Frank Gehry: the Architect Says “Why Can’t I?”
Those worried about the BBC’s increasingly feeble TV arts programming will have taken little heart from Alan Yentob’s latest Imagine . . . documentary (23 June, 10.35pm) – assuming, of course, that they managed to stay up to watch it. Yes, it was long, coming in at a lavish 75 minutes, which does show a certain . . . investment. But when you’re as grand a fromage as Yentob, no one is ever going to tell you to lose 15 minutes, pronto, are they? Nor is length a prerequisite of excellence, or even depth; Radio 4 often turns out triumphantly good arts programmes that last a mere quarter of an hour.
Its subject was Frank Gehry, an architect whose influence on our cities has been immense, if not always wholly benign (it’s him I blame for our fixation with the “iconic” building, and thus for some of the more woeful decisions made in recent times by planning committees). I don’t doubt his talent, which is extreme, but this doesn’t mean that his ideas don’t merit criticism, or even a little light investigation. At this point, close to two decades after he unveiled the game-changing Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Canadian-born Gehry needs blandishments like London needs a Garden Bridge, which is to say: not at all. Why line up a load of architecture critics merely to praise him? Why make what felt at times like a promotional film for his already booming practice?
The programme followed the completion of Gehry’s latest eye-popper, a building for the University of Technology in Sydney which resembles a squashed paper bag and contains a sweeping, mirrored staircase that (unwittingly, I think) speaks somewhat loudly to this, the age of the selfie. I liked the footage Yentob’s team had gathered of its construction, complete with sceptical Aussie brickies. But a brand new building is just that: its legacy is yet to become apparent. The press release can boast all it likes about its material daring, but its success will only show itself once people are living or working in it. Yentob’s film took in several older buildings: Gehry’s Santa Monica house, inspired, somewhat improbably, by the work of Robert Rauschenberg; the “Binoculars Building” (now occupied by Google) in Venice, Los Angeles; the DZ Bank building in Berlin, which has a conference room shaped like a horse’s head. But we never found out whether they worked for those who went on to inhabit them, which struck me as rather odd, given how keen Gehry is to emphasise the “humanity” of his designs.
What of the Gehry “backlash”, assuming that such a thing exists? (I’m not convinced it does.) In Seattle, there is an architectural cowpat known as the EMP Museum, a confection of – what? – Quality Street wrappers and some stuff Damien Hirst had left over after the construction of his anatomical model Hymn (its nickname locally is, I gather, “The Haemorrhoids”). We got a glimpse of this unfortunate blob, and a “cultural critic” called Barnaby Harris described the “Fuck Frank Gehry” T-shirts he made in 2005, leisurewear to which the architect took a surprising shine. We also saw footage of Gehry giving the finger to a Spanish journalist who dared to ask him at a press conference last year if his buildings were just about spectacle. But mostly we were treated to one (male) critic after another droning on about “Frank’s bravery”, as if he’d scaled the scaffolding and, without even stopping to put on a safety harness, had built his gorgeously loopy façades all by himself.
What did we learn from this paean of praise? Only that US architecture critics are even more self-regarding than some of their British peers. No, scratch that. I’m being unfair. However seriously our architectural writers take themselves, at least they will wrestle with the likes of Gehry, seeing him as a challenge rather than a god. This lot, on the other hand, were so in thrall, it was embarrassing. They were like fashion editors at a Prada show, only minus the clothes, handbags and hair. Gehry’s buildings are often beautiful. Thanks to the digital revolution, he has been able to push at the boundaries of what is possible in the matter of bricks and glass and steel. But he’s no panacea. Swallow him whole, and you’ll end up with . . . well, a garden bridge is only the start of it.