After decades in which big architecture exhibitions came along about as often as the Olympics, these days a couple of them seem to open every week. Frank Lloyd Wright is the subject of two shows in Manhattan right now, at the Japan Society and the American Craft Museum. Then there's the double dose of Mies van der Rohe organized by the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum, and exhibitions honoring Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in Philadelphia, Jean Nouvel in Paris, Louis Sullivan in Chicago, and Norman Foster in London.
Among the tributes to living architects, the granddaddy of them all is the huge Frank Gehry retrospective on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Wright's curlicue masterpiece on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The 72-year-old Gehry—born in Toronto but long connected in the public imagination with Los Angeles, his home of more than 50 years—is not merely the world's most famous living architect. With his fluid, shimmering design for the Guggenheim's outpost in Bilbao, Spain, which opened in 1997, he helped kick off a revival of interest in architecture and design that shows no signs of slowing. That revival has turned exotic foreign characters like Rem Koolhaas and Philippe Starck into household names and has raised the standard of living of anyone who is even tangentially connected to the field, from Spanish tour operators to free-lance design writers in New York. (Ahem.)
All of which makes me feel as though I'm peeling back the gums of a particularly fine-looking gift horse when I suggest that the Gehry show is terrifically flawed—watered down by hagiography and compromised by ethical conflicts. It is, essentially, the art world equivalent of what's known in the journalism business as "advertorial."
At first this might not sound like ticker-tape news, given that the Guggenheim's ambitious director, Thomas Krens, has made a name for himself by mounting blockbuster shows on motorcycles and Italian fashion designers that blur—no, bulldoze—the line between high art and salesmanship. Even by the standards that guide Krens and his staff, though, the Gehry show strikes me as shameless.
For starters, the museum asked the architect to design his own retrospective, which gives you an idea of the critical distance involved here. And the show's curators, Mildred Friedman and J. Fiona Ragheb, have prepared wall text that can be as fawning as press release copy. About Gehry's design for the Condé Nast cafeteria, which opened last year and is already starting to look like a dated, blobby time capsule, the curators write, "The architect's penchant for habitually reinventing materials ... [i]s spectacularly demonstrated by the contoured architectural glass that winds through the cafeteria. ... A dazzling and witty commentary on the 'see and be seen' culture."
Alas, such boosterism is nothing compared to the conflict of interest that looms at the show's core. The Guggenheim has been lobbying furiously to win approval for a new branch in lower Manhattan—designed by Gehry, of course, and scheduled to open six or seven years from now. (Additional Guggenheim franchises are planned for Las Vegas and Rio de Janeiro.) Gehry's scheme for the downtown museum, though typical of the architect's work in its exuberant intelligence, is also monstrously large—570,000 square feet in all or more than seven times the size of Wright's Guggenheim. If constructed, it would rise higher than 40 stories, blanket four city blocks, and change the landscape of Manhattan's southeastern tip in some very dramatic ways. Despite Gehry's fame and Krens' fervor, the battle to get the building approved is going to be an uphill one.
The effort to win it begins right at the start of the exhibition as visitors are funneled directly into a special room dedicated to Gehry's plans for the new Guggenheim. (This display, a version of which has been on view in a higher gallery for several months, was organized prior to the retrospective; for maximum impact, it has been incorporated into the larger show during its run.) Though its models and plans are gorgeously arrayed, the room does more than promote the new building; it allows the Guggenheim to pat itself on the back for having bet big on Gehry in Bilbao and having since retained him as something close to a house architect.
The sales job continues, though somewhat less directly, as the exhibition moves up Wright's famous spiraling ramp. It's evident in the curators' odd decision to paint Gehry as a lone visionary, working in splendid isolation from trends and cultural currents. Nowhere in this oversized show, which includes more than 40 projects spanning 24 years, will you come across any discussion of how Gehry's work relates to that of his peers or the name of any critic, historian, or architectural movement of the last 30 years. Even its title—"Frank Gehry, Architect"—suggests a kind of platonic mastery that is entirely at odds with the work on view.
While Gehry has long considered himself something of an outsider and has enjoyed tweaking mainstream sensibilities over the years, he's also been among the most deeply engaged architects of his generation, particularly in testing out new materials and design technologies and in the communities where he lives and builds. His work has always, for better and worse, been up to its knees in the muck of the culture.
Gehry is the last architect in the world who needs curatorial air brushing, which makes it all the more disappointing to see him get it. Strangely, most ofAmerica's prominent architecture critics have shrugged off the show's problems. In their reviews, Robert Campbell of the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times' Nicolai Ouroussoff each used a single buried paragraph to shake their heads at what Ouroussoff called the show's "fuzzy ethics." And the New York Times' Herbert Muschamp, who raked Krens and the Guggenheim over the coals for the negotiations that preceded its Giorgio Armani retrospective last year, said not one word about such conflicts this time around. Between the lines, Muschamp's message seemed to be this: The Guggenheim will be the Guggenheim, and Gehry is such a masterful talent that I don't want to interrupt my tribute to him for even a brief discussion of ethical standards.
This show skimps so much on details that viewers never learn all kinds of key facts about its subject. The curators never note that Gehry was included in the Museum of Modern Art's infamous 1988 deconstructivism show, an examination of colliding and fragmented forms in contemporary architecture, nor that Gehry protested that he didn't consider himself part of the decon school. That line between belonging and not belonging is one Gehry has straddled his entire career.
Besides, it is precisely Gehry's idiosyncratic but always thoughtful take on the idea of architectural context that has made his work distinctive. (That's one reason the scheme for the downtown Guggenheim, whose out-of-whack scale seems to reflect Krens' ambitions more than Gehry's, has struck such a discordant note even among the architect's fans.) The house Gehry remodeled for himself in Santa Monica, with its chain-link and corrugated metal siding, is both a reflection and a parody of the L.A. that surrounds it. And the Guggenheim Bilbao, which at first glance appears like a bright and blobby alien presence on the riverfront, is actually carefully positioned at the edge of the city's urban core. It's no accident that the iconic image of Bilbao shows the museum's titanium-clad curves glinting at the end of a boulevard lined by drably colored and tightly packed 100-year-old buildings; Gehry arranged the museum so that photographers and visitors would be drawn to approach it from just that direction.
Gehry's design for Bilbao, like so much of his work, is contextual and radical at the same time; it's a spaceship perfectly designed to occupy the spot where it's landed. Yet the Guggenheim's tribute to the architect insists on launching his work back into outer space, where it simply drifts, weightless and beautiful, in its own orbit.
When you think about it, this makes a devilish kind of sense. In the effort to win approval for a huge new branch, it's in the museum's interest to promote Gehry not merely as a remarkable architect reaching the twilight of a long, varied career, but rather as a Mozartian figure, the kind of freakishly talented figure who transcends not just his surroundings but his historical age. What city run by sane people, the show suggests, would dare miss the chance to accommodate that level of genius? Who cares about zoning and neighborhood scale when you've got the chance to make history?