Saturday, May 27, 2006

Art and Architecture

Last week I saw the documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry. The theater was practically empty -- probably because everyone was busy watching The Da Vinci Code or something. Regardless, Sketches of Frank Gehry was a decent documentary, but not a great one, especially compared to other recent biographical documentaries such as Bukowski: Born into This, The Mayor of the Sunset Strip, End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones, and Crumb.

But watching it made me realize what I don't like about Gehry's architecture: It's too perplexing. Sure, it's awe-inspiring and jaw-dropping and magnificent, just as all his followers claim, but for me, that's precisely the problem. When I walk into a building -- any building -- I have an immediate, visceral reaction. You probably do too, although you might not pay much attention to it. Sometimes the reaction is almost unnoticeable, but other times it's pretty strong.

With Gehry's buildings, there's always so much complexity in the design that my gut reaction is to be confused. I've never actually been inside a Gehry building, by the way -- or maybe I've been in just one -- so my reaction is mostly based on photographs and what I saw in the movie. But regardless, when I enter a room, I don't like to feel confused -- I like to feel at ease and serene. That's one of the reasons I'm so attracted to minimalist architecture -- there's no chaos in the design to prevent a tranquil state of mind. That's probably why all those Zen monks prefer the sparse, clutter-free look as well.

But before you get the wrong idea, I do think that Frank Gehry is one of the best living architects around, if only for the reason that he insists on constantly redefining the rules of architecture. Without him, the current sorry state of architecture would undoubtedly be a lot sorrier.

On the other hand, I'm not one of those people who think that Frank Gehry can do no wrong. If Frank Gehry runs a red light, he should get a ticket, just like the rest of us. If Frank Gehry is late with his credit card payment, he should have to pay the finance charges and late fees. If Frank Gehry murders a man, he should have to stand trial.

So, Frank Gehry can obviously do wrong, and not only in the areas of personal finance and criminal activity, but in architecture as well. Just because he's an architect of worldwide renown doesn't mean that every building he creates is a work of art.

In the mid-80s, Gehry designed a building for the University of California, Irvine campus. Even his most ardent disciples would have to admit that the building is far from spectacular. The building might have sat there forever, hosting generation after generation of students and attracting little attention, but after twenty years, the people in charge of making such decisions decided that the building is too small and is in need of repair, and that rather than being renovated, it should be demolished in order to make room for something bigger and better.

Predictably, that caused a lot of people to get very upset. But personally, I'm sort of ambivalent about it. On the one hand, I think it's a crime against architecture when some idiot buys an Eichler or a Neutra just to tear it down and build some hideous "McMansion." That's like buying a Picasso for the frame, or because you like the size of the canvas and you want to use it for a painting of your own. On the other hand, I think the architectural preservationists sometimes have a tendency to go a little too far. There's no reason on Earth that the first McDonald's restaurant should be declared a historical monument, for example. But it is.

So unlike a lot of people, I don't have strong feelings about the Gehry building at UC Irvine. I don't even think Gehry does -- or if he does, he's been keeping pretty quiet about it. He seems like a pretty reasonable guy, though, so he'd probably be the first to admit that not every building he designs deserves to be preserved forever.

But there's another reason I'm ambivalent about this particular building. I attended UCI in the 70s, and back then the campus was still in its original pristine state -- everything was pretty much as it had been envisioned by the architect William Pereira. The campus had a strong sense of architectural unity, and that was one of the reasons I decided to go there. Academically, it was pretty good too, but so were all the other UC campuses, so I decided to go to the one that gave me that immediate, visceral reaction of tranquility and serenity.

Of course, as the campus population increased over the years, it became necessary to add more and more buildings. Since none of these newer buildings adhered to the design precepts established by Pereira, the sense of architectural coherence was gradually lost, and today the place is well on its way to becoming a jumbled mishmash of styles. So, I suppose I wouldn't be sorry to see any of the newer buildings demolished, including the one Gehry designed. To do this would be impractical, of course, so I'm not advocating that anyone go out there and start blowing up buildings. But on the plus side, it would at least restore some architectural purity to the campus.

Pereira was an iconic architect in his own right, of course. He designed or co-designed a lot of famous buildings, including the suspended "Theme" restaurant at LAX and the Transamerica pyramid in San Francisco. But he was more than just an architect. He can also be credited (or blamed) for the idea of master-planned communities, such as Irvine, which despite its powerful aura of artificiality, somehow still has a peculiar sort of appeal.

Of course, if Pereira could see what's happened to Irvine in the twenty years since his death, he'd probably be spinning in his grave. Whatever you think of master-planned communities, at least he never designed a faux-Mediterranean or faux-French Colonial style building. Go to Irvine now to look at all the new construction and that's all you'll see.

By the way, where did the expression "spinning in his grave" come from? It doesn't make any sense, for several reasons. First of all, dead people can't spin. For that matter, living people can't spin too well either -- at least not when they're buried inside a coffin. But most importantly, the expression is used to connote some sense of anger that the spinning person would presumably have, despite the fact that people don't typically express their anger through the act of spinning. Perhaps a better expression would be "banging his head against his coffin." It's more accurate, of course, but it's much less poetic, so we should probably just stick with "spinning in his grave." Of course neither of these expressions addresses the case in which the angry dead person has been cremated.

But getting back to the original topic, I have mixed feelings about tearing down the Frank Gehry building at UCI, I have mixed feelings about the architecture of Frank Gehry in general, and I have mixed feelings about the movie Sketches of Frank Gehry. I might end up seeing The Da Vinci Code one of these days, and if I do, I'll probably have mixed feelings about that as well.