Sunday, August 3, 2014

Frank Gehry: Under the Radar?

If you visit Making a Classic Modern, the Frank Gehry exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you'll discover that it's no more an art exhibit than a Hyundai kiosk at the Philadelphia Auto Show. 

Complete with an eager sales representative, a few pixelated photographs of Frank Gehry's work are paired with an enthusiastic guide who might as well be saying, "I want to put you in a Daytona time share unit today!"

Each photograph is accommodated by quotes from critics - notable academics who don't need to endure Frank Gehry's architecture on a daily basis - raving about the man's genius.

A streaming video shows a man who's been practicing his craft for far to long, and a man immune to criticism. Speaking about himself, he says, "What I like about it is you're going to pass by and you're not going to know Frank Gehry was there. I love that, I love being under the radar like that."

Aside from the smugness of a third person narrative, the absurdity of Gehry "being under the radar" is solidified in a gift shop dedicated solely to the man himself.

Gehry has managed to transform architecture into a marketing machine, a big box department store full of twelve dollar Kandinski prints that would look great hanging over your living room sofa. He's IKEA. 

He uses the same modern technology that creates Hollywood sets to allegedly create feats of modern artistry, but just like the Colonial Street backlot at Universal Studios, his buildings are hallow illusions. 

Whatever you think of Frank Gehry's most notable designs, he may do the most damage flying "under the radar." Instead of erecting one of his signature balls of foil along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Gehry will be toying with one of Philadelphia's most iconic landmarks, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and its Great Steps.

As you weave your way through Making a Classic Modern, no marketing gimmick can prove the man's genius. Displayed on the walls are various incarnations of his plans for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, juvenile experiments that cut the steps in half or simply ask, "how many skylights should I embed in the plaza?"

While his larger projects may be controversial in their own right, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the EMP Museum in Seattle are at least interesting to look at. But the plans displayed within Making a Classic Modern show a lack of skill when it comes to integrating interior and exterior spaces, especially when a space already exists. 

It's not surprising. His otherworldly exteriors are often met with unnecessarily claustrophobic interiors retrofitted to accommodate an aerodynamic skin. So we should expect the opposite to be true when he designs an interior that will find its way beyond the confines of a building's existing walls.

Unfortunately for Philadelphia, we aren't getting a Jetsonian building masking an anxiety inducing warehouse like his Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. His thoughtlessness will be exposed on the Great Steps of the Museum.

But Gehry's arrogance may be even more astounding than his inexplicable success as a starchitect. Even Lex Luthor knows who he is and his place in Metropolis. Frank Gehry, who had admittedly never been to Philadelphia until he was asked to remodel the museum, knows as little about our city as he does his own reputation. A fact made clear by a man who thinks that demolishing part of the Great Steps is "under the radar."

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