Review: “Building Art” clearly showcases Frank Gehry, but misses the full picture
There are some important sources we don’t hear about in Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry, a blandly titled, generally intelligent, easy-to-read, and disappointingly restrained book by Frank Gehry. Many of them are women. One particularly notable absence is Anita Brenner, the architect’s first wife, whom he has long blamed for convincing him in 1954 to change his name from Frank Owen Goldberg to Frank Owen Gehry.
This particular omission is not Goldberger’s fault: Brenner refused to talk to him. (The divorce, as you probably guessed, was not amicable.) Still, it’s hard not to wonder what she would make of Gehry’s assertion that she was a “tough client” who essentially forced him to make the switch, arguing that it would make it easier for him to avoid anti-Semitism and build a successful career. (“If you knew Anita,” he says, “you know I had to do it. I had no way out. I was backed into a corner.”) Goldberger accepts this explanation at face value, writing without reservation that Jerry, a tough worker in his own right, “He eventually gave in, anxious to keep the peace with his wife.”
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But the most important missing voice in the book strangely belongs to Goldberger himself. He was a longtime architecture critic at The New York Times, later held the same position at The New Yorker, and is now a contributing editor to Vanity Fair. (He has also written several fine books, including “Up from Zero” from 2004, about the rebuilding process at the World Trade Center site.) After a largely first-person introduction, he recalls meeting Jerry V for the first time in In 1974 at the American Institute of Architects’ annual conference, Goldberger largely removed himself from the narrative.
The book, Goldberger’s first autobiography, switches to discrete and fluid third person, and details Jerry’s childhood in Toronto and the Canadian mining town of Timmins, his move to Los Angeles with his family in 1947, when he was 18, and his family. studies at the University of Southern California and the diverse and increasingly sophisticated architectural output that followed.
Goldberger’s character continues to appear occasionally, but only in footnotes. This produces the strange sense of Goldberger the critic knocking on the wall that Goldberger’s biographer has placed at the bottom of each footnote page, trying in vain to let him return to a book he was briefly allowed to control.
This is not simply a matter of style or narrative structure; It gets to the heart of the limitations of “The Art of Building,” which relies too long on satisfactory details about Jerry’s overly complex career path and personality and falls short of the kind of direct critical judgment that might shed useful light on why some of Jerry’s (Walt Disney’s) buildings are in the banquet hall. Musicals, and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao) are masterpieces, destined to be studied a century from now, while other projects (the Experience Music Project in Seattle and the Stata Center at MIT) are largely indulgent and flawed.
Full Coverage: Fall 2015 Arts Guide
Early in The Art of Building, Goldberger offers a reading of Gehry that would become a leitmotif: that the architect throughout his career was desperately seeking success and remaining extremely cautious—and that from the beginning he was “an outsider who wanted success, but…on his own terms.”
This phrase perfectly describes the person I’ve known since moving to Los Angeles in 2004. (I’ve known Goldberger longer; early in my career he wrote me a few letters of recommendation.) Clearly, he’s not just an architect who values his independence above almost anything else. He worries and holds grudges like great athletes do, for fuel. He has made a careful study of authority over the years and is distrustful and discovers clever ways to hide his ambition.
It is not surprising, in light of those decades of shenanigans, evasions and protestations that he cared little for fame or influence, that Gehry, now 86, has become so deeply misunderstood — more misunderstood than any prominent architect of his generation.
At the heart of this misunderstanding — which has already marred the debate over Gehry’s new role, as the unlikely master planner of the reshaped Los Angeles River — lies the idea that what he’s doing is primarily sculptural (or worse, lazy decoration). Although Gehry has long been close to Los Angeles artists, including Ed Moses and Billy Al Bengston, and although his buildings show the clear influence of figures as disparate as Giorgio Morandi, Robert Rauschenberg, and Gordon Matta-Clark, what he gives His most accomplished work accomplishment is the mastery of some basic architectural skills.
If buildings are often enveloped in sculptural beams, the rooms within them show a real sensitivity to human scale, light and the way the body moves through architectural space. They owe a greater debt to Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto, to name two architects whose works Gehry so obsessively studied, than to any artist.
As Goldberger writes, “Certainly, Gehry’s buildings are not what would normally be called tranquility, but they have the ability to evoke the same feeling of well-being.”
In fact, Jerry’s creative intelligence is fundamentally human; This separates him from contemporary architects who have been compared or contrasted over the years, including Thom Mayne, Wolf Breaks, Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind, and Zaha Hadid. Like these architects, Gehry sometimes relied on a vocabulary of conflicting or discordant forms. But his goal is different: not a sense of alienation and dislocation (as in Eisenman’s work) or a reflection of a deeply divided society (as in Maine), but rather to find some kind of clear, difficult solution.
Jerry the person may not be an optimist, but Jerry the architect very much is.
tectonics: The life and work of Frank Gehry
Written by Paul Goldberger
Alfred A. Knopf, 528 pages, $35
(Tags for translation) The Art of Building: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry