Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Gehry vs. Kent, the "lame excuses" to Fallows, and the unmentioned example of Gehry and Atlantic Yards

In the past ten days or so, the outline of a curious episode involving Frank Gehry at the Aspen Ideas Festival has emerged in the blogosphere, but now that the video has surfaced, we can all judge for ourselves.

My summary: Gehry was obnoxiously imperial in dismissing some legitimate questions by Fred Kent of the Project for Public Spaces (PPS); Gehry should know Kent by reputation but apparently does not; Kent was longwinded but not “pompous” as Gehry dismissed him; and, yes, Gehry is quite thin-skinned, as we’ve learned from his role in the Atlantic Yards saga.

(Photo compilation via Curbed LA)

Thus, I think that James Fallows, the distinguished Atlantic magazine national correspondent who chronicled the July 3 episode in his blog--and, until the video emerged, essentially owned the story--went somewhat too easy on Gehry.

Why? If Fallows (who's been based in China) had the opportunity to follow Gehry’s performance regarding Atlantic Yards, notably the architect's January 2006 appearance at a Times Talk (where he also cut off questions) or his May 2006 dismissal of Atlantic Yards opponents as "picketing Henry Ford," the writer might not have accepted Gehry's note of apology as “classy in the extreme” or allowed himself to “feel better in many ways.”

And if he had seen the documentary “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” he might have recalled the architect’s admission that “I’m competitive as hell” and Thomas Krens’s observation that “Frank’s got the biggest ego in the business.” (Also note Gehry's cold-bloodedness regarding the shedding of staff or spouse.)

Keep in mind that, while Kent’s well-regarded organization has not worked on projects to repair the public spaces around Gehry’s buildings, PPS has taken distinct aim at the spaces created by two of Gehry’s most iconic creations, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and Disney Hall in Los Angeles for, among other things, ignoring the riverfront and featuring blank walls, respectively. (The photo from PPS shows the lack of human scale at the exterior of the Guggenheim.)

PPS is also a member of the mend-it-don't-end-it coalition BrooklynSpeaks, criticizing the design of Atlantic Yards though not joining Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn and others bringing legal challenges.

(Thanks to reader Benjamin Hemric for bringing this controversy to my attention.)

The video and the contex

Here’s the video. The sequence at issue begins at about 54:17, but the entire interview is worth watching.



Consider that the Aspen Ideas Festival is apparently a convivial gathering of the elite, and this was a friendly interviewer and friendly crowd. Interviewer Thomas J. Pritzker is chairman and CEO of the Pritzker Organization, a family merchant bank, and also chairs Global Hyatt Corporation, which sponsors the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the profession’s highest honor, which Gehry won in 1989, eight years before Bilbao. The two are personal friends.

At the beginning of the interview, Pritzer said a bit playfully, “Towards the end we’ll have a question and answer. Please make your questions very difficult so Frank has a hard time. That’s part of our job.”

Enter Kent

After a couple of friendly questions, Kent stepped up to the microphone and spoke in a professional tone: “My name is Fred Kent. I run a group called Project for Public Spaces. We’re known as the department of corrections, we have to go into cities to retrofit public buildings, public spaces all over the world. I think I travel as much as you do. What we’re finding is that there’s something that’s changing--that needs to change in the world of architecture, which is: the iconic building needs to become a place--”

“What?” asked Gehry.

“A place, and create a sense of place,” Kent continued, gesturing with his right hand. “A lot of the iconic buildings aren’t getting much visitation, so they’re not holding their own in terms of the economics. There’s very little to do around them. People come and look at them, they admire them, they may like them, I like a lot of your buildings, but people have more reasons to go to a city than to just to look at a building, they have to do many, many things.”

At this point, rather than ask a specific question about Gehry’s work, Kent offered an example: “I was just in Norway last week, and the new opera house is a building where people can become engaged in many many ways in that building, from an economic point of view, from just walking up and down, it’s just an amazing building, but it’s not part of the larger city yet, and it will become that.”

“So my question is, how do we take the marvelous iconic architecture that we’ve had, give more reasons for people to be there”--by this point Kent was gesturing with both hands--”become an iconic place as well as a piece of iconic architecture? How do you put those two together because I--”

Gehry interrupted, in a playful manner: “So which one of my so-called--”

Thus began several exchanges in which they talked over each other.

Kent: “Well, I think that you could--”

Gehry: “Don’t do it.”

(His tone was playful, as if not wanting to learn bad news about his buildings.)

Kent: “Well, and I think you see--”

Gehry: “Tell me which one?”

Kent: “See, I don’t think you’re there yet.”

(It’s not clear to me what he meant: Not “there” because Gehry’s work didn’t need such placemaking yet, or because his work in general automatically needs it?)

Gehry: “Ah.”

Kent: “What I’m trying to do is challenge you, because I think you can do better.”

Gehry: “The figures don’t support your position--”

Kent: “I think they do--”

Gehry: “on my buildings.” He chuckled a little nervously.

(Of course, “figures” mean different things. Many of Gehry’s buildings have proved enormously successful as destinations, but Kent argues that the spaces around them need work.)

I think they do,” Kent continued. “But I’m trying to challenge you to be able to do that, because it’s much more exciting than just a piece of architecture to also have this iconic place.”

“But your question is very insulting to me,” Gehry said, maintaining a slight smile.

“I’m sorry, I but I have to go and fix the places up around the world,” Kent responded.

“Not my place you ain’t fixed,” Gehry said, adding an edge to his playfulness.

“I would have to say I would,” Kent responded, though he didn’t give an example, which surely would have helped his cause. (See below for his acknowledgment that he hasn't worked on spaces around Gehry's buildings, but has worked on buildings that "grew out of the ideology that Gehry started with Bilbao.")

Kent: “Anyway you asked to ask hard que--”

Gehry cut him off. “No, no, it’s a very pompous--you’re a very pompous guy here.”

The camera quickly back to Kent, who maintained his composure, with a small wave of his hand, the equivalent of a shrug.

Gehry then waved his arm in a gesture of imperial dismissal: “Leave, leave.”

Many in the crowd clapped.

“You asked--” Kent tried to continue.

“Thank you,” Gehry continued, cutting him off. “You’re in a self-promotion, stop it.”

Pritzker, the moderator, intervened, putting his hand on Gehry’s arm: “We’ve got to keep going.”
And that was it.

The aftermath

That night, Fallows wrote a post headlined Fifty-nine and a half minutes of brilliance, thirty seconds of hauteur:
Until nearly the end, it was entirely captivating. Gehry was funny, illuminating, vivid, unpretentious-seeming....

Then the questions from the audience began. The second or third was from a fairly insistent character whose premise was that great "iconic" buildings nonetheless fell short as fully attractive and effective "public places," where people were drawn to congregate and spend time. He said he was challenging Gehry to do even more to make his buildings attractive by this measure too.


(Though Kent identified himself at the beginning of his question, Fallows, diminishing Kent’s credibility somewhat, simply described him as “a fairly insistent character,” a term that could apply to anyone just off the street.)

Fallows thought it was fair that Gehry felt the question was insulting, but wrote that Gehry’s dismissive gesture was incredible and unforgettable... I was sorry that I witnessed those thirty seconds. They are impossible to forget and entirely change my impression of the man. I was more amazed when part of the audience, maybe by reflex, applauded. When the video of this episode goes up on the Ideas Festival site, judge for yourself.

I wasn’t so amazed. Gehry is a famous world figure and the crowd was on his side too in January 2006.
"Lame excuses"

Four days later, Fallows reported on Gehry’s email, in which the architect acknowledged
a few lame excuses. One is that I'm eighty and I get freaked out with petty annoyances more than I ever did when I was younger. Two, I didn't really want to be there - I got caught in it by friends. And three - I do get questions like that and this guy seemed intent on getting himself a pulpit. I think I gave him an opportunity to be specific about his critique. Turns out that he followed Tommy Pritzker [the moderator of Gehry's session] around the next day and badgered him about the same issues. His arguments, according to Tommy, didn't hold much water. I think what annoyed me most was that he was marketing himself at everyone's expense. I apologize for offending you. Thanks for telling me.

Fallows commented:
To state the obvious, this reply is classy in the extreme and makes me feel better in many ways.

Well, maybe not. Look at the video: Gehry seemed in good spirits until he got hit with a tough question and, as with the Atlantic Yards questions in January 2006, he immediately got defensive and prickly. (Actually, he was defensive even before the questions came, saying, "We’re trying, I am trying, and you’ll still hate what I do, anyway.")

As for trusting Pritzker on Kent’s work, Gehry should do his own research--and, by extension, so should Fallows.

Urban designer David Sucher, on his City Comforts blog, then suggested that Gehry’s “‘apology’ was a veiled attack on a perspective which he wouldn't name and with which he wouldn't deal.”

Sucher observed:
My own view is that one can thread the needle — it is in fact possible for starchitecture to be good urbanism if it is done with urbanism in mind. No time for the explanation right now but the solution is extremely simple. Why won't Gehry take up the issue? He must be able to see how profoundly un-urban a building Disney Hall is. And he's gotta be able to see the extremely simple solution. Why the silence? Let it rip Mr. Gehry. Come down off your throne.

(PPS image of one of Disney Hall’s three blank walls at right.)

Hemric offered a long and interesting comment influenced by his interpretation of Jane Jacobs, noting that, while some buildings beautiful as sculpture may be anti-urban, not every building /structure in a city must be urbane for a city or city district to be healthy.

Sucher then noted that he’d learned that Gehry’s questioner was Kent, and wrote, “It is absurd that Gehry would decline to engage him.”

The controversy grows, Kent responds

Then, on July 9, Fallows followed up, acknowledging:
I am interested in this question and hope to return to the general topic, in talking about urban design as expressed in many of the new mega-cities I have seen across China. But frankly I don't know enough about the argument as it involves Gehry's buildings to have a view right now.

He also offered links to Sucher’s blog. The next day, Fallows posted a response from Kent, who commented:
That Gehry was dismissive of the subject itself and so self important in his response shows just how far removed he and other proponents of "iconic-for-iconic-sake" architecture are from the reality of urban life today... For them to accuse me of using their fame to get attention for myself and my organization speaks to their insecurity and isolation from the larger world around them.


Yesterday, I asked Kent to elaborate on his statement “I have to say I would” fix a Gehry place. He responded:
I don’t think any of his places have been “fixed up”, but many need it. We have worked on many “iconic” buildings including libraries, campuses, museums, and federal buildings. Many grew out of the ideology that Gehry started with Bilbao. They have done some programming around Bilbao which has helped to some degree.


More comments, and an AY reference

Fallows then presented a note “from an architecture professor in Rome who also happens to be my brother-in-law,” who observed that “Adulation, deference and pompousness are indeed traits frequently found in great architects."

Fallows also offered three comments from readers who both defended and criticized Gehry.

Sucher then expressed surprise at Fallows’s surprise at the international interest in the controversy:
There's a very simple explanation: the work of guys like Gehry (of course all architects, to be fair) impacts enormously and directly in our daily lives. Politics at the local level is almost entirely land-use politics. It is only global journalists like Fallows who seem to ignore the great interest in what can best be called urban design— and usually very crudely expressed — which people at the neighborhood level have in what is built in their neighborhood.

...I was also trying to allude to a vast gap in the general intellectual media — one akin to C.P. Snow's Two Cultures of "science" versus "humanities' — in which there is very little awareness among general intellectual media of the critical issues surrounding the built environment. Atlantic Yards and Chelsea Barracks are huge and rich arenas for discussion and ones critical to the future of our world. Yet does anyone report on them besides the narrowly-focussed "architectural critics" such as Nicolai Ourossoff? I would venture "no." They appear to be local arts-craftsy sideshows instead of disputes central to our global future.

(Emphasis added by AYR)

Actually, there’s a good deal of reporting and commentary on Atlantic Yards beyond Ouroussoff. (Gehry was recently removed from the project, though he won't comment and Forest City Ratner continues to spin.) And I don't think it's fair to say Fallows is not interested in urban design; it's one of the issues he addresses in his thoughtful reports from China.

Here’s a good summary of the Gehry-Kent controversy on the Discovering Urbanism blog. And here’s Sucher’s suggestion for a public discussion of the larger issues and his take on the video:
I have never ever seen a man — especially a famous man at the top of his game— embarrass himself in public as did Gehry at Aspen.

I think Gehry's performance was pretty much par for the course--exposing the defensive and prickly personality just below the surface of a genius architect used to adulation and softball questions.

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