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Indisputable Genius: Frank Gehry Retrospective

Two Frank Gehry exhibitions in Paris look back at 50 years of his work and make for slick PR presentations - but we will have to wait for a less polished and more probing legacy

Paris is currently enjoying not one but two Frank Gehry exhibitions: a major new retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, and a spot of navel-gazing at the brand-new Fondation Louis Vuitton, whose inaugural temporary show is all about the creation of the Fondation’s instantly ‘iconic’ building (which, à la Guggenheim Bilbao, is already represented on métro signs by a silhouette of itself).

In its promotional blurb, the Pompidou retrospective claims to be the first in Europe, but strictly speaking this isn’t true: after opening in New York, the 2001 Guggenheim Gehry retrospective transferred to Bilbao for a run of six months. But the French can claim a European first in the sense that, unlike the all-American team that put together the Guggenheim show, it was Gallic heavyweight Frédéric Migayrou [who also put together Japan Architects 1945-2010, reviewed on the next page], with his compatriot Aurélien Lemonier, who curated this exhibition. So does their Old World viewpoint bring us a startlingly new way of seeing Gehry? The answer is no, but what they do give us is a solid, traditional, stately march-past of the architect’s career. It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that Gehry himself was involved in the preparations, so the chances that this would be anything other than the official version of the story were pretty slim.

The 50-year-long narrative is divided into six (roughly) chronological sections, for which the curators have valiantly invented mood-evoking titles, like the movements of an impressionist symphony. Judging by these, it is the decade 1990-2000, the one that gave us the Guggenheim Bilbao, that is the most significant, since two whole sections are devoted to it: ‘Fusion-Interaction’ and ‘Tension-Conflict’. But by far the more interesting − and not only because the passage of time may have caused us to remember less well Gehry’s work from this period − are the first two movements, covering, respectively, 1965-80 (‘Elementarisation-Segmentation’) and 1980-90 (‘Composition-Assembly’).

This was when, as Hal Foster has pointed out, Gehry developed a kind of ‘critical regionalism’ (the expression is Kenneth Frampton’s), a specific response to the architecture of Los Angeles, his adopted hometown, before his shift to a plonk-anywhere freestyle bombastic baroque. Beginning with his early houses, where his admiration of Rudolph Schindler is still palpable, the first section culminates in Gehry’s renovation of his own home in Santa Monica (1977-78), which everyone agrees was the pivotal point in his career − ‘the house that built Gehry’, as Beatriz Colomina put it. It’s all here, in embryonic form: the uncertain envelope where inside and out are not quite defined, the fragmentation, the irregular profile, the folding and crunching, the tension of ‘ordinary’ built space hiding under something extraordinary, and the low-tech tectonic spaghetti of wooden beams (a pumped-up glulam variant of which carry the sails of the Fondation Louis Vuitton).


The brand-new Foundation Louis Vuitton, which is exhibiting its genesis and design process

The ’80s were a time of fun, when Gehry embraced Pop in his ongoing reaction to both Modernism (a laid-back California-DIY act of resistance to the functionalist hegemony) and Postmodernism (his conflation of the duck and the decorated shed). His houses of the period appear carefree and witty, often featuring the éclatement that would become a major strand in his work (an ‘appropriation’ of Philip Johnson’s ‘“one-room building” concept’, as the curators theorise it), while the Chiat/Day building (1985-91) became the first instant icon of his career thanks to Claes Oldenburg’s entrance binoculars. At the end of the decade came another pivotal moment, far away from the Californian context: the abstract twisting and swaying of the Vitra building (1987-89), his first European project, which was followed shortly afterwards by the Barcelona fish (1992), his first CATIA realisation.

And then we get the Guggenheim (1991-97). The problem with the Gehry story is that everyone already knows the ending, and once the climax of Bilbao has been reached, all that follows seems like the crashing and banging of an extended brassy finale, especially since no new light is shed on any of this. Indeed the analysis seems less and less trenchant as we move forward in time. Some exhibitions make us see the familiar in a new way, but here the stereotypes are simply reinforced, despite the curator’s claims for Gehry as a contextualist (which he is to the extent he generally wants to subvert and/or dominate the context) and, more unexpectedly, as an urbanist − but is anyone going to be convinced by a blank-box shopping mall or the Hollywood Bowl as arguments in favour of this interpretation? Presentation of Gehry’s work is very light on elevations, sections and plans, the emphasis being shifted to drawings (of very varied technique and approach), photographs and, above all, models − 65 in total. Interestingly, as his buildings get ever more upscale and slick, from the hardware-store DIY of his own house to the hyper-tech glass of the Fondation Louis Vuitton, the models retain a fresh, hands-on, paper-and-glue scruffiness. The chance to see them is one of the joys of this exhibition, even if by the end you feel a little overwhelmed by the umpteenth crazy pile of cardboard and acetate.

The Pompidou show is soberly displayed in the ground-floor Galerie Sud, whose floor-to-ceiling glazing allows views of the surrounding city. Over at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, the approach is very different. In order to see the building better, the building itself and its context have been erased: the most neutral, box-like gallery space in the whole place has been allocated to the show, and scenographer Laurence Fontaine has chosen to blanket it entirely in black, so that spatial awareness is reduced to a vague sensation of being in a wide tunnel. Like Maupassant at the Eiffel Tower, we are consequently better able to concentrate on our lunch, which serves up the genesis and design process of the Vuitton building. The curator was Migayrou again, assisted by Sébastien Cherruet. Models once more abound, including some of the very large-scale ones that Gehry’s office uses (an element missing from the Pompidou show), many appearing without the functionally superfluous glass sails that are the Fondation’s trademark. The selection is supposed to allow us to trace the design’s evolution, but in the absence of detailed explanations it’s hard to follow the thought processes. Gehry’s office was again closely involved in this show, which is a slick piece of PR spin about his working methods, complete with a promotional video from the usually much more thoughtful Richard Copans. (For a more candid view, see Angel Borrego Cubero’s film The Competition.)
As the recent incident in Oviedo demonstrated, Gehry, at 85, and after 25 years at the top, remains very thin-skinned − his must be one of those huge and very fragile egos that needs and seeks out constant applause. And applause for Gehry is clearly what these shows aim to supply. Whatever you feel about his architecture, it won’t be forgotten, and retrospectives of his work will be organised long after his death in the century to come. We shall have to wait for those, once time and distance have done their work, to get a less polished and more probing picture of his legacy.

Frank Gehry

Where: Centre Pompidou and Foundation Louis Vuitton

When: Until 26 January 2015 and 16 March 2015 respectively

Lead image: The Gehry Residence, Santa Monica, rennovated by Frank Gehry in 1977-78

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