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David S. ToolanAugust 27, 2001

Architects can poison your faith. I found that out between 1960 and 1962, when I lived in a huge seminary the Jesuits had recently built about an hour’s drive north of New York City. The seminary was what Le Corbusier once called a “machine for living”; it had all the charm of Soviet workers’ tenements in Moscow. The designers, from the prestigious firm of Skidmore Owings and Merrill, won some kind of award for the project (I can’t imagine on what basis). I was sure the architect hated God.

My old parish church in New Jersey affects me in a similar way—to walk into it is to abandon all hope of salvation! I have never understood why the congregation hasn’t insisted that the pastor take a wrecking ball to the place and start over.

Then there are buildings with the opposite effect. When Eero Saarinan’s Trans World Airlines terminal at J.F.K. airport was first built (1957)—before all the dreadful add-ons—I used to ride out there just to “be” in the space. Or I think of I. M. Pei’s new East Wing for the National Gallery in Washington. The huge space of its upper galleries really seem made for New York Expressionists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Clifford Still. But the sculptural effect of the building itself has a way of overshadowing all its art, and when I enter it I want to ask people to whisper, as if they were coming into a vast cathedral.

And then there’s the Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry, whose Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain (1991-97), with its billowy, sinuous shapes and titanium sheathing, has drawn millions of tourists to this once fading industrial Basque city and made Gehry an instant international celebrity. This summer (May 18-Aug. 26), the Guggenheim Museum on New York’s Fifth Avenue staged a restrospective of Gehry’s work, focusing on his creative process—with initial gestural sketches (that look like the crazy drawings of a five-year-old), the follow-up programmatic and computer models, and the final design models and photographs that depict the finished works. The models make your legs itch to get inside these buildings and walk around.

The models often depict the whole neighborhood surrounding Gehry’s buildings—as with the Walt Disney Concert Hall currently under construction in downtown Los Angeles, or the six-storey Nederlander building in the old section of Prague—so that one feature of his architecture is that it doesn’t overawe but is situated in its environment. He chooses his clients because he “likes them”—and can work easily with them. One of his earliest big projects has been the law school of the Jesuit-run Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, for whom he has been designing a village-like campus since 1978. Gehry recently withdrew from working with The New York Times, for whom he’s designed a willowy new headquarters near Times Square, because he found the editors there impossible to work with.

Though his mentors were modernists like Rudolph M. Schindler and Frank Lloyd Wright, Gehry seems to have taken a vow against any right angles and linear shapes; in this respect he reminds me of a more austere version of the Catalan master Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926), whose curvilinear world seemed the product of some primal force of nature. Gehry’s constructions have that effect, too. I have never actually walked through a Gehry building, but I expect to be able to fairly soon. Within the next few years, I will have the opportunity to see the Performing Arts Center at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, or the spectacular new Guggenheim he has designed—like some Babylonian hanging garden—over the East River at the foot of Wall Street. If the model at the exhibit is any indication, this new Guggenheim will give New York City a landmark to rival the Opera House in Sydney, Australia—an antidote to despair, a sign of hope.

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