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Frank Gehry, Closet Classicist

Vitruvian Man, by Leonardo Da Vinci, the classic exploration of proportion in the Renaissance period.

A few weeks ago it was announced that Frank Gehry had won the commission to design Facebook's new headquarters in the Bay Area. My friend Allison Arieff, writing in the New York Times, pronounced the choice, "a safe bet, representing Facebook's true transition from rogue start-up to the establishment." With Gehry now the "establishment" architect, she seemed to suggest that Facebook would have done themselves a branding favor by choosing today's radical, not yesterday's.

By "safe," Arieff did not imply that Gehry is unadventurous, just blue chip. But at a point when Gehry's outsize legacy is being debated, I would like to suggest here that Gehry's work is safe, radically safe in a way that does not get much lip service because it has to do with how buildings make us feel when we are in them; and I think it was this kind of "safe" that attracted Zuckerberg to Gehry as much as the architect's status and his now much "established" sculptural form-making.

I have for many years lived in a spec apartment building co-designed in 1961 by the architect Frank Gehry, years before he became the artist Frank Gehry. I have coffee at Peets in another Gehry-designed space, the nearby Edgemar development on Main Street (1989); and periodically I take in a performance in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and art at MOCA at the Geffen Contemporary.

Cat on table in courtyard of apartment building designed by Frank Gehry and Fereydoon Ghaffari in 1961. The U-shaped complex, with overtones of the Japanese and Modern influences of the time, has six units and nicely-designed features like the shared external stairs and balconies that bring neighbors together; the units are configured to let in plenty of light and air even as windows are placed in relation to neighboring apartments so residents have maximum privacy. | Photo: Frances Anderton.

Notwithstanding the apparent difference in architectural language -- the apartments in a somewhat Japanese-Modern idiom; Disney his globally copied, CATIA-enabled wavy forms; the Geffen a kunsthalle in a converted service garage; Edgemar a mini-piazza of angular "towers" -- each environment shares some basic characteristics: a pleasing sense of scale, of proportion and of interrelationships of humans to the space and of spaces to each other, both inside and out. In sum, these places convey -- to me, at least -- a feeling of "safety," a sense of being at ease in the building. This suggests a humanistic approach to architecture that by turn has its roots in something even more radically and apparently oppositional to Gehry's renowned sculpturalism: classicism. Is Gehry, I've started to wonder, a closet classicist?

It turns out this is a no-brainer to those that know Gehry well. One of his alumni, the highly regarded architect Michael Maltzan, and a designer on the Walt Disney Concert Hall, says "most of the time people understand his buildings from their surface but deep down Frank is a classically trained architect. Whether that's historical classicism or a classical modernism, the foundations of that work and what's really operating under the surface is this incredibly controlled sense of order which allows for the buildings to have a seemingly intense animation".

He continues, "what Frank is trying to achieve in the early phases of projects is to organize buildings in relationship in to the way that the individual is going to experience them, both in body and mind, and also what their relationship to others in the building or in the city is going to be."

I recently visited Frank Gehry at his office -- a large, light, open warehouse space --and asked him about this dimension to his work. I was interested at that point in the Eisenhower Memorial, which was getting lambasted in the press for various transgressions, one of them for being insufficiently classical for its role or site. Yet the design -- with an axial plan, a central plinth in an arcadian park lined with a "colonnade" and "tapestries" or "friezes" -- all suggested core classical principles that were far more authentic than the dour, neo-classical government buildings in Washington.

Gehry Partners model of the proposed Eisenhower Memorial.
Gehry Partners model of the proposed Eisenhower Memorial.
Gehry Partners model of the proposed Eisenhower Memorial.
Gehry Partners model of the proposed Eisenhower Memorial.

Gehry explained that when he was at architecture school, in the late 1940s, the Beaux Arts (the classical architecture training that dominated architecture education until the Bauhaus) was an absolute no-no. After school he travelled to Europe and saw Chartres Cathedral in France, and says, "I got pissed off at [my professors] for not telling me how great it was, how all those buildings had some greatness in them. On my own I studied art and architecture history."

Plan of Chartres Cathedral. Located in Chartes, southwest of Paris, the cathedral is considered one of the finest examples of the French High Gothic style.
Plan of Chartres Cathedral. Located in Chartes, southwest of Paris, the cathedral is considered one of the finest examples of the French High Gothic style.

As a result he imbibed ancient fundamentals about planning and proportion and scale that find their way into projects that have been interpreted by many observers as a radical departure from the past.

"I call it the handrail," says Gehry. "There's got to be enough there that you have an emotional handrail, that you can engage with the building. Once you have the handrail you can take a little bit of the newness of it. In Disney Hall I made the symmetry of the interior the handrail.

I knew it was going to have enough asymmetry, and the only reason to do asymmetry is to loosen the dialogue so you don't feel so buttoned down. You do it just for doing it, there's a kind of an implied relaxation that makes it more comfortable for people to use it. So I figured the symmetry was the handrail for people who were going to be freaked about a Frank Gehry building."

Michael Maltzan elaborates: "The concert hall is clearly a highly symmetrical, cross-axial plan; it has this intense social aspect that was unprecedented, where people sat across from each other across the stage and saw each other. That was radical for Los Angeles and for many audiences when it was first built but fundamentally is no different from a very classical church plan with the main aisles and apse and nave and altar in exactly the place that you would expect them."

Another architect, Stuart Magruder, wrote a student thesis on Gehry's plans, having intuited that, "one of the most interesting and overlooked aspects of Frank Gehry's work is it's utter simplicity from a plan view. The exterior exuberance is built upon a clear and often classically inspired plan arrangement. A great example from his early work is his own house which -- in plan -- can be read as a nine square, a classically derived way of organizing space...[N]ext time you go to the Disney Concert Hall, you'll find it works well, and that's because he gets the plan right. The promenade from the street to the seat works." Magruder also looked at the plan for the Eisenhower Memorial, and concluded, "the memorial itself with its massive stone slabs stands in for the inner sanctum of the Parthenon. These slabs -- like the inner sanctum -- are scaled to the overall 'temple' space... simple in form allowing true contemplation."

Gehry, who jokingly refers to a new house for his family that he and his son Sam are designing as "Palladian," (after the celebrated and highly influential Italian Renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio), says, "I think that human proportion is the core of everything. So Leonardo's Vitruvian Man (The 1487 drawing of a male figure in two positions with his arms and legs apart in a circle and square, an exploration of proportion) is sort of the beginning and end of the story. I am conscious of proportioning based on human scale when I'm working. I'm always thinking of that scale and I'm also always thinking of the facility of the space and how it's going to be used, how it's going to allow people to interact, not that I have to design everything, but to know that it's possible to set up things and make it comfortable and useful and interactive. So I put spaces together so that they relate to each other. I think that's almost unconscious now."

This may all seem an arcane academic discussion were it not for the importance of how Gehry's work is being interpreted. On the one hand there has been a backlash from a younger generation that sees itself as the flagbearer for "green design," and reject what they see Gehry's "excessive" and "unsustainable" buildings. Then there are architecture students who are leaning towards extravagant, digital form-making in fantasy worlds sometimes more akin to video games than real world environments. Some would say these are a direct descendent of Gehry's game-changing, CATIA-based work, but in these virtual places, asymmetry "just for doing it" can be the norm, while scale, proportion and relationship of humans to space seem to be quaint considerations.

Critics of Gehry's work might say that his work succeeded in having a human scale, until the projects themselves became inhumanly large: skyscapers, the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim, and now, the 10-acre, open plan office for Facebook. But, says Maltzan, "What I think is interesting in Frank's work, whether it's a really large institutional building or commercial scale or at the scale of a house, many of the same mechanisms are at work. In that way, they're both very much related to that idea of classical presence but are also related to his training as an urbanist, to the way that communities are put in contact with each other and are connected to each other, see each other, are organized. I think for Frank they are all small microcosms of more ideal cities."

Mark Zuckerberg recently unveiled preliminary plans for his new campus expansion; so far it is set to be a single room, housing thousands of engineers, described by Zuckerberg as, "the largest open floor plan in the world."

The scale of the project prompted criticism of Facebook by Arieff for not taking the more radical -- and arguably more sustainable -- step of getting out of the suburban office model and into the city of San Jose. Other critics have raised the specter of workers made sick and distressed by the extreme openness of the plan.

But if Gehry's past open-plan spaces are anything to go by, the Facebook space will be a "microcosm of more ideal cities," with vistas and gathering areas and private and contemplative spaces and different scales of "street", in which users feel "safe", and not alienated by their environment.

If the role of architecture is to lift the human spirit, this is a sustainable model.


Frances Anderton is host of KCRW's DnA: Design and Architecture, and a regular contributor to Artbound. She is also editor of Grand Illusion: A Story of Ambition, and Its Limits, on LA's Bunker Hill. She will discuss the findings of the book, also explored in this Artbound article about Jeffrey Deitch, at DIEM on October 5 and at A+D on October 11.

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