25 March 2008

a welcome mess

[Gehry's Serpentine Pavilion 2008. Image: Serpentine Gallery]

Via Archinect... The Serpentine Gallery has released images of its newest pavilion, designed by Frank Gehry and scheduled to be installed in Kensington Gardens this summer. A jumble of wood and glass, the pavilion is most striking for its departure from the Gehry aesthetic that has been popularized and globalized over the last fifteen years or so. There's no wavy, shiny metal panels here, folks. No fish scales, no ship sails, not a hint of Bilbao, not even a dash of Disney. Indeed, the only resemblance to concurrent work coming out of Gehry's office that I can recognize is the haphazard (and trademark) method by which the presentation model seems to be thrown together.

Upon inspecting the handful of model photographs, I can deduce the following: The pavilion consists of an armature of four oversized posts—echoes of Gehry's early postmodern scalar awkwardness—supporting a trellis of what looks to be oversized railroad ties. This entire assemblage floats precariously over what is described in the Serpentine's accompanying text as an amphitheater space, surrounded by some sort of criss-crossed glass fence.

The whole thing is a mess, really. There's just no two ways about it. But it's a welcome mess, and I daresay I am not the only one who appreciates something new and different from Frank Gehry, something other than the standard panelized, gestural blobs that are multiplying across the globe.

Judging by initial reactions across the blogosphere, there seems to be a general consensus that the Gehry Serpentine blows. The Archinect discussion is particularly entertaining, as well as this morning's posting on Curbed this morning titled "Gehry Finally Loses It." All respect to my comrades out there, but this Progressive Reactionary disagrees. I would venture so far as to say that this project has the potential to be Gehry's finest work in almost two decades.

[Gehry House in Santa Monica. Image: progressive reactionary]

Why? Because it represents a return to the excitement, verve, and ad-hoc-ness of Gehry's earliest projects. The Serpentine model immediately brings to mind Gehry's own self-designed house in Santa Monica, which is, in my book, a masterpiece that validates his entire career. The jumble of everyday materials might look like a mess, but it's a mess with a lot of thought and consideration behind it. It's a mastery not only of such traditional architectural notions as composition, structure, transparency, and scale, but also of how to subvert and creatively reposition these notions. It's playful. Maybe Uncle Frank, in his 79th year and jaded with the expectations of all his conventional clients for his brand of iconography, feels like he wants to stir things up a bit have some fun?

Two footnotes to this commentary: First, many will say that the Serpentine represents a return not only to Gehry's roots, but also to the "Deconstructivist" oeuvre in which he solidified his st.architect status. Bull. I always found the connections between 1980s avant-garde architecture and Decon theory to be tenuous at best, especially in Gehry's case. Say what you will, but the man has always worked more in the mode of a conceptual artist than that of an architect-theorist.

Second, some might say that this project represents a retreat from Gehry's digital-centric practice of recent years. But I would argue that the "digital" was never central to Gehry's modus operandi. Digital fabrication for Gehry was, and continues to be, simply a means to an end—a technique certainly necessary in order to realize his extravagant forms, but completely irrelevant to the production of those forms. In other words, digital fabrication serves a post-design role in the Gehry processl; it comes into play after the fact. (Although, one could argue that the IAC project in New York is an exception—but that's a discussion for another time.) To me, it was always a matter of the right guy being in the right place at the right time (with the right clients and the right projects and the right employees and the right software). So the fact that the Serpentine design seems to have no connection to any kind of digital process really has little bearing on how it should be judged in the context of Gehry's career.

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On another note: I just read recently that Barack Obama, when asked if he had to choose a different career, responded that he always wanted to be an architect. Yet another reason to bring this circus to an end...


Anonymous said...

1. the blogosphere seems to favour those 'X has lost it' comments already.

2. here is a thought: why aren't architects inclined to use pseudonyms more often?

3. 'the mess' can be viewed as a 'representation' of 'inequalities in perception'. the 'coolness' factor is engaging, but how do you critique it at the same time? (not that you need to, but you might want to from time to time)

Hem said...

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