.
This isn’t the time for the Corcoran to get too cheeky, anyway. The last thing the institution needs—and the last thing Levy will allow to happen—is another catastrophic loss of face in the art world.
You don’t hire Frank Gehry. Frank Gehry hires you. And he will fire you, too, if you don’t like the way he works, or vice versa. Just because he is a safe choice in terms of mass appeal doesn’t mean that he’s not a great architect, with an ego and a work style to match. His relationship with the Corcoran is not likely to be one big sing-along, to judge from his curriculum vitae—and D.C.’s history.
He had that famous falling-out a few years back with art collector Eli Broad, the head of SunAmerica Corp., in Los Angeles. The object of the feud was the Broad residence in Brentwood, which the magnate commissioned as a present to his wife. Broad begged Gehry to design a house for him. Gehry played hard to get. He warned Broad of his ways: His design MO often dictates that if it ain’t broke, then, by God, break it. But the client seemed willing to play along, so Gehry eventually accepted the job. As Gehry solved problems on the design, and then unsolved and resolved them, Broad, inevitably, got impatient. Whatever he was thinking at the outset, Broad was a seasoned acquirer of things, and, above all, a CEO. He was not used to people who work for him taking their time to come up with something, dropping it, and then taking their time to come up with something else. Broad finally took the design to a local hack firm to have it built.
That episode was nothing compared with the notorious collapse of the Walt Disney Concert Hall project in downtown Los Angeles after nearly 10 years of work. The late Lillian Disney, Walt Disney’s widow, hired Gehry in 1987 to come up with the design, a fantastic ensemble of billowing white volumes that looks like a topsail schooner. But the building has yet to be erected. After plenty of self-congratulation in Los Angeles over the recherche scheme, disaster struck when it came time to build the darn thing. The costs of raising those sails simply sailed off into the stratosphere.
Gehry’s firm is known for completing expertly crafted buildings on time and within modest budgets, mainly because his people are quite handy with software and cheap materials. But on the Disney hall, the drawings got all screwed up. The architect blamed the architecture firm with which his firm was collaborating for its inability to complete the drawings. When it appeared the project might tank for good, back in 1996, who stepped in to save the civic day but…Eli Broad?
In Los Angeles, Broad, among local big-business leaders, is the only one with both the political and real capital to get the concert hall built. (The entertainment elite, ironically, couldn’t care less.) But when Broad arrived to salvage the faltering project in late 1996—hijacking it, in Gehry’s eyes—Gehry made it clear that he didn’t want to play with him, and effectively quit the job. Gehry eventually rejoined the design team, but only after a massive fundraising effort ensured that he could redo all
the drawings for the structure. L.A. will get its whimsical concert hall, but only because Gehry got his way.
The various blowhard academics who ornament architectural discourse today are always trying to figure out what Gehry’s work “means”: His “fractured physiques” represent the “inevitable dissolution of our society into a total chaos, ecstatic or dire.” Surely, he’s summarizing an architecture of disjuncture in a city (Los Angeles) and a world (this one) during what must certainly be our preparations for doomsday.
Enough. Really, he’s just a normal guy. He plays hockey. He wears chinos. And he puts them on one leg at a time. Every day.
He is an artist, small a, first. His Santa Monica studio, a cavernous warehouse space, is like none other in the architectural profession. Architects’ offices these days have turned into something from a horrid corporate training film: Except for the odd anal flourish in decor, you typically find rows of cold computer workstations littered with a few cutaway mockups of buildings bound to hold yet more cold computer workstations.
The Gehry office, by contrast, feels more the way the atelier of Brancusi must have felt. On nearly every surface lies a hand-wrought model, or 15 models, often resembling so many wadded-up pieces of paper. You have to suspend disbelief as a building’s prospective functions are pointed out: Here’s the front door….Now, this is the master bedroom, which looks over the valley. The models are first made of color-coded blocks, which Gehry uses to organize zones for various uses in three dimensions—in the current case, galleries, storage, offices, elevators, and so on—and establish spatial relationships. Those blocks in turn become the formal models, those traumatized pieces of paper. Tiny models. Huge models you can walk into. Models, models, and more models.
It would be the work of a Luddite if Gehry weren’t also an adept machinist, good with nuts and bolts. It was he who said that buildings look best when they are under construction. His success in the field owes as much to his technological interests as to his designs. Those complex geometries he builds are made possible by aerospace software that plots nearly every bit of surface area on a model and sends the data to a machine that cuts the materials—limestone, stainless steel, titanium—into the right shapes and sizes.
Gehry’s tendency to get a design just right—and then tear it up and start from scratch—does not mean that he’s playing diva games. He’s fighting to preserve, above all, his sense of the ephemeral, the right unbalance, the part that makes you itch, in everything he constructs.
Gehry is—as he suggests over and over to critics who never seem to hear him—trying to capture small, active moments our senses perceive offhandedly, as in seemingly candid paintings. Sort of like Vermeer’s Woman in the Red Hat, glancing up at you for what could be only a split second. His architectural animism is new to us in Washington, a place where form, given the height restrictions, is all about gravity. But it’s not entirely original. Generations before Gehry, Antoni Gaudi made his buildings melt; the Czech cubists made them shake; and the German expressionist Hans Scharoun—Gehry’s most obvious forebear—made them laugh.
Beyond his painterly streak, it’s useless to try to decode Gehry’s architecture, because it’s not an act of encryption. Each year, hundreds of architects submit portfolios to design-awards juries, and they claim to be inventing such things as “an architecture that is at once centrifugal and centripetal” and all manner of other claptrap. By comparison, Gehry’s blithe and pure impulses come as a relief.
Some sort of detente is in order. The gulf between Gehry’s personality and Washington’s “sensibility” is too wide not to require some sort of advance armistice to get the Corcoran’s building built.
Yes, Gehry can pick his projects like exotic cocktails at poolside. He didn’t really want to compete for this project—at first. Levy had to lobby Gehry aggressively to get the architect to put himself in the running.
The Corcoran has been nothing if not measured, deliberate, and responsible in its selection—and wooing—process. The search started in 1997 with Levy’s asking Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic of the New Yorker, to put together a couple of hundred names of architects he might want to consider.
“It’s not just a question of building a building,” Levy remembers telling his longtime friend at the outset. “What does architecture mean for a museum?…What does [it] mean in Washington, which is a very conservative city architecturally?”
When the Corcoran’s list got down to 10 semifinalists, Gehry was not on it because he wasn’t interested in the project. But, after Moneo took himself out of the running, Gehry was persuaded to submit a proposal. “I talked him into it,” Levy says. “Paul and I talked him into it.” Levy had lunch with Gehry when the architect came to town to accept his 1998 National Medal of Arts at the White House. “I said, ‘Frank, you’re making a serious mistake, because it’s going to be an important building.’”
Gehry has made his qualms about working in Washington manifest. At the news conference, he predicted that the project would be like a “Nantucket sleighride.” You hook the whale, and “the whale pulls you 30 miles an hour at breakneck speed.”
There may be something to that whale business, but he can forget about the breakneck speed. Gehry must know by now that, before the first spade turns the ground, he’s going to have to have an audience with the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), Washington’s two main design arbitration bodies, where the prevailing ethic dictates that the past is epilogue. We can thank them both for such retardataire gems as the MCI Center, the planned new convention center, the Ronald Reagan Building downtown, and, more recently, the stupefying failure of the World War II Memorial, the ugliest, most invasive thing ever planned for the National Mall.
Given Gehry’s tremendous stature in the worlds of art and architecture, you can bet that the members of the Commission of Fine Arts, if not the stooges at the NCPC, will be down on all fours barking their approval of Gehry’s project. It’s one thing to sign off on the downtown design atrocities of recent years—memories are short in that regard. But Commission of Fine Arts Chair J. Carter Brown and his panel are a sophisticated bunch. They’ll get their two cents in on the Corcoran design. But they’ll also recognize that to let a project by a modern master like Gehry go begging would be extremely stupid.
It would be stupid to turn him away because Gehry is capable of exciting and thoroughly sound architecture. He thinks well beyond the buildings he builds, of the power of consonance and dissonance in cities. If the Corcoran pulls off its plans, the finished product will shake up the conversation about D.C. in productive ways. You will take your out-of-town guests by the White House at night, walk them by the riotous wedding cake of the Old Executive Office Building, turn the corner onto 17th Street, and nothing—nothing from our day, anyway—will have prepared them for otherworldly apparition, the great genie in the lamp Gehry will light for us.
What a curious act of redemption this is all shaping up to be, for both the Corcoran and the city of Washington. Since Gehry wiped his loafers at the Corcoran’s marble doorstep, people have been talking as if Washington is about to don the civic equivalent of a miniskirt.
It’s as if no one had ever committed architecture in our presence. Enough about Pierre L’Enfant, Cass Gilbert, and Paul Philippe Cret already. Wasn’t Bertram Goodhue a coattail congressman? Of course not! He designed us the National Academy of Sciences! Heikkinen and Komonen who? No, silly, they didn’t make beer; they did the Embassy of Finland. Oh, forget it…Gehry’s building will be no more oasis than D.C. is a desert.
Make no mistake: It will be an incredible building. But it will be just a building. “Things like this building Gehry has proposed neither frighten me nor…tell me they’re going to change everything,” says the GSA’s Feiner. “In 100 years, when people look back, his work will probably not be unusual, because there’s going to be 100 years of intervening architecture, and it will be one of those buildings that will really fit the demeanor of Washington.”
We will strut about it for a while and then incorporate its oddity into the greater urban lore like a new seashell in our collection—as we have with every other stunning work of architecture in the city. When was the last time anybody you know spoke with fresh amazement at the brilliance of Egon Eiermann’s German Chancery, or the Intelsat headquarters, or the Brazilian Embassy, or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial? People love to loathe the poetry of Mies van der Rohe’s library headquarters downtown—now there’s a nice piece of architecture. Heck, there’s a Richard Neutra house sitting in the woods a long crawl away from Connecticut Avenue NW—and Neutra’s fame was nearly as great in his day as Gehry’s. Who knew?
Any talk about architecture is good talk. But at bottom, the buzzing you currently hear is not about architecture. It’s about sophistication and sex appeal, which some violently insecure people of a certain education and class in this city desperately crave to validate their residence here. Isn’t Washington a hardship post to which we don’t come but are sent? Aren’t we all just charismatic beings stuck here because of our work and so forth, wink wink? Don’t we need something to blow away the gray, the miasma some insist on living under?
You would have to have been way out in the hills over the past few years not to notice that things are looking up. The parking meters work. Placido Domingo is here. We’ve got our own Armani now. We’ve got Lespinasse and Citronelle. Oodles of dot-com money idle on our frontier. We’ve got first-rate traffic jams; surely they’re a sign of progress. And now guess who’s coming….CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Pilar Vergara.