Does size matter when it comes to design offices and quality?
Today, it’s different for architects such as Gehry, whose late work has been compared to sculpture and who has been called the Michelangelo of his age. Such comparisons imply that he alone is the final arbiter of each curve and arc. His late work recalls James Stirling’s calling Ronchamp “a masterpiece of a unique and most personal order.” As opposed to Mies’s right-angled vocabulary of construction, which created a school of followers, Gehry’s work even now is untouchable in its hermetic formulas, however open and approachable it is for the public.
After the enormous success of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Gehry produced Disney Concert Hall, in Los Angeles, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., and the Guggenheim New York, all variations on a theme. What if, after Ronchamp, churches all wanted similar solutions? Of course, Le Corbusier himself extended the vocabulary of Ronchamp in his church at Firminy, France, and at Chandigarh. Since Bilbao, has Gehry been mining a similarly rich vein of form?
The problem is that when architecture is presented as fine art and sculpture, then each project is considered unique, and not as an answer to the problem of how to make a blockbuster form to embody the aspiration of a place such as Bilbao. This ultimately works against the desire to explore the same themes within a typology, as the variations invariably question and vitiate the uniqueness of the initial object. Uniqueness is an essential part of the aura of the object, as expressed in Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Benjamin notes that film, which he considers to have less aura than the authentic object, “responds to the shriveling of the aura with an artificial build-up of the ‘personality’ outside the studio. The cult of the movie star … preserves not the unique aura of the person, but the ‘spell of the personality,’ the phony spell of a commodity.” The same thing seems to be happening with brand-name architects today. As demand has risen for this group and repetition in their work has increased, the “starchitect” phenomenon has accompanied the “shrunken aura” of the subsequent architectural projects.
Of course, it is unrealistic to expect every new project by Gehry to be a masterpiece; even he admits that. But what can he pull off at the 8.7-million-square-foot Atlantic Yards mega-project in dear old Brooklyn, New York, which at the moment looks more like Co-op City with a bad case of the shingles?
At another level, the problem stems from the incorrect application of the “artist” model to the architect by the media. Even Le Corbusier carefully maintained a distinction between his painting, sculpture, and architecture. Rather than Jackson Pollock or Rembrandt, two solo artists, it is Peter Paul Rubens and his atelier that are a more accurate model for architecture. Rubens had a large workshop with many assistants. He started his paintings with an oil sketch, which was often enlarged and worked on by assistants under his supervision, and then he applied finishing “highlights” to the canvas. More recently, Andy Warhol’s Factory was legendary as the place where he created his work, never alone at any time of the day or night.
Warhol is germane to the concept of repetition versus originality, as is Giorgio de Chirico, who literally copied his own early canvases late in his career. Warhol admired this direction and even copied de Chirico’s copies! Perhaps it’s time to admit it’s okay to copy; in fact, it’s a good idea! Even Le Corbusier proposed copying the Villa Savoie for a development in Argentina, noting, “This same house, I should set it down in a corner of the beautiful Argentine countryside: We shall have 20 houses rising from the high grass of an orchard where cows continue to graze.” Plus ça change!
Gehry should be grateful that at the tender age of 78, he is still pumping out excellent work—without a doubt the effect of architectural Viagra. Perhaps he has indeed discovered the “magic trick” of maintaining a high level of design within a large office, as he told me recently. (So why aren’t the SOMs of the world doing the same?)
Regarding Zaha, as far as I can see, the jury is still out. As opposed to Gehry, who emerged after years of building fairly undistinguished commercial structures, she spent a long time hand painting visions of flight and lightness and has not built much. What has been built is very different from her initial drawings. In Germany, at Vitra, her concrete fire station is choked with rebars; at Wolfsburg and BMW, there was a realization that a new direction was necessary, and we see Deco-like continuous concrete curves, a fluid Brutalism—or is that brutal fluidism? Two hundred people working for her? Seems out of control, but we must wait and see what she builds next.
Richard Meier, with 65 employees in New York and 25 in Los Angeles, never had a problem repeating himself and never presented each project as distinctly unique. From the beginning, the success of his early houses established a vocabulary of Corbusian-derived formal strategies and a restrained white palette that he rarely veered from. This single-minded commitment to a specific “style” with rules and limitations was teachable to people in the office, allowing it to grow. So strict was his early formal system that when I worked as an intern there years ago, it was the news of the day when he used a curve in the Schomburg Pavilion! Very slowly, his all-white vocabulary broadened to include gray. And now he has actually used dark wood in a house in Malibu.
So what is one to do? Since architectural immortality may be fairly limited in the near future, with global warming and the apocalypse happening sooner rather than later, why not carpe diem (seize the day) and take on another hundred staffers? Or should Gehry and Hadid follow Nancy Reagan’s dictum and just say no to the lure and addiction of more work and bigger offices?
Alexander Gorlin, FAIA, heads Alexander Gorlin Architects in New York and is the author of Creating the New American Townhouse (Rizzoli).