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Gehry's biographer puts on kid gloves regarding Ratner, buffs some of "Frank's" rough edges

It’s no surprise that the New York book party Oct. 21 for Paul Goldberger’s very impressive (but flawed) biography Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry was held at the architect’s curvy 8 Spruce Street apartment tower in Lower Manhattan, and hosted by the building’s developer, Forest City Ratner.

After all, it’s not just Gehry’s most successful New York commission, boldly branded by Forest City as “New York by Gehry.” Biographer Goldberger, who even admirers call “the voice of the urban elite,” also treats the developer with kid gloves, thus buffing the building’s backstory.

Indeed, this substantial book is flawed not merely because Goldberger, as several reviewers have pointed out, mutes his own critical voice when describing works like the Bilbao Guggenheim or Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

It's also flawed because the book--despite describing Gehry choose work over family, jettison longtime lieutenants, and hunger for fame--still sandpapers (or misses) rough edges in Gehry's long and rich life and career.

Channeling Ratner

FCR's Maryanne Gilmartin and author Paul Goldberger
(Neither Bruce Ratner nor Frank Gehry were there)
Photo by Ben Asen/WWD
For example, Goldberger recounts "Frank's" alarm at developer Bruce Ratner’s recession-era proposal to stop 8 Spruce Street halfway up, to avoid having to rent a building with more than 900 units.

“Ratner, trusting his instinct that the market would recover, decided to move forward,” reports Goldberger, unmindful that the developer's pause was used to wring concessions from construction unions.

Goldberger similarly channels Ratner’s narrative when it comes to Gehry’s star-crossed Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, planned to include an arena and 16 towers.

In describing the substitution of Gehry’s titanium-clad arena with a copy of the Ellerbe Becket-designed Indianapolis arena, Goldberger writes that “[t]he banality of the building troubled” Ratner.

But it wasn’t Ratner’s internal Ada Louise Huxtable that got SHoP hired to rework the Barclays Center. (Remember his 2008 quote, "The architecture is important, but it's not that important"?)

Rather, as Goldberger fails to explain, New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff launched a jeremiad against the "colossal, spiritless box," and a Ratner lieutenant later admitted SHoP was hired “for public reasons” (i.e., to win back critics, which it did).

Assessing Atlantic Yards

Still, Goldberger should be credited for reporting that "Frank was devastated by the news" that Atlantic Yards would be designed by another firm. That complicates the narrative regarding Ratner. Of course, Gehry was tethered to the developer for 8 Spruce Street, so he wasn't free to express his feelings at the time.

From Building Art
In Building Art, Goldberger in many ways reprises his 2006 criticism of Atlantic Yards, observing that Gehry was better at designing buildings in the context of the larger city than conjuring up the entire context himself. (Still he errs in the book in describing the project as "a twenty-two-acre project over the Long Island Rail Road yards in Brooklyn.")

Yet the author dials back in small but noticeable ways. While Goldberger in 2006 wrote that Gehry's "talents hardly seem suited to" Atlantic Yards, today he writes that the project "did not necessarily play to [Gehry's] strengths." While he earlier wrote that Gehry's signature tower was "foolishly named Miss Brooklyn," the book states merely that Gehry "named" it Miss Brooklyn.

Goldberger in 2006 earlier wrote critically:
Ratner seems to have been less interested in using Gehry’s architectural talent to best advantage than in trying to leverage his celebrity to make an unpopular development more palatable. Gehry, for his part, clearly loved the idea of taking on the biggest project in New York. But even the most famous architect in the world has limits.
In the book, that gets dialed back--part of Goldberger muting his own voice?--to "the opponents suggested that Ratner hired him not for his design skill but in the cynical hope that his reputation would draw attention away from the issues that concerned them." They did, as Goldberger further describes. He just doesn't give that conclusion his imprimatur.

Giving Frank a break

Goldberger, who was authorized by Gehry to write the biography but gave the architect no editorial control, says his subject doesn’t like the book's treatment of his troubled first marriage and relationship with his children.

Still, Gehry had to appreciate Goldberger’s discretion. For example, the author calls Gehry’s petulant response to a Spanish journalist last year—extending his middle finger in response to a question about his buildings as sculpture—“a trivial incident, funny more than scandalous.” Perhaps, especially since Gehry was very tired, and he's getting older and understandably less patient.

But Goldberger omits a somewhat similar 2009 clash at the Aspen Ideas Festival, in which Fred Kent, a pioneer in placemaking, asked why iconic architecture doesn't create good public places, triggering such disdain from Gehry that journalist James Fallows called it “incredible and unforgettable."

Also unmentioned is the 2006 episode in Brooklyn, whereupon noticing picket signs outside a press conference unveiling new Atlantic Yards designs, Gehry cracked dismissively, "They should've been picketing Henry Ford.”

Coldblooded Frank

Such moments, along with others I've witnessed, suggest a man more coldblooded than described in the book. Both Building Art and Sydney Pollack’s mostly flattering documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry tell of Gehry's split with the Rouse Company, for which he designed the Santa Monica Place mall.

A Rouse executive visiting Gehry's unique home, a new structure built around an existing house, asked about the divide between Gehry’s work and his passion. Gehry that weekend chose to give up such commissions. “It was like jumping off a cliff, an amazing feeling,” Gehry says in the film. “And I was so happy from then on.”

Gehry expresses no qualms about the 30 staffers he fired abruptly, and Goldberger simply reports that such consequence “was unavoidable.”

Willfully naive Frank
Williamsburgh Bank
trumps "Miss Brooklyn"

Goldberger also ignores Gehry's seemingly willful naivete regarding Ratner. Designing a project like Atlantic Yards, at least 8 million square feet, would typically involve other architects, the architect said in various interviews, but Ratner insisted it would go faster to work with one office.

Surely the developer, who indeed has hired multiple architects since Gehry left the project, valued the starchitect’s brand. Similarly, Gehry told interviewer Barbara Isenberg rather wishfully that Ratner "had studied my work and realized I was an urban planner but hadn’t had the chance to do that.”

"Bruce Ratner is also politically like me,” Gehry claimed at one public forum, calling himself “do-gooder, lefty."

That, of course, ignored Ratner’s hardball tactics as a developer, including gag orders on property sellers and the creation of community groups to show "grassroots" support.

Gehry played along. His office produced produce misleading Atlantic Yards renderings; in one (above), a nearby Brooklyn tower was portrayed as a giant crushing Gehry’s “Miss Brooklyn” office tower, though the latter would be more than 100 feet taller and three times bulkier.

Boorish Frank

Finally, the mannerly Goldberger seems to miss a certain boorishness in his subject. The opening chapter of Building Art is centered around the March 2011 party celebrating the completion of 8 Spruce Street.

But the author misses the moment, some 14 months earlier, when, at the topping-out ceremony for the tower, Gehry pointed to the sky and quipped, “No Viagra.”

The bottom line

My list of flaws, I acknowledge, addresses only a small fraction of a mostly very impressive book.

But if it seems churlish to point them out, we must recognize that Gehry won't cooperate with another biographer. If Building Art will serve as the closest thing to a definitive Gehry biography, well, it should have been more Frank.

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