Saturday, October 04, 2008

Frank Gehry: Columbo, Dirty Harry, or Frank Abagnale?

So, what character from pop culture does Atlantic Yards architect Frank Gehry most resemble?

Remember, in the 2006 documentary, "Sketches of Frank Gehry," Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim Foundation, observed, “Somebody asked me once about Frank’s ego. I said: You shouldn’t be put off by the kind of Columbo-like exterior. Y’know, the crumpled raincoat and the sort of shuffling, self-effacing manner. Frank’s got the biggest ego in the business.”

OK, so he's not really like Columbo, the bumbling detective played by Peter Falk.

Gehry as Dirty Harry

Consider, then, Mike Davis's wide-ranging and dystopian 1990 book, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, which likens Gehry to Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry character:
Gehry's baroquely fortified Frances Howard Goldwyn Regional Branch Library in Hollywood (1984) positively taunts potential trespassers 'to make my day.' This is undoubtedly the most menacing library ever built, a bizarre hybrid (on the outside) of dry-docked dreadnought and Gunga Din fort. With its fifteen-foot security walls of stucco-covered concrete block, its anti-graffiti barricades covered in ceramic tile, its sunken entrance protected by ten-foot steel stacks, and its stylized sentry boxes perched precariously on each side, the Goldwyn Library (influenced by Gehry's 1980 high-security design for the US Chancellery in Damascus) projects the same kind of macho exaggeration as Dirty Harry's 44 Magnum.


Well, the library doesn't look quite so bad in some other photos, and Gehry was acting on orders of his client, aiming for a vandalproof structure after the previous branch had been destroyed by arson.

And that, of course, was B.B., Before Bilbao, the breakthrough Guggenheim Museum opened in 1997, which gave Gehry much greater latitude to explore his personal vision.

In Brooklyn, more like Abagnale?

Gehry, whose reputation is taking a bit of a turn south, as the Canadian magazine MacLean's recently reported, is neither Columbo nor Dirty Harry when it comes to Atlantic Yards.

While he surely is laboring to create an innovative basketball arena, his willingness to produce renderings that do not merely obscure but actively deceive suggests aspects of Frank Abagnale, the legendary con man in the film Catch Me If You Can.

Remember, Building 1, when known as Miss Brooklyn, was to be three times the size, in square footage, as the iconic Williamsburgh Savings Bank. However, a Gehry rendering, bizarrely tilting the bank as if to crash on the hapless maiden, portrayed it as a behemoth. (Now Building 1 would be about twice the bulk of the bank building.)

"If I think it got out of whack with my own principles, I’d walk away," Gehry said of Atlantic Yards, during a January 2006 appearance in New York. Given that he hasn't walked away, Gehry should be pressed on how exactly deceptive renderings comport with his principles. After all, Abagnale eventually went straight.

Come to think of it, maybe New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, who has belatedly criticized deceptive renderings for the Hudson Yards, might turn his attention to Atlantic Yards, given that the newspaper not only never addressed the Gehry renderings, it has never portrayed the Atlantic Yards project in neighborhood scale.

(Thanks to Michael D.D. White's Noticing New York for reminding me of Gehry deceptions covered by AYR and No Land Grab.)

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