The Greater Gehry Is a Smaller Gehry

It’s been a tough year for the world’s most famous architect.

When I visited Biloxi, Mississippi, in 2005, about six weeks after Hurricane Katrina, I discovered that, among the endless antebellum mansions and ordinary homes flattened by the storm surge, a nearly completed Frank Gehry–designed museum, the Ohr-O’Keefe, had been mangled by a runaway casino barge. At the time, my reaction to that small tragedy—trivial when compared to everything around it—was pure schadenfreude. I saw it as a divine joke played on an architect who was crying out for a little comeuppance.

I didn’t always feel that way about Gehry. On a visit in 1990 to the Vitra Design Museum, in Germany—a smallish exhibition space for the company’s furniture collection—I remember walking in circles around the strangely kinetic white building, watching, spellbound, as it appeared to change shape with every step.

In 1997 I spent a week in Bilbao in advance of the Guggenheim’s opening. That museum was a glorious surprise, an architectural invention entirely unprecedented. As I roamed around town, interviewing local officials about the carefully orchestrated revival of their ailing industrial city, I was genuinely thrilled every time I’d catch a glimpse of the museum down a city street or from across the Nervión River.

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The moment I began to question Gehry’s judgment, when I began to think he had started to believe his own press, was in the late 1990s, when the design emerged for his mega-Guggenheim, a 40-story, 500,000-square-foot mass of twisted metal that was planned for a site near Wall Street on the East River. It struck me as not only a case study in hubris but the surest way to undercut the singular power of Bilbao. Fortunately, the East River Guggenheim got sandbagged by the economic downturn of the early 2000s. But then, in late 2003, came the announcement of Atlantic Yards, a grand urban-renewal scheme to be erected mainly on a deck over the rail yards dividing two low-rise Brooklyn neighborhoods. It seemed that Gehry, for all his greatness, had become a pawn in a real estate scheme, a device to sugarcoat an otherwise unpalatable development. And that was the moment for me when the idea of Gehry the architectural hero, the transformational genius, evaporated. He had become another big hungry ego in a world of big hungry egos.

But why? Why would someone as socially and politically adroit as Gehry squander his cultural cachet on a boondoggle? Why would he undermine his brand—the one he’d spent a lifetime cultivating—for a developer like Bruce Ratner? Or as Jonathan Lethem framed it in a 2006 letter to the architect, published on, “I’ve been struggling to understand how someone of your sensibilities can have drifted into such an unfortunate alliance.”

True, I was horrified by the scale of the Atlantic Yards project, the 16 Gehry-designed residential and office towers, but the saddest thing was that the development’s raison d’être, the bait in its bait and switch—the basketball arena—was mishandled. The site of the arena was to be roughly the spot where the Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley wanted to build a Buckminster Fuller–designed domed stadium. Robert Moses had put the kibosh on that plan long ago. So there was a touch of poetic justice in setting a Gehry arena there. But the proposed arena, instead of being a freestanding sculptural object like the Vitra museum, Bilbao, or Disney Hall, was a feverish agglomeration hemmed in by huge towers. Like his less successful works (MIT’s Stata Center and Seattle’s Experience Music Project), the Atlantic Yards’ would-be centerpiece nudged the Gehry aesthetic toward caricature.

In June of this year, Gehry either came to his senses, quit, or was fired from the now troubled project. He’s still billed as the project’s master planner, but a more prosaic firm, Ellerbe Becket, is designing the arena; it’s the only element of the plan that seems likely to be built anytime soon. Early renderings have been depressing. At roughly the same time, I received a copy of Conversations with Frank Gehry by Barbara Isenberg (Knopf, 2009) and began reading the collection of interviews, trying to use it as a Rosetta stone, a guide to the mysteries of the man.

For example, why on earth would Gehry want to master-plan and design every building in an urban neighborhood when his career has been based not on creating urban fabric but on strategically disrupting it? “It was the kind of thing I’ve been waiting all my life to get to do,” Gehry tells Isenberg. He mentions his frustrating experiences studying city planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and goes on to describe the work he did early in his career for Victor Gruen, the architect who more or less invented the shopping mall. “Did Ratner know all this?” Isenberg asks the architect. “Yes,” Gehry says. “Bruce had done his homework. He said he had studied my work and realized I was an urban planner but hadn’t had the chance to do that.” But then, what kind of urban planner today—in the post-Corbu world—configures a development and then designs all 17 buildings? Gehry claims to have said to Ratner, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t do them all,” to which Ratner responded, “One of the conditions of you getting this project is that you do it all yourself.” The phrase “folie à deux” comes to mind.

In Isenberg’s book, the corollary to Atlantic Yards is Grand Avenue, a development scheme for downtown Los Angeles that’s currently on hold. Missing from the Isenberg-Gehry dialogue is the development that I see as a truer parallel: the Point, a proposed 85-acre mixed-use development in Lehi, Utah, financed by a young mogul and built around a 12,000-seat basketball arena. When the project was announced in early 2007, I wondered whether Gehry’s headlong plunge into commer-cial real estate represented the emergence of a new, more enlightened breed of developer or simply the need for Gehry Partners to maintain cash flow.

There’s an interesting passage in the Isenberg book about Bilbao and Disney Hall. Gehry had won the competition for Disney Hall in 1987, but the project was endlessly stalled. After Bilbao opened ten years later to widespread adulation, work on Disney Hall began in earnest. Asked by Isenberg about the timing, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s former executive director Ernest Fleischmann explained, “It was probably because at the time Frank got Disney Hall, his office was small. He didn’t have enough staff to do the working drawings. The executive architect appointed to do it couldn’t produce working drawings based on Gehry’s design.” So as an architect’s reputation grows, his firm grows. And as his firm grows, it can take on bigger, more complex projects, but it also requires larger and larger projects to sustain it. And the growth itself can jeopardize the reputation that made it all possible.

Here’s Gehry explaining how he tries to keep any one client from dominating the firm’s billings: “Between the Brooklyn project and the Beekman Tower, our work with Bruce was growing over the 35 percent level, so I took in more work. That’s why the office tends to get bigger. That’s the only way to do it. You’re not going to turn down good projects.”

More recently, of course, stung by the recession and the loss of a number of projects, the office reportedly shrank from 250 employees in early 2008 to 112 by June of this year. And while this can’t be a happy time for all those displaced employees, maybe the contraction is a blessing in disguise—maybe it has saved Gehry from his own success.

I should mention that on subsequent trips to Biloxi, I got to know the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum, founded to commemorate the boundless creativity of the potter George Ohr. I began to appreciate what a thoughtful, loving job Gehry Partners did on this minor museum. And this project, currently being rebuilt, is my favorite of the architect’s recent work—which makes me think that a lesser Gehry might actually be a greater one.

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