The Master Of The Museum


Frank Gehry has designed some of the world's most celebrated museums

now he's the star of two exhibits at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

October 04, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

There are two schools of thought about museum design in America today.

One is that a museum should be a passive container for the art collection on display inside.

The second is that a museum should be an integral part of the collection - perhaps even its most important work.

A new exhibit about the museums designed by architect and artist Frank O. Gehry shows why his buildings consistently fall into the second category - and why Gehry has received worldwide acclaim for creating them.

Whether in Minneapolis or Seattle or Bilbao, Spain, the California-based architect's creations are striking works of sculpture that set the tone for the museum-goers' experience.

"I want buildings that have passion in them, that have feeling in them, that make people feel something, even if they get mad at them," Gehry says. "Good museum design is ephemeral. There are no rules."

Frank Gehry, Architect: Designs for Museums, now on view at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art illustrates the inventiveness that has made Gehry one of the world's preeminent architects. A second exhibit, The Furniture of Frank Gehry, focuses on his furniture designs, including the "wiggle" side chair, made of corrugated cardboard that folds in on itself, and the "SuperLight," an aluminum stacking chair.

Together the exhibits exemplify the architect's vision as realized on vastly disparate scales. The furniture is actual size; the museums, some of which take up a city block or more, are depicted in models, drawings and photos.

One featured building is Minnesota's Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, whose shiny, sculptural west side appears to be an extension of its setting, limestone cliffs flanking the Mississippi River.

The colorful, rounded forms of Seattle's Experience Music Project allude to the pulsing beat of that city's music scene. Then there's the titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which has been credited with transforming a depressed city in Spain's Basque country to a global magnet for tourists, solely by dint of its powerful design. Museum directors now have a phrase for the phenomenon - "the Bilbao effect."

Unbuilt or unfinished projects on display include another Guggenheim satellite, initially planned for lower Manhattan but later canceled; and a $200 million plan for the expansion and renovation of the Corcoran Gallery and its affiliate, the Corcoran College of Art + Design, slated for completion in 2009.

Most of the buildings feature sweeping curves and other nonrectilinear forms that appear to defy gravity. All seem more difficult to build than right-angled structures.

It's apparent that each structure is not only different from most buildings on the landscape, but from each other. The variety of designs underscores Gehry's ability to invent forms that reflect the aspirations of a particular client, and fit in with their surroundings.

The proposed Corcoran wing, for example, features many of Gehry's signature touches, including a metal skin and playful, fluttering forms. But its focal point is a mid-block entrance off New York Avenue that could only be right for the Corcoran. Evoking sails billowing in the wind, it creates a transition between two very different structures on either side - the Corcoran's neoclassical building, which dates from 1867, and a modern office building.

"The Corcoran is privileged to have Frank, one of the most inventive and pioneering arcitects of our time, design our new building," said David C. Levy, the Corcoran's president and director. "It is an important opportunity for the Corcoran as well for Washington, D.C."

Born in Canada in 1929 and described by Levy as "the most celebrated architect on the planet," Gehry is widely recognized as having inspired a new direction in modern architecture, one in which building forms are forever freed from the orthogonal grid.

"What is architecture?" Gehry once asked. "It's a three-dimensional object, right? So why can't it be anything?"

During a preview of the museum exhibit last week, Levy and Gehry both noted that Gehry's forms are never arbitrary - and never simply generic containers for other artists' work.

"Frank Gehry's designs mirror the changing roles of museums in the contemporary world," Levy said. "Museums today look to architecture to signal the increasing diversity of their missions. Frank carefully studies museums and their surroundings to design exceptional buildings that meet each institution and its city's unique needs."

In the case of the Corcoran, the museum asked three noted architects to prepare conceptual designs for the expansion - Gehry, Daniel Libeskind and Santiago Calatrava.

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