Gehry’s First NYC Project Disappoints—Yet Again

The promise of a “Gehry” is often compromised by the unforgiving realities of building.

I have a confession. I’ve seen Frank Gehry naked. And I liked it.

More than once, actually. But the first time, as it goes with such things, was the best. I was in Cambridge four years ago, on a tour of new buildings at MIT. It was a nice fall day and the sky was blue, and there it was: Gehry’s Stata Center, structure up but still skinless—a looming block of bare angular slabs and fat, round, gloriously butt-naked concrete columns. The sight brought to mind the curious history of modern fascination with ruins—a favorite fallback for architects of the Rudolphian Brutalist school (peaking, appropriately enough, in the years following the Cuban missile crisis). But there was also the simple Tinkertoy appeal of the thing. Gehry at his best is like an old boy playing. And there, before that play had to adapt too much—to function, to the demands of his style—it was intoxicating.

I had a feeling then that the Stata Center couldn’t get any better (as I mentioned in passing in my February 2003 column), and I was right; in the following months the most stirring and satisfying architectural spectacle I’d seen in years was awkwardly covered up in red brick that gave MIT the “Gehry” they had ordered but responded not a whit to the muscular structure behind the curtain. On a later visit I was happy to discover that the cavernous interior, largely bare, did retain some of the glory of its bones. But that bashful, obscuring, punched-window facade—so very, very sadly—did not.

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For some reason I always get to Gehry’s buildings just before they finish pulling up their pants. Or maybe skirts is more apt, given the general flounciness that invariably clothes the perfect brutality within. I visited his performing arts center at Bard College when it was under construction (I like that building, but it was better in process), and I saw the Walt Disney Concert Hall a year before it was finished—some shiny raiment applied, but not yet enough to neuter it. I’m glad I haven’t been back since.

In the last few months I’ve had to endure another disappointment. With every local architecture obsessive, I’ve been watching Gehry’s headquarters for InterActiveCorp as it goes up along the West Side Highway. All eyes are on this first Frank Gehry to be completed in New York City. It’s on a nice site, behind the barns of Chelsea Piers, but taking advantage of a full block-front and the good light under those big Hudson River skies. Gehry’s plans for the building looked great: a series of jiblike bays (he’s a sailor, after all, as well as a potter and a tinker) unfurled below a more typically convoluted tower. The skin, as rendered, showed the whole clad in milk-white glass—a convention of the presentation, sure, and probably an artifact of early, pre-CATIA massing models, but still a loose promise to the public once those pictures were released.

That promise has not been kept. And because its structure was so typically naked-Gehry gorgeous, it is a huge disappointment. At IAC, as at Stata, the building presented itself first as an irregular stack of slabs irregularly connected by round concrete columns. Following the fluidity of the overall mass, though, those columns combined to inscribe grand arcs against the outer edges of the slabs, converging on high in a lovely way where the mass was pinched-in and reduced. A true traffic-stopper.

There are no “ideas” in a Gehry building—his work is, above all, a rebuke to those other formalist architects (Koolhaas, Eisenman, Holl, etc.) who freight their formalism with the burden of ever-questing intellects—so the retention of maximum beauty, all the way through construction, is paramount to their eventual success. The skin at IAC, substantially installed as of this writing, is a fritted white glass with an eye-level stripe of clear glass at each floor. Of course, when the milky conceit of the original images went real, there would have to be some concession to light and views (assuming, of course, that the usual bait-and-switch mendacities of the trade are a given). But it looks cheap—gimmicky, even—and speaks more of Sweet’s catalog limitations than transcendent (or simply fun) form. Once again, a once-fine Gehry has put on the wrong dress.

To some degree this problem is universal. There’s a power—dare I say an honesty?—in any raw construction, and it is almost always lost by the time ribbons are cut. Frank Lloyd Wright once said that he built the most beautiful buildings in the world and then was forced to put windows in them; it was his way of bemoaning the compromises that an ideal sculptural form had to make once it was asked to keep out the rain, as well as a specific indictment of the trivializing qualities of glass. Most architects—excepting the rare ones able to hold the full bouquet of architecture’s complexities in mind as they work—face a moment in design where a priori form must mutate, where a sculptural premise must give something up to function. But even less than in many projects by his peers (I’m thinking here of Koolhaas and Prince Ramus’s Seattle Library, which seems to avoid this problem so well), in Gehry’s buildings structure and surface rarely unite. So as a building goes up, it always loses something in translation.

It’s likely a result of his design process. And until that changes—as if!—connoisseurs should stake out the construction sites around the time of the final pour. Chez Gehry, rectilinear massing models become intuitively deformed masses that are, so famously, scanned into his techies’ computers and only then, when it may be too late, “solved” in a structural sense. Gehry doesn’t ignore interior space and structure—despite all this late-career skylarking, he’s too much of a real architect for that (I’m thinking here, by contrast, of Libeskind)—but his outside-in approach sets up an inherent and perhaps irremediable conflict for every design.

In Gehry’s world, purpose and style, structure and skin, inside and outside are never realized in a single act. Still, those high ballooning volumes, so glaringly and often expensively clad, must somehow be divided into usable floors, and—gravity not abating, even for the stars—the whole shebang has to stand. The beauty of the bones is a happy accident. His buildings, naked, are so pleasing precisely because, like all the best architecture, they simultaneously adhere to two logics: structure and style. During the campaign they stand for a moment fully integrated. But from the evidence of the finished buildings themselves we can see Gehry’s true priority. In the end, all that’s left is style.

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