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Frank Gehry's Los Angeles: A Retrospective in Buildings

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Frank Gehry's Loyola Law School campus in Los Angeles. Photos by <a href="https://instagram.com/elizabethdanielsphoto/">Elizabeth Daniels</a>.
Frank Gehry's Loyola Law School campus in Los Angeles. Photos by Elizabeth Daniels.

Welcome back to Critical Eye, Alexandra Lange's incisive, observant, curious, human- and street-friendly architecture column for Curbed. In this edition of her monthly column, Lange pounds the Los Angeles pavement to get up close and personal with the back catalog of one of America's most famous architects: Frank Gehry. And ICYMI, catch up on her past columns about architectural gamer paradise Monument Valley, the changing face of Buffalo, sidewalk-level impact of waterfront development around the Brooklyn Bridge, and last month's piece on LA's newest art museum.

To get in to Frank Gehry's Loyola Law School (1980-90) you have to drive around the block a few times. What most published photos of the campus, near downtown Los Angeles in Westlake, don't show is that the only entrance to this "academical village" is through the parking garage. The enclave of buildings—cartoon versions of colonnade, grove, tower, and chapel—present their backs as a wall to the street, hiding their postmodern flourishes and denying passers-by even a ceremonial gate through which to peer. If you are looking for late-model luxuriant Gehry, you won't find it here. What you will see is one of Frank Gehry's first attempts to create an urban place, with an artful mix of foreground and background buildings, sun and shade, gentle ramps, and aggressive switchback staircases.

The most iconic element of the Loyola campus is Merrifield Hall, a free-standing brick building with a tidy, child's-drawing gable and four stucco columns on its south side. The columns are unencumbered by capitals and unattached to the hall. They are just there as a three-dimensional symbol of our collective image of what the law looks like, set at the working center of the open space.

Frank Gehry's headquarters for Chiat/Day, in Santa Monica, built between 1985 and 1991. The iconic binoculars seen from the street facade are by Claes Oldenburg. Photo by Elizabeth Daniels.

So many elements of Loyola seem meaningful in retrospect: the tiered plywood acoustical panels hung from the ceiling of Merrifield read as a low-budget sketch of Disney Concert Hall's billowing wood waves. The blonde-wood interior of the glassy chapel points to Gehry's admiration for Alvar Aalto and transports you briefly to a more northern climate. Meanwhile, the openwork bell tower has no bell, and Gehry would repeat those exposed Paul Bunyan-goes-to-Japan timbers for Chiat/Day (↑). You've seen Gehry's three office buildings in three materials in Dusseldorf, and you've seen his three condos in three materials on Indiana Avenue in Venice. Here, the parking structure is covered in overlapping silvery sheets, another background building is bright yellow with a grid of tiny square windows, and a third is terra cotta. The metal staircase juts and glints just like the chain-link fence lifted from Gehry's Santa Monica house (↓) and reaches up to an off-kilter gem-like atrium (ditto). Nothing aligns, so a walk through the block bounces you from one material to another, making the space feel bigger than it is. I realize, after I walk out, that this is Gehry's Stata Center at MIT turned inside out: His first mistake in that pushy, cacophonous interior was trying to recreate a Los Angeles block indoors in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Frank Gehry's own house in Santa Monica sports chain link as a decorative element on the exterior—a gesture not universally beloved by the neighbors. Photo by Elizabeth Daniels.


Frank Gehry's deconstructivist house in Santa Monica, circa 1978. Photo by Elizabeth Daniels.

I went to look at Loyola because, as Gehry takes on more and larger projects, particularly in Los Angeles, he is simultaneously having a retrospective moment. Earlier this month the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which has long hired Gehry as an exhibition designer but declined to hire him as an architect, opened its version of the career-spanning show organized by the Centre Pompidou in 2014. Also this month, Knopf published critic Paul Goldberger's biography of Gehry, Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry. In both of these presentations, one can see Gehry the architect trying to arrange his own legacy like those three office towers or three condos or three classroom buildings. The row might look a little crooked, a little feisty, but the impulse is no less controlling. What do those three towers represent? Gehry is an urbanist. Gehry is socially conscious. Gehry uses technology. If Gehry is all of these things, that means he is not a sculptor, doomed to create solitary flowers on pedestals. Even after 25 years of success, Gehry is still afraid of being dismissed and compared.

Frank Gehry's Loyola Law School campus in Los Angeles. Photos by Elizabeth Daniels.

While Gehry had no editorial control over Goldberger's biography, it still follows the narrative of struggles, slights, triumph, and rumpled refusal to accept that he's made it—a perspective seen in innumerable profiles and Sydney Pollock's documentary, Sketches of Frank Gehry, which plays at the LACMA show. (I walked through the gallery just as Gehry was attributing his name change from Goldberg to being "pussy-whipped" by his first wife. This put a bad taste in my mouth that did not leave until I exited.) Goldberger's biography goes into great detail on Gehry's relationships with family, friends, colleagues, and patrons, but fails to argue with the architect's own account of the where and why of his work. Now that Gehry has built so much, I wanted the book to pull up the gems, to revisit the past—as I did at Loyola—and dig in to the process of translation from Gehry's increasingly look-alike sketches (I call fake on many of them) to the gargantuan models that make up two-thirds of the retrospective. The book, like the LACMA show, merely whetted my desire to see what's always been my favorite period of Gehry's career: the cheap, quick, and dirty years between the Ron Davis Studio in 1972 and the Vitra Design Museum in 1989. In that decade plus, the distance between idea and building is much easier to navigate, and both buildings wear a sense of fragility on their stucco skins.

The first two rooms of the LACMA retrospective chronicle the fascinating projects leading up to Loyola Law School. There's his own house in Santa Monica, of course, whose lofted parts and excised sections still feel radical after all these years. For the Mid-Atlantic Toyota Dealership for Frederick R. Weisman (eventual donor for the art museum at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis), Gehry put a mountainous metallic front on a concrete-block warehouse, and slashed the boxy interior office space into what would today, in Silicon Valley offices, be called "neighborhoods" with partitions and chain-link. A bird's-eye sketch of the interior reveals Gehry's visual affinity, at this time, with the other architects selected for the Museum of Modern Art's 1988 Deconstructivist Architecture show, though in the biography Gehry argues with co-curator Mark Wigley's characterization of this work as either challenging to order or an attack on existing buildings. Gehry's desire to reject grouping with other architects (embracing, instead, a set of Los Angeles artists), as well as critical interpretation of what he might be up to, is a recurring theme.

Hand sketches for an unbuilt tract house development by Frank Gehry. Images via NC Modernist.

Another project, the unbuilt Tract House Development from 1979-82 (↑), shows the architect's love of making villages: three spec houses, one stone, one wood, one with a pergola on top. Over and over, when confronted with large or urban projects, he makes three, or five, or seven objects and places them in a row, in an attempt to recreate the organic variation of city growth. These villages can be very effective at a small scale, as at Loyola, or the Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica (↓), or (one hopes) the new Children's Institute Inc. in Watts. But Gehry has tried and tried again to build them bigger, as at the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, represented by an enormous model in the exhibition (Gehry's proposal for the development was ultimately scrapped). In enlarging his idea of difference, Gehry seems to lose the small, material-based touches that make his early work endearing in its awkwardness. And when you go big, you tend to lose touch with the street. What would Gehry have done at the ground level in Brooklyn? We'll never know, and so his ability to design space between the skyscraper and the house is still an enormous question mark. Neither of his two New York City projects, for example, effectively meets the ground: The fritted swells of IAC simply end at the sidewalk, while New York by Gehry ends several stories up, over a public school designed by other architects.

Edgemar development in Santa Monica. Photo by Elizabeth Daniels.

Many of the curatorial choices for the LACMA exhibition only emphasize this gap between house and skyscraper, as well as Gehry and the curators' inability to edit. The material on view is mostly sketches and models, with very few working drawings, details, or even material studies. Gehry's furniture only makes an appearance in the gift shop, and despite my own fatigue with Gehry's tale of the carp in his grandmother's bathtub, a display of his piscine Corian lamps would have broken up the thudding display of enormous models, culminating in the final room of current work. After the Guggenheim Bilbao and Fondation Louis Vuitton, these models truly begin to look like piles of art-store crap, acrylic pushed against foil pushed against balsa wood. (Let's not even speak of the rainbow party that is the Biomuseo in Panama, ironically installed in front of the window overlooking Michael Heizer's monochrome, eternal Levitated Mass.) To catch a glimpse of a project's interior I had to bide my time through interminable films, on wall-mounted monitors, that panned indifferent architectural photography of the finished spaces. These curatorial choices undermine the urbanist argument, and seem to not trust us to understand the technology that makes the forms possible. Everything was surface and, indeed, sculptural. Worst of all was the missed opportunity to make the design argument for Gehry's embattled Eisenhower Memorial—here, in a hospitable environment! It was represented by a vast model in which his own work was hidden under the miniature tree canopy.

I had to get out. The better retrospective of Gehry was all around me, scattered across Los Angeles, open to sidewalk commentary.

· All Critical Eye posts [Curbed]
· All Frank Gehry coverage [Curbed]
· Does Gehry's Stata Center Really Work? [Bloomberg]
· Frank Gehry: September 13, 2015-March 20, 2016 [LACMA]
· First Look at Frank Gehry's Pro Bono Design For a Campus For Kids in Watts [Curbed LA]