Lord of the dance

This overture to Frank Gehry pirouettes and twirls but is ultimately inconclusive

There’s something thrilling about walking around a model village, the primal megalomania of being master of the urban constructions in which we are usually so impotent. That’s exactly the feeling created in the new Frank Gehry retrospective, which dusts off the office’s store room of models for display in the Pompidou Centre this winter.

Model village: Gehry designed his retrospective exhibition at the Pompidou as a city in miniature.
Model village: Gehry designed his retrospective exhibition at the Pompidou as a city in miniature.

It is clear from the films exploring his working methods that this viewpoint is necessary for the conception of projects of such spatial and tectonic complexity. And so we’re cast as Gulliver-like residents of Gehryville, a town whose residential district is stranded in a suburb of early chronology, in contrast to the iconic cacophony of his large scale later work. At its heart sits the Guggenheim ­Bilbao, fragmenting the presentation thematically and tectonically, symbolic of the paradigm shift in the profession with which it is credited. Beyond this point curational devices of function, location and chronology are disregarded in favour of a taxonomy of form; there’s the collage zone, the fish zone, the blocks + blobs zone, the lava zone (although the curators have labelled them with more archly abstract terminology such as ‘continuity/flow’). But this architecture-as-sculpture stance shifts all debate to form alone, and denies the excitement of a potential ­frisson between form vs context, exterior playfulness vs interior standardisation – such as at Vitra (Weil-am-Rhein 1987-9) – which are some of the most exciting aspects of Gehry’s work. A few interior photos reveal a comical juxtaposition of the necessity and solidity of real life against Gehry’s more playful forms, with air ducts peeking through the sculptural ceilings of Berger, Kahn, Shafton, Moss’ LA Offices for example, or the filing cabinets awkwardly topped with domestically familiar pot plants against jauntily cut walls in Mid-Atlantic Toyota (Maryland, 1976-8). 

The shift is evident from the freneticism of boogie-woogie in his early projects, to ballroom’s distinct juxtaposition of forms and the spaces held in between

Endearing in themselves, these images act as the only link to realised buildings in the exhibition. Framed yellow sketches reflect the indeterminacy of Gehry’s work – gradually straightened out through development towards the requirements of materials and watertightness. Although he is a self-confessed process-orientated practitioner, there are few clues as to how this translates to construction, raising the question of resolution within both the architecture and the display itself, which can frustratingly fail to reveal the end goal. Gehry’s methods refuse to be pinned down, embodying the old adage of ‘dancing about architecture’ and what the curators call a ‘performative architecture of mobility’. Formally, the shift is evident from the freneticism of boogie-woogie in his early projects, to ballroom’s distinct juxtaposition of forms and the spaces held in between – personified in the famous comparison with Fred and Ginger in ING/Nationale-Nederlanden Building (Prague, 1992-6) – and on to tango as his creations become holistic, blending separate forms into one. 

It becomes clear that for Gehry the idea of finishing is an anathema. The indeterminacy displayed in sliding houses down hills of Malibu is equally evident in the Maryland warehouses for Toyota and the Hotel Marques de Riscal, with his deliberate lack of delineation between wall and roof, inside and out. This lack of resolution perpetuates the exhibition itself, which leaves many unanswered questions. But this reflects his approach – maybe Gehry just doesn’t want the dance to end.


Ruth Lang is a tutor at Canterbury School of Architecture

Frank Gehry Centre Pompidou, Paris. To 26 January 2015