Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry
Paul Goldberger Knopf, 2015
Reviewed by Chris Bentley
Like many artists of his stature, Frank Gehry has often been caricatured—sometimes willingly, as when he appeared on The Simpsons—but never has the 86-year-old architect been profiled so thoroughly as he is in Paul Goldberger's new biography.
The narrative offers revealing accounts of Gehry's most famous pursuits: the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, which catapulted him to artistic stardom, and the 16-year saga that led to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles. But Building Art also paints an unusually intimate portrait of its subject, whom it refers to simply as Frank. We watch a shy young Frank Goldberg, acutely aware of anti- Semitism around him, begrudgingly renounce his last name in favor of the ethnically ambiguous Gehry—an inven- tion the budding designer crafted to resemble the typographic flow of Goldberg.
His first formative architectural experience comes in November 1946, when Gehry stumbles into a lecture by Alvar Aalto. The Finnish designer was discussing his work on the Baker House dormitory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, its floor plan flowing with the riverfront to maximize views of the Charles. Gehry got to work, drafting at home until he could attend the University of Southern California. "My mother used to say that he was shoveling coal in that back room," Gehry's sister, Doreen, tells Goldberger, "because everything [was covered in] pencil lead, pencil dust, all over the place."
Gehry would eventually go on to design his own building for MIT: the Ray and Maria Stata Center for Computer, Information and Intelligence Services. After Stata's completion in 2004, its warped façades and abstracted forms would draw praise from architecture critics and vitriol from much of the public, including the "seven-hundred-person client" that Gehry contends began the project "suspicious by nature of architecture." The building's mixed reception came on the heels of his success with the Guggenheim Bilbao, and it helped cultivate the strain of criticism that Gehry's buildings are needlessly formal, even frivolously devoted to architectural ideology.
Goldberger's biography reframes that popular perception by tracing Gehry's design philosophy to humble beginnings, including an early penchant for unfinished surfaces and inexpensive materials like chain-link fencing that Gehry dubbed "cheapskate architecture." A young Gehry found himself drawn to anti-Miesian projects that favored approachability over geometric purity. He'd develop those instincts into a series of bold architectural salvos, notably enveloping his family's Dutch colonial house in Santa Monica with angular planes of corrugated metal and sharply angled glass that presaged the term "deconstructivist architecture" by nearly a decade.
Still, given the sculptural flair of his best-known work, it won't surprise many to learn Gehry always felt more drawn to the artist community in Los Angeles than to its architects. In another reveal- ing anecdote, Gehry stages a farcical performance for the 1985 Venice Biennale with the artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen, in which the three play surreally costumed characters with artistic ambitions. Gehry's role was "Frankie P. Toronto," a barber who wanted to be an architect. Ultimately, the biographer shows us a sympathetic Gehry, a man who wanted to please everyone—someone who chased professional success and celebrity as a remedy for lifelong anxieties stemming from childhood. But Goldberger also describes a stubborn dreamer who declines potentially lucrative opportunities even while his young family scrapes by, never content to settle for anything less than complete creative independence. Goldberger's portrait illuminates the man as well as the artist.
CHRIS BENTLEY is a freelance journalist based in Boston. He is the former Midwest editor of The Architect's Newspaper, and his work has appeared in CityLab, Dwell, and Chicago Architect.
Houses for a New World: Builders and Buyers in American Suburbs, 1945–1965
Barbara Miller Lane Princeton University Press, 2015
Reviewed by Julie Michaels
As a child of the postwar baby boom, I remember spending happy weekends with my brother and parents touring "open houses" in the suburbs surrounding New York City. We lived in a garden apartment in Queens and, to us, the model homes—split levels and low-slung ranches with their giant fridges, grassy backyards, and dedicated laundry rooms—seemed the ultimate in progress.
Years later, as an aspiring hippie, I'd dismissively sing, "Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky... little boxes, all the same." How ironic. In less than a generation, the suburban tract house had gone from aspiration to eyesore. It was bad architecture, it chewed up the landscape, encouraged uniformity, isolated us from one another, and was responsible for all the ills of society.
In her book Houses for a New World, architectural historian Barbara Miller Lane rises to the defense of these split levels of the past. Her arguments are compelling, in part because we look back with nostalgia to a time when the hardworking middle class could afford simple homes with mortgages that weren't made of empty promises.
First, the history: a depression and World War II had severely reduced a housing market unprepared for the postwar boom. Four factors led to the growth of these new communities, Lane explains: "the rapid spread of automobile ownership; the rise of a new highway system; the institution of low-interest long-term government loans, especially for veterans; and a new prosperity for lower-income people."
In other words, families could now afford a car and a mortgage. They could commute from work to the suburbs on newly con- structed highways and find their little piece of heaven on a 6,000-square-foot lot right next to their new neighbor's identical home. But even as modern needs dictated a garage for the new car, they also eliminated other, now obsolete elements of American home design.
Gone were the formal parlor and sitting room, replaced by a casual, more open living room. The kitchen, once the domain of the hired cook, became a center for the happy homemaker. Air-conditioning (espe- cially in the South) eliminated the front porch, replaced now by a picture window. Though Lane acknowledges the subtle impact of European Modernism on these homes, she sees a more immediate influence in the "house of the future" designs that appeared in World's Fairs of the 1930s and '40s. Here, the makers of kitchen appliances, electric utilities, and the manu- facturers of aluminum siding contributed their vision of the future—and we bought it.
Lane focuses part of her book on the men who built these communities. Many were unschooled construction workers, electricians, or plumbers, the laboring offspring of earlier immigrants—often members of the same family. In New England, she chronicles the Campanelli brothers, first generation Italian- Americans who, in the 1950s and '60s, built 12,000 houses in 21 different locations around Boston, most abun- dantly in Natick.
Their houses were sturdy, stick-built, framed with wooden studs, and erected a few at a time. Standardized lumber sizes and new tools like nail guns, the Skilsaw, and paint sprayers allowed for fast production, while earth movers made land clearing easy. Despite later criticism, the 13 million homeowners (by 1970, more than 20 percent of Americans) who lived in these houses loved them. As time passed, they added rooms, planted trees, sent their kids to neighborhood schools, and built community. Today, you drive through these old subdivisions and think they're not so bad—cozy homes of 1,000 or 1,400 square feet that raised a family. Then you turn a corner and see a harder reality—customized McMansions that neither fit their lot nor do much for our endangered environment. But that's a topic for a different book.
JULIE MICHAELS, a former editor at The Boston Globe, is a freelance writer who lives in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City
Joan DeJean Bloomsbury USA, 2014
Reviewed by Thomas Vonier faia
"Oh, everybody knows that!" my Parisian friend scoffed. I was surprised to learn that Blaise Pascal helped launch the world's first urban public transit system, in 1651—and that, today, the number 29 bus, running through the Marais, traces portions of a route from his failed carriage company.
Well, I didn't know that—just as I didn't know dozens of other facts about the many ways in which Paris has pio- neered urbanity and captured the public imagination since the time of Henri IV, and not just through great architecture: "Between 1653 and 1667, the city acquired, in quick succession, three absolute firsts: a public mail delivery system, public transportation, and street lighting." Works completed in the 1600s prefigured almost everything Napoléon III and the Baron Haussmann carried out—on a larger scale—200 years later. It was this earlier era that truly shaped the city so many love today.
Captivating details abound in How Paris Became Paris—about the Pont Neuf, the Place des Vosges (then the Place Royal), the Île Saint Louis. These places remain much as they were when built; in large measure, they made Paris what it is. If tourists consistently rank Paris among the most beautiful cities in the world, Joan DeJean says, that's largely due to its "structured handsomeness" and "uniformity in its residential buildings"—achieved by the 17th-century architects, builders, and entrepreneurs who were royalty's handmaidens.
DeJean's account of how seminal architecture and planning left an indelible imprint on Paris makes good reading: "The [Île Saint Louis] provided a lineup of spectacular homes, great architecture best appreciated from afar, that drew Parisians to the riverbanks to admire this ‘city unto itself.'" She credits the city of the 1600s for other great innovations: shopping as a leisure pursuit and tree-lined boulevards made to encourage strolling. Buildings—in fact, entire neighborhoods—were made to promote merchandising.
Planners and builders of the era created alluring river vistas and fine places from which to see them. They designed cityscapes that would inspire awe. Paris made an art and a science out of hawk- ing the pleasures of the flesh—foods, fashions, furniture, sensations, spectacles, nightlife. Mixing of classes—and genders—in public was unknown in the era's stratified societies, so the curious were drawn to Paris from all over the world. Nobles and minions, men and women, rich and poor, mingled in jardins, places, parcs, and trottoirs, all made to foster social interaction and just plain gawking.
So Paris invented urban tourism and the idea of cities as places to be enjoyed for sights and sensations—to explore, discover, document, enjoy, and review, not simply to endure. Some assertions here may invite quibbling. But does it matter whether Paris really had the first public street lamps, when differences in such accounts (it might have been London) vary by just a few years? Did the advent of inherently "public" spaces really produce pamphleteers and bill- posters, who spread dissent and, thus, revolution? Architects like to believe that spaces shape behavior, so it's enjoyable to learn how Louis XIV thought so, too.
Seventeenth-century real estate entrepreneurs built Paris, and not just for the rich, although merchants and financiers did become kinglike, building their own palaces. Private funds made the groundbreaking Pont Neuf, today the city's oldest bridge. The first to use stone, wider than any other, expressly made to be attractive, it was (and it still is) a beacon of civility, urbanism, fine engineering, and great enterprise. In DeJean's rich rendering, it changed everything.
After engrossing pages about the genesis of great structures, streets, and places, reader interest may flag at details about the period's fashions or its new breed of financiers. Admirers of the city's physicality will want more about buildings and less about dalliance, political ferment, and clothing.
The period drawings and paintings the author uses for research bolster her discussions, providing contemporaneous evidence that the reader can assess. The paperback, at least, makes you wish for more of them, sharper and larger.
La plus ça change...Some aspects of today's Paris are nothing new: high prices, crowding, noise, pollution, petty crime, and, occasionally, terrible violence. Yet now—as then—it all coexists with a pleasure that is centuries old and mostly undiminished: simply being out and about in this rich, endlessly fascinating city.
THOMAS VONIER FAIA has lived and worked in Paris for many years. He will become president of the American Institute of Architects in 2017—the first member elected to that post from a chapter (aia Europe) outside the United States.