FULL OF GENEROSITY
By Christopher Knight
Frank O. Gehry makes generous architecture. More than the radical playfulness of their organic forms or the sensual erotics of their spatial flux, what sets his buildings apart from most of the architectural landscape is their sheer generosity÷liberal, openhanded, abundant, magnanimous. These are not words that fit most buildings, even great buildings by great designers of the past. But they describe Gehry's buildings. He makes architecture that makes people feel like they've been given an unexpected gift.
How he does it is worth considering. Take the 1997 Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which has been the object of such lavish and universal praise. Before going to Bilbao I'd read all the kudos and analysis. I'd read about the advanced computer technology brought to bear on the construction of evanescent sculptural forms, which make for a phantasmagoria of architectural space. I'd read that the building offers rare hope to eternal skeptics about the possibility for significant architecture and planning as catalysts for the spiritual revival of neglected urban environments. I'd read that, finally, here was a building about which critics did not have to say "yes, but;" they could just say yes, without having to qualify it. Not until I got there, though, did I begin to understand what makes this building so unusual. Generosity has a lot to do with it.
The building is of course a masterpiece of contextual urbanism, billowing up from a bend in the river to meet the gruff city and gentle hills surrounding it. The famous titanium cladding identifies the spaces for contemporary art inside the immense structure, separating them out from other functions that are housed in elegant limestone boxes, and from administrative spaces clad in stucco painted bright, exuberant colors. Gehry's riff on Frank Lloyd Wright's famous rotunda for the Guggenheim's parent museum in New York is a marvel of savvy design, at once respectful of its origin yet determined to be unique. The atrium explodes upward, establishing a central vertical spine around which the rest of the building unfurls on several floors. This light-filled tower of curved, shattered, sometimes transparent planes allows a visitor to continuously orient himself wherever he goes in the rambling building. The big surprise of the vast Guggenheim Bilbao is that, despite its gargantuan complexity and unorthodox appearance, you never feel lost or confused inside. You always know where you are. So you give yourself over, willingly, to an exploratory sense of architectural discovery. It's a building you can trust.
The generosity of Gehry's architecture can be traced to two sources. One is his own home, the famous Santa Monica bungalow that the architect disassembled, reassembled and wrapped inside a second structure of chain link and two-by-fours. The other critical source is his drawing.
Gehry's home remakes the great Southern California domestic tradition of indoor-outdoor living. This tradition characterizes the region's vernacular architecture, from courtyard haciendas to suburban ranch houses, as well as its unequaled legacy of household masterworks by Wright, Irving Gill, R.M. Schindler, Richard Neutra and many other distinguished architects. For example, the kitchen and dining room of the Gehry house occupy a former outdoor space, where the driveway to the garage used to be. The floor remains asphalt, acknowledging that history, while an interior wall is composed from the exterior wall of clapboards of the original living room next door, which can be glimpsed through an intact picture window. Sitting "inside" the new house yet "outside" the old one, you're inside and outside at the same time. Formally, the indivisibility of inside/outside space recalls the seamless flow of a classic Donald Judd box, in which the conventional distinction between a sculpture's inside and its outside is erased. Bucking the history of Western sculpture, a Judd box is not a discrete mass occupying space and with a hidden interior realm. Neither is Gehry's house.
Unlike a Judd box, though, domestic space is not just formal. Domestic space is emotionally charged, incorporating a complex psychological dimension that changes over time. Even for a visitor to Gehry's house the experience of being simultaneously inside and outside is psychologically disconcerting; the renovated bungalow gives surprising physical form to an instantly recognizable quality of domestic estrangement and alienation. The past century's architecture has been mostly conceived in formal and social terms, but central to Gehry's achievement has been this uncanny articulation of psychological space.
The key is in his drawings. A Gehry building begins with a sketch, and Gehry's sketches are distinctive. They're characterized by a sense of off-hand improvisation, of intuitive spontaneity. The fine line is invariably fluid, impulsive. The drawings convey no architectural mass or weight, only loose directions and shifting spatial relationships. The Guggenheim Bilbao is a remarkable turning point in Gehry's work öand in the history of architecture÷because it manages to maintain in built form the impromptu sketchiness of his drawings. It's a sketch in real space, a sketch you can walk into. Drawing is the medium most capable of closely recording the evolution of artistic thought÷from brain to hand to pencil to paper and back to brain. Walking through Gehry's sketchy building is like navigating a projection of psychological space that is continuously unfolding. The result: Every visitor is always located at its exact center, and the center moves with you.
That's generosity. All the rapturous ink that has been spilled in the wake of Bilbao turns out to have been something other than what it initially seemed. Not just critical love letters, they're heartfelt thank you notes.