Building Another Aircraft Carrier

gehrymodelED.bmp.jpg So Frank Gehry is building a skyscraper in New York city. The Gutter and Curbed seem to the think the real story is who got the scoop on the proposal. More importantly for NYC is the impact the tower will have on their city and for the rest of us the impact it will have on the future of architecture. This might just be the building that enshrines Gehry forever in the annals of history making him the grandaddy of twenty first century architecture. His reputation is so prominent and his buildings so popular its hard to legitamately critique his work.

On the other hand, it might be a massive mistake. But then I'm no Peter Eisenman and Frank Gehry is certainly not some young naive student. And yet…

It was a heady time for most of us when Peter Eisenman came to our school as a visiting critic, even though his lecture left many scratching their heads. I found his buildings bland and over rationalized.The lecture itself was cryptic and, as was fashionably Derida-esque at the time, labyrinthine. Nonetheless Eisenman was in the pantheon of Archi-Gods and I think I can say we were all proud to have him critiquing our work.

AT Carleton we were used to being ripped apart at crits. Our more notorious professors thought nothing of using the most fowl language to degrade and humiliate us in the name of…indoctrination I suppose. But there would be no nastiness with Eisenman in the house.

Besides, on that day, one of the best students the School of Architecture had ever seen was presenting his project.The Pit was packed. His design was magnificent. His drawings; intricate. Awe-inspiring.That was typical Edward. His skill and talent often putting him out of reach of other students' ability to even comprehend what he was doing.

And best of all, he actually seemed to frighten our professors into acquiescence. A glowing exception leaving the wolves stunned and emasculated by the power of his work which they themselves could never hope to match.

Not so for Eisenman.

Of course he wasn't cruel or even aggressive. That was a specialty left to the proffs at Carleton. But neither was he going to let his critical mind go to waste over Edward.

Chomping on a toothpick, as I recall, he reclined and then sprawled all over his chair, arms waving lazily as he began his critique.
"I'm not going to address the particulars of your design. You've obviously met and even exceeded all the criteria for this project. Instead I will tell you a story."

So he proceeds to tell the story of another very talented student. A young woman who, like Edward, could produce evocative drawings and mesmerizing designs. She had been deft at conveying both minute detail and broad architectural concepts.

But Eisenman started to notice something by the time he had seen her third or forth project. Even though each project had a completely different program they were each clearly derivative of ship design (a popular theme at the time) and specifically aircraft carriers.

The student agreed with Eisenman. She admitted she loved aircraft carriers, but saw nothing wrong with using them as a starting point for her designs.More than a starting point, however, her real problem was that her skills and talent could make anything seem compelling even if she repeated essentially the same design in different iterations. And, with all her talents, she remained unchallenged.

Now, she may have served the public well as an architect some day – may have eventually have built beautiful aircraft carrier-like buildings. But when Eisenman asked why she just didn't go into military navel design she replied that her designs were a metaphor. Uh oh. HIS point was that she was no longer challenging herself. If she continued to convince herself and others that 'aircraft charier' was a legitimate response to ANY program, she would become disingenuous and so would her buildings.

Edward said very little in response. They looked at each other and nodded as if some secret Masonic message were being passed between them.

kobefish.jpgIn the beginning (well after he had been in practice for a decade or two) Frank Gehry's buildings seemed so foreign they were beyond categorization. Giant curving blocks of volumes melting into one another. Ingenious – even troubling – use of materials like chain-link. Buildings whose skin appeared to be peeling away. A restaurant in Kobe Japan that looks like, no, IS a giant tail-flipping fish.

I don't really think anyone is bored with Gehry's buildings. I don't even think we're quite used to them yet. No one would dare attempt to copy Gehry. It would be both too difficult to pull of and too obvious. But they can now be easily identified as Gehry's. Like Gaudi or Mies Vanderohe or Frank Loyd Wright. Well maybe not Frank Loyd Wright.

About the other Frank; despite his name being a household word Frank Loyd Wright is remembered not for his body of work but for specific buildings – and deservedly so. But in his sunset years F.L.W. built things that looked more like spaceships with bobbles than serious architecture, and these buildings were quickly dismissed as kitsch. He was in and out of favour throughout his career. So we remember him now for his masterpieces, not his mistakes.

Gehry's new tower does look remarkably like some of his other buildings. But has it become shtick? Considering his stratospheric reputation and the public's adoration for his buildings its an important question. Is Gehry resting on his laurels? Is he building another aircraft carrier?

One thing's for sure. We can't possibly know if this is one of architectural history's mistakes. In fact we don't even know what the building will look like – how it will feel to look at it, to move through it.These are LEAKED drawings and a photograph of a model. We don't even know what stage of design this represents. Because of this premature analysis we're missing the most important aspect of Gehry's architecture. He actually gets his designs built. He builds these fantastical projects and he makes sure they're built well.You may not like them, but there they are. Not consigned to the archives of drawings of conceptual architecture. Not hidden in the dense texts of academic articles.

Go ahead and debate the merits of his latest proposal. But at least let the guy finish his design – which, based on his dedication to his buildings, will no doubt continue throughout the building process.

Sources, Photographs: Aircraft carrier;Windjammer – Arts Navel Art & Aviation Art, Gehry Skyscraper Model photograph; Curbed, Kobe 'fish'; restaurant.

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