WASHINGTON - Architect Frank O. Gehry has gained worldwide recognition for designing visually striking museums and other public attractions in Minneapolis, Seattle and Bilbao, Spain, where his titanium-clad branch of the Guggenheim Museum helped give the entire region a new image.
Yesterday, Gehry moved a step closer to realizing his first major commission in the nation's capital when the Commission of Fine Arts gave unanimous approval to his preliminary design for a metal-clad addition to the Corcoran Gallery of Art and its affiliate, the Corcoran College of Art and Design.
The panel's action is a key step in the Corcoran's plan to build the wing and renovate its landmark Beaux Arts building at 17th Street and New York Avenue. Containing studios, classrooms and galleries, the project is expected to cost $120 million and take several years to complete.
During an hourlong presentation yesterday, Gehry and his colleagues presented a scale model, slides and drawings to show how the addition would fill a gap between the Corcoran's neoclassical building, which dates from 1897, and an office building next door.
The focal point is a signature entrance off New York Avenue that is created by fluttering forms made of stainless steel or possibly titanium. Gehry likened them to "big sails" billowing in the wind.
"I'm a sailor," he told the panel members. "I guess I like the feeling that that [shape] gives of wind and movement."
Gehry said his free-flowing design for the Corcoran, with its prominent location across the street from the White House, is a statement "about artistic freedom, about discovery and the ways in which contemporary ideas move the historic urban fabric forward over the decades, if not centuries. This seems even more important since the events of Sept. 11th."
The Corcoran Gallery of Art, a privately funded institution, was founded in 1869 as Washington's first museum of art. It is known internationally for its collection of historic and modern American art as well as European painting, sculpture and decorative arts. Founded in 1890, Corcoran College is Washington's only four-year college of art and design.
Corcoran President and Director David C. Levy said the design offers "a spectacular new piece of architecture to the nation, restores our great historic building to its original use, and will stand as a symbol of creativity and the power of art for generations to come."
Gehry was chosen to design the Corcoran's addition after taking part in a limited competition against Daniel Libeskind and Santiago Calatrava, two other architects known for their adventurous work.
One Washington architect who attended the commission meeting, Elena Sturdza, said she didn't like Gehry's design because the colliding metal forms reminded her of an airplane crash. While such forms may have been palatable in peacetime, she said, they are not appropriate after the terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center last month.
Commission members strongly disagreed with that view, saying they found Gehry's shapes lofty, joyful and peaceful.
J. Carter Brown, chairman of the fine arts commission, said he believes the design is extraordinarily reserved for Gehry and suggested it may be a response to the Washington setting. "It's not in the style of classicism, but it's a classic," he said. "This building has a reserve and a purity that will wear well. It has a vitality, but it also has a staying power that you would expect of a museum. I am wildly enthusiastic about this design."
Gehry said he didn't tone the design down because it's in Washington, but he did attempt to create a building that fits in with its context. As for the comment about colliding forms, he observed: "Democracy is about the collision of thoughts. It's the way our cities are built - with structures of different character. That's democracy."