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February 19 2012

'There's a backlash against me'

Frank Gehry's success with the Bilbao Guggenheim sparked an inevitable backlash, but, as he says, 'expression' is still vital to architecture

There are iconic architects and there is the architect who is the icon of iconic architecture. Whether he wanted to or not, Frank Gehry, as the creator of the titanium-clad Bilbao Guggenheim, made the original for 10,000 wannabes – pointy, swooshy, shiny things, would-be masterpieces that proclaimed regeneration for whichever ex-industrial swamp or intended megalopolis that happened to host them. He was feted in magazines and film and by an appearance on The Simpsons. He became the epitome of the idea – again, without much reference to his own wishes – that genius in architecture lies in spectacular shape-making.

Then there was the inevitable reaction. Iconic architecture came to be seen as wasteful, extravagant, unsustainable and, worse, a gaudy distraction from the dark financial forces for which it was a bauble. It seemed perfectly to encapsulate the great pre-crash deception, by offering only the appearance of glamour and prosperity. According to the art critic Hal Foster, Gehry's Walt Disney concert hall in Los Angeles is a "media logo" and his style of architecture is a "winning formula" for "any corporate entity that desires to be perceived, through an instant icon, as a global player". Someone started selling T-shirts saying "Fuck Frank Gehry" (and he bought some).

Not that he or his office seem unduly perturbed by the change in the critical wind. Recently his Signature theatre in New York opened, one of several projects in a city that once shunned him. Last year he completed the New World Symphony, a complex of performance and rehearsal spaces, in Miami. He finished his first skyscraper, in Spruce Street, Lower Manhattan.

Meanwhile, he is embroiled in a different controversy, with attacks coming from a more conservative direction than Hal Foster's: his proposed Eisenhower Memorial in Washington DC has drawn the ire of some of the president/general's relatives. They don't like it that Gehry wants to show Eisenhower as a "barefoot boy" from Kansas, rather than in the full pomp of his adult success.

"There is a backlash," says Gehry, now aged 82, "against me and everyone who has done buildings that have movement and feeling", that is "self-righteous" and "annoying… The notion is that it is counterproductive to social responsibility and sustainability. Therefore, curving the wall or doing something so-called wilful is wrong and so there is a tendency back to bland."

He argues that what he calls "expression" is essential. "Most of our cities built since the war are bland," he says. "They're modernist, they're cold, and now architects want to go back to that. But there are people in the community who want a little more juice, something to relate to, and so they seek out artists and the artists they seek out have become very wealthy and they have big studios." He mentions Olafur Eliasson and Anish Kapoor: "They have big operations going; they have the money, they have the know-how, they have the talent to build big structures."

Artists, in other words, are commissioned to build public structures because they address needs that architects don't satisfy. "You can't dismiss it as a force," says Gehry. "If there's a void they'll fill it." He does not have a problem with artists taking this role either – "hopefully it is collaborative" as in projects he used to do when he and Claes Oldenburg "played together" – but "the architects won't go there because they're being told not to. 'Don't be a naughty boy now.' You know what I mean?"

Nor does expression have to be extravagant. "My buildings are all on budget," he says, and he is proud of his practice's methods: "We have one hell of a delivery system." The Spruce Street tower has a surface of rippling stainless steel that looks expensive but which, he says, costs no more than a standard curtain wall. This was achieved by working with the manufacturer, testing options again and again so that waste and the cost of changing mistakes, which often account for a large proportion of construction budgets, were eliminated. The ripples also look like gratuitous decoration, but Gehry says they are purposeful: "They are just bay windows; they are maybe 10% decorative."

He has set up a company, Gehry Technologies, to sell his expertise in computer modelling to other architects. He also uses the inventions of others such as iCrete, or "intelligent concrete", a version of this sloppy, messy building material that is computer–calculated to achieve the ideal specification, which saves on waste, which saves money and reduces carbon emissions. He scoffs at the idea that his architecture is unsustainable: "We've been involved in environmental issues for 40 years."

If he is keen to rebut the notion that he is a self-indulgent artist, this is possibly because his parents thought he was. "When I was a kid, my father didn't really have much hope for me. He thought I was a dreamer; he didn't think I would amount to anything. My mother also. You know all parents do that with their kids, but at that time they expressed their worries more than we do now." Building in New York gives him satisfaction "because my father was there as a kid and he never really experienced me as an architect".

Other planks of the Gehry defence include the fact that, pre-Bilbao, his architecture was not about titanium monuments, but making the most of humble materials, such as plywood and the chain-link fencing that is much used in his adopted home town of Los Angeles. He was engaged, and earthy, and concerned with the undervalued and the overlooked. He does not see his business as flying into cities and dumping masterpieces on them, but believes that his works respond to the places they are in.

He does not always feel the need to employ his famous curves – "I can do square too." The Signature theatre is mostly about interiors and the "interaction between actors and audience" that is "palpable" and "magical"; it's also about giving its three auditoriums a separate but linked identity. Accessibility is one of the theatre company's aims and his spaces have a directness and a lack of flash that suit a venue with a maximum ticket price of $25.

He challenges, too, the claim that Bilbao is hostile to art, that it is too concerned with its own splendour to be a setting for the works of others. "The rap on Bilbao is a bad rap, fabricated by museum directors. Cy Twombly stayed away because curators at Moma told him not to go there. When he finally saw it he called and said, 'This is the greatest.'" The museum, he says, "has classical galleries for artists that aren't alive, and exciting ones for those that can respond".

I buy the Gehry defence. He is, in a way that others called "iconic" are not, a proper architect, in as much as he is concerned with how buildings are constructed and the making of spaces and forms. He discusses, for example, the question of the corners of buildings – if you have "an open corner" with the walls of the building pulled away from each other, it is "seductive", because it gives more freedom to play with surfaces. On the other hand, such corners can weaken the form of a building and make it look more like a stage set and he is a touch offended when I suggest that sometimes a stage set is what he is trying to create. Such conversations are basic to the practice of architecture, but there are plenty of well-known architects with whom it would be impossible to hold one.

He is not only concerned with the finished form but the processes that get him there. He appreciates his medium, but he is also aware of life beyond it. He is proud of the fact that a new book on management – Managing as Designing by Richard Boland and Fred Collopy – takes his design practices, which are iterative, based on testing and retesting ideas, as a model for other kinds of business. He also spends a month a year working with the department of microbiology at Princeton University, to see if his methods can challenge what he sees as expressive rigidity in cancer research. "There has been so much funding and so much science in big institutions in 30 years, but it hasn't moved the needle." This is a personal matter, as his daughter died of cancer, and he intends to continue this work for the rest of his life.

It is undeniable that his style and name have been exploited as logos. The Spruce Street tower is marketed "New York by Gehry", making both city and architect into a commercial brand. I am sceptical about his Guggenheim planned for Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi. It will be twice the size of the one in Bilbao, for no obvious reason other than that there is the money and space to do so, and where the Basque version has lively rapport with its complex urban surroundings, the newer one risks being a grandiose bellow into nothingness.

Perhaps Gehry could have resisted more the game of signatures and brands that goes with "iconic" architecture, but he is very far from the worst offender, and it is not the case that his buildings are pure shape, with no thought of what might happen inside and out. He holds on to the idea that architecture is about relationships, as between actors and audience in the Signature theatre, and between the people who make them and the people that use them. And, when his approach really works, the results are breathtaking. The Spruce Street tower may be a block of flats for the well-off, but it brings an energy to the skyline from which the whole of New York benefits. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 03 2012

Constructive criticism

Camelot comes to Cockfosters (maybe), Frank Gehry's Signature Theatre opens and the World Trade Centre site struggles with a design flaw

"It's only a model."

Monty Python and the Holy Grail might just have got it right. What other explanation can there be for images of a striking crystalline edifice that appeared online this week, purporting to be a new centre for all things Arthurian, built on the newly discovered ruins of the original Camelot – in Cockfosters, north London.

Surely this can't be for real? The Stone is a 36-metre-high shard of mirrored glass intended for Enfield Park, apparently designed by Swedish architects Råk Arkitektur. As the name suggests, it was inspired by the rock from which King Arthur pulled Excalibur. A sword-like shaft of light will pierce the cavernous interior, which will host "a multi-faith meeting place and a cultural centre".

Råk's name (pronounced "rock") and flimsy website aren't entirely convincing. Nor is the foundation behind the project, the spurious-sounding Organisation for the Protection of Mythological Monuments. Their website at least includes a phone number. At the end of the line is a young-sounding "designer" called Tom Gottlieb. He claims there's just as much evidence pointing to King Arthur's seat being at the end of the Piccadilly line as there is for it being at, say, Tintagel, and that Enfield council have been "receptive" to their idea. Come on, it's all a hoax, isn't it? "Well, Camelot is a myth," says Gottlieb cryptically. In other words, this could just be a speculative publicity stunt by some under-employed designers – in which case, well done. It worked.

Less of a laughing matter is New York's World Trade Centre site. Work has ground to a halt on the 9/11 Memorial Museum, which is unlikely to open on 11 September this year as planned. Two World Trade Centre and Three World Trade Centre, the skyscrapers designed by Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, have also apparently stalled owing to lack of tenants.

And this week, a "design flaw" emerged in the centrepiece "Freedom Tower", or One World Trade Centre. The problem is that the temporary subway station nearby is in the way, so they can't finish the building's underground loading bays, which means tenants can't fit out their space in the 104-storey building. Five temporary loading bays have had to be built, above ground, at much extra cost (now estimated to have climbed to $3.8bn). "Several years ago there was a design miss," admitted Port Authority director Patrick Foye. "Should it have been caught? The answer is, 'probably'."

Faring considerably better in New York these days is Frank Gehry. His own plan for a performing arts centre for the World Trade Centre site has been on ice for years, but at least he got his rippling Spruce Street skyscraper completed last year, and this week the new Gehry-designed Signature Theatre opened on Pershing Square. It's not distinctively Gehryesque on the outside, but fashionably open and stripped down on the inside, with three new stages among its features.

What's more, at the opening, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg spontaneously pledged to get 10 more Gehry projects off the ground in New York before he leaves office in two years' time. That's the kind of news every architect wants to hear, though it'll take some doing. "If my math is any good, Frank, that is one every 70 days," Bloomberg pointed out to his starchitect buddy. "So we should meet some time later today to get going." Perhaps he could knock out some loading bays?

A good week also for Zaha Hadid, who yesterday announced that she is to build the new Central Bank of Iraq headquarters in Baghdad – her first project back in her home country. No details as yet, though it's some way from the European culture palaces she's used to designing. The existing Central Bank came under heavy attack in June, in an audacious attempted robbery by armed militants and suicide bombers.

And finally, the most cheering news for architecture fans must be the restoration and reopening of Mies van der Rohe's Villa Tugendhat, in Brno, Czech Republic. One of the most pioneering designs of modernism, whose opulent onyx walls, iconic furniture and free-flowing spaces still look state-of-the-art today – if not the spartan bathroom fittings. Destined to become an architectural pilgrimage site, it opens to the public in a month's time. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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December 11 2011

The best architecture of 2011: Rowan Moore's choice

It was the year of pop-ups and postmodernism – and the playful Frank Gehry went sky high

In New York they managed to complete the vast 9/11 memorial fountains in time for the 10th anniversary of the events of 2001, while around them rises the strange spectacle of commercial skyscrapers sponsored at huge expense from the public purse. Also in New York, Frank Gehry completed his tower of flats in Spruce Street with a playful beauty that has not been seen in skyscraper design for a while. These days, it's fashionable to knock Gehry for being the father of iconic building, but this tower, and his New World Symphony in Miami, shows that he is what has always been: a proper architect who likes to enjoy himself.

Last year the Serpentine Gallery got the turkey award in this space with its pavilion by Jean Nouvel; now it gets into the top 10 with Peter Zumthor's version of its annual commission. Pop-ups, identified as craze of the year in 2010, are still popping up, with Assemble's Folly for a Flyover leading the field. Olympic projects, such as the stadium and the aquatic centre, are getting their final buff and polish. Both are looking good, if you overlook the temporary add-ons on the latter, and the pointless plastic wrapper planned for the former, supplied courtesy of the Bhopal-implicated Dow Chemical Company.

In other news, postmodernism continued its inevitable revival. The magnificent James Stirling was honoured with a show at Tate Britain, and the V&A is currently revisiting the age of Grace Jones and leopard-skin Formica.

In a strong field of turkeys, the catastrophic Museum of Liverpool breasts the tape ahead of Rafael Viñoly's Firstsite in Colchester, the underwhelming new home of the BBC in Salford Quays and the anti-urban Westfield Stratford City.

TOP 10

8 Spruce Street, New York

Dazzling, elegant fun from Frank Gehry.

The Hepworth Wakefield

David Chipperfield completed two of his sober, considered, light-filled art galleries in 2011, in Margate and Wakefield. The one in Wakefield is the more convincing of the two.

New Court, London

Financial prestige meets cultural super-sophistication in Rem Koolhaas's headquarters for Rothschild.

Brockholes Visitor Village, Preston

A very nice place for looking at nature, on the edge of Preston, by Adam Khan. It floats.

Folly for a Flyover, London

Assemble, maker of the 2010 hit Cineroleum, maintained its form with this temporary cinema/bar/performance space under an elevated section of the A12.

Aquatic Centre, London

Breathtaking inside. Will look good outside, after the Olympics, when they have removed the giant water-wings that contain temporary seating.

Olympic Stadium, London

Handsome in its simplicity, until they wreck it with a festive wrapper for the Games.

Lyric theatre, Belfast

Just plain good, by the Dublin practice O'Donnell and Tuomey.

Maggie's Centres

Three more in the series of high-design cancer centres. The one in Glasgow, by OMA, and the one in Nottingham, by Piers Gough and Paul Smith, stand out.

Serpentine Gallery pavilion, London

An arena for watching plants grow, by Peter Zumthor.


Museum of Liverpool

Confused, expensive, misguided and offensive to the adjoining "Three Graces". Otherwise OK. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 04 2011

Critics' picks

Frank Gehry completed his first Manhattan skyscraper and Mattel Toys launched Architect Barbie, but it was very much Zaha Hadid's year

Frank Gehry completed his first Manhattan skyscraper, 8 Spruce Street, and it proved to be a powerful and robust affair – swirling and muscular. Meanwhile, Mattel Toys launched Architect Barbie, an incarnation of the doll that wears those black-framed glasses so beloved of practitioners, as well as a dress embroidered with a city skyline. She has a pink case for drawings and a model of a pink Dream House to show clients. Is this what inspired Justin Bieber to announce that he would like to have been an architect?

It was very much Zaha Hadid's year. She won the Stirling prize for the Evelyn Grace Academy school in Brixton, London; attended the opening of her opera house in Guangzhou, China, with its grotto-like auditorium; and completed the Riverside Museum, Glasgow's charismatic new transport museum on the banks of the Clyde.

Hadid has been much influenced by radical 20th-century Russian architects, many of them little known elsewhere. So Frédéric Chaubin's revelatory book, CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, was a highlight of 2011. Just look at that thrilling Georgian Ministry of Highway Construction, a Jenga-like tower of windowed oblongs from the mid-1970s. Such bravura design shows that radical work has continued to emerge from the time of the Russian revolution. Hadid remains its torchbearer.

The architecture world is a poorer place without the Hungarian Imre Makovecz, who crafted haunting, low-budget timber "building beings" in the days of Communist rule, before shaping the glorious Hungarian pavilion at the 1992 Seville Expo. Makovecz strived to create buildings that connected heaven and earth in a world increasingly given over to the slick and the inane.

Greenest: Piers Gough's Maggie's Centre in Nottingham, all playful facades and as green as Robin Hood's tights.

Shiniest: Gehry's New York skyscraper, a gleaming prong of stainless steel.

Reddest: The catchily named ArcelorMittal Orbit, Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond's tower for the 2012 Olympics.

Finest: Durham Cathedral, more 1111 than 2011, but recently voted Britain's best building by Guardian readers. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 12 2011

Los Angeles: art's brave new world

Hats off to the city that launched Andy Warhol, spawned Ed Ruscha and now boasts Frank Gehry's most beautiful building

Los Angeles. The first thing you notice is the light: it's like walking into a David Hockney painting.

But the work of art that makes the most poetic use of the silver and blue optical clarity of Californian sunshine is Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown LA. The way the curved sails of shining metal that shape this beautiful building glitter against the sky is a glimpse of paradise in the middle of the city. Gehry is a truly great architect and this public monument is his masterpiece – an even lighter and more dynamic creation than his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Or perhaps it is simply that California is the true home of his art. His concave and convex, hard-yet-yielding forms seem to belong here, to blow in the breeze like the sails of the Beach Boys' Sloop John B.

LA is not a city with a reputation for a developed public life. It's more famous for car culture than for ... culture, and more renowned for strip malls than civic piazzas. Yet Gehry's generous civic building, loved by locals, could give London some lessons in architecture, with a heart and soul that pour life into a city, instead of sucking it out. Yes, I am once again referring to the Shard. Why is London letting an oversize tower wreck its skyline for no good reason, while here in LA an infinitely more imaginative contemporary building performs a creative instead of destructive role in community life?

The Walt Disney Concert Hall is a classic of modern architecture, a building that proves the social and cultural value of poetry, personal expression and beauty. Architecture does not have to be a corporate trashing of the common life. It can save the world, in the hands of a genius like Gehry.

Another genius who has been captivating me in LA is Ed Ruscha. Ever since the 1960s, Ruscha has created art with such indefinable cool that categorising it as pop, or conceptualism – or anything except a deeply brilliant triumph of precision and impersonal style – seems clumsy. He is the west coast's Warhol, the Gerhard Richter of the Pacific. I saw a painting by him yesterday called Annie, Poured in Maple Syrup. It was painted in 1966. The bold letters of the name Annie do indeed seem to be written in gooey syrup – yet the infantilist, supersweet lettering is painted with meticulous conviction in oil on canvas. I find this both a hilarious and eerie work. It seems to do everything pop art ever wanted to do, but better.

Well, not better than Warhol. There is a powerful display at Moca of his soup-can paintings, a reconstruction of the exhibition at the Ferus Gallery, LA, in 1962 when these irresistible paintings were first shown to the world. Warhol made a road trip across America to exhibit in LA. It was the city that gave him his first solo show – an exhibit purely of soup cans, painted as icons. The show was supported by film star Dennis Hopper among others. In LA, Warhol must have felt like he was coming home. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 05 2011

Frank Gehry: Dizzy heights

It's Frank Gehry's first skyscraper – a twisting, rippling tower that is transforming the New York skyline. Jonathan Glancey talks to the 82-year-old architect about realising a lifelong ambition

'I'm getting tearful," says Frank Gehry when I ask him how he feels about finally making his mark on the Manhattan skyline. "My father grew up in Hell's Kitchen, 10th Avenue, on the city's West Side." Irving Goldberg was one of nine children in a very poor immigrant family; his son changed his name in the early 1950s. "He started work at 11," says Gehry. "He had a hard life. I'd like to share 8 Spruce Street with him. Hey, Pa! I got to build a skyscraper right by the Woolworth Building. That's me, Dad. Up there!"

What Gehry, evergreen at 82, has been building up there on the site of a former parking lot on the border of New York's financial district, close by Brooklyn Bridge, is an $875m (£543.3m), 870ft, 76-storey residential tower, clad in heroic, sculpted folds of stainless steel. It houses 903 rental apartments – none are for sale – with prices ranging upwards of $2,630 a month, and is due for completion in five months' time – although the builders who show me around say that some 200 flats have already been let.

Over the course of a day, 8 Spruce Street changes mood and colour with the sun and the sky. One moment it's pink, another gold; at others, it shines silver, or a broody pewter. Seen across the East River from Brooklyn, it animates Manhattan as no skyscraper has done since the Empire State Building opened 80 years ago, when Gehry was a toddler in Toronto. His father was then scratching a living as a slot-machine salesman.

There have been fine and charismatic New York towers since then: the serene Seagram Building dating from 1958 on Park Avenue, by Mies van der Rohe; Eero Saarinen's sleekly muscular, black-clad CBS Tower (1964) on Sixth Avenue; Philip Johnson's controversial 1980s postmodern "Chippendale" tower, crowned with an outsized split pediment, for AT&T on Madison Avenue. But these aside, Manhattan skyscrapers have been almost resolutely glum and workaday for too long: 8 Spruce Street brings back the dazzle and the ritz, the catwalk strut and sheer brio that have made the great New York towers so compelling.

Gehry has long been associated with sensational arts buildings: the epoch-making Bilbao Guggenheim, and the striking Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, the city where he lives and works. Eight Spruce Street, referred to on street hoardings as "New York by Gehry", is a very different kettle of fish. "New York's a wonderful city," says Gehry, "but it's a tough place. Buildings, like the people there, work hard for their living." Commissioned in 2003, this – like most Manhattan skyscrapers – is a design built to a demanding budget, and one required to pay back the investment made in it many times over. It is architecture as big business writ sky high.

Gehry has worked hard to walk tall in Manhattan. To date, in 59 years as an architect, he has managed no more in the city than a 10-storey office block in Chelsea, looking like the sails of ships cutting through a low-lying cumulus cloud; a titanium-walled cafeteria for Conde Nast's headquarters in Times Square; and the fit-out of an Issey Miyake store in Tribeca.

There have, however, been unbuilt projects aplenty: a serpentine tower for the New York Times; a highly sculpted new Guggenheim museum overlooking the East River; and Atlantic Yards, a vast stretch of mixed-use development over a Long Island railroad yard in Brooklyn peppered with 16 towers. Gehry showed me a colourful model of the latter scheme when I went to see him in LA three years ago. Now he's off the job; the developers have taken fright and gone for a cheaper practice. "I asked a developer what value the name Frank Gehry had in New York," the architect says now. "You know what he said? 'A big zero.' Like I said, it's a tough city."

It is – though 8 Spruce Street must surely make up for Gehry's losses here (it was also commissioned by Bruce Ratner, the developer behind Atlantic Yards). The tower is a revelation, though it appears to rise not from pavement level as you might expect, but through the top of a self-effacing six-floor brick block, housing a new elementary school and a service floor for the New York Downtown Hospital. Why? The brick block, also by Gehry – proving he can do straight-up-and-down architecture when called to – is part of a trade-off between the developer and the city planners. Ratner could have his tower, but the school and hospital floor had to be part of the deal.

'I was thinking of Michelangelo'

On its south side, the tower rises in what appears to be one sheer sheet of stainless steel; it might have been cut with a laser. Impressive, yet as you walk around the block – wham! – the tower rockets waywardly up from its humdrum base, flanked by a huddle of bars, corner cafes and local businesses, in overwhelming pleats of stainless steel draped now loosely, now tightly, over the frame of the building. Imagine the Statue of Liberty as an apartment block, and you get an inkling.

My initial impressions were of a vertical river bed, a titanic cyborg, muscles and veins bulging under robotic skin, and of the disquieting drawings of HR Giger, the Swiss surrealist who created Ridley Scott's Alien. Or, perhaps, the artist Christo has agreed to wrap a Manhattan skyscraper in an outsized Issey Miyake gown. This might sound fanciful, but seen for the first time, 8 Spruce Street is a visceral shock to the system.

"What was I really thinking of?" Gehry says. "Michelangelo and Bernini." Really? "Really. Those guys drew bookloads of folds and fabrics, so beautifully. I've looked at these a lot over the years. Michelangelo does softer lines; Bernini's are harder. I love the architectural quality of those folds, and these are what inspired the skin of the building."

This undulating skin, fabricated from 10,500 individual steel panels, gives many of the individual flats a baroque quality; there are bay windows where the folds billow up and across the facades. Set at any number of angles around the three draped sides of the tower, these offer a dazzling variety of views across New York.

"Originally, I wanted to have the folds going all the way around," Gehry explains. "But the marketing folk said that 15% of people didn't want apartments with wrinkles. So that's why there's a straight side. But, then, they started to rent out the wrinkly apartments, and asked for more of them. By then I'd begun to like the straight side. The models we made showing the tower completely wrinkly just didn't look tough enough for New York."

I had thought that the straight side was a symptom of cost-cutting. Surely all those towering folds of stainless steel and the building's complex floorplan on the other three sides must have been expensive? "No. We got the curtain wall with all the curves at the same price as doing it straight. It's all the 3D computer stuff we've developed. Fifteen per cent of construction cost is usually wasted in design changes on site, caused by the fact that architects are still doing 2D drawings for 3D buildings. We do 3D modelling that shows exactly how the whole building fits together, and we don't need many design changes. That way we've come in on budget."

Ideally, Gehry would like to have spent more money. "I wanted to do it in titanium. It would have been beautiful on a grey New York day. But the panels would have been too soft for the cleaning equipment going up and down the tower. I'd have needed much thicker sheets of titanium than I've used before, and then the cost would have been prohibitive."

I wondered, too, if the way the building appears to stop all of a sudden at the 76th, without a crown or spire, was another way of saving money. "I started with something on top," Gehry admits. "I toyed with the thing, but it ended up looking pretty trivial, trying too hard to be something, against the Woolworth Building [Cass Gilbert's superb neo-gothic terracotta and steel skyscraper, opened in 1913]. I have too much respect for the Woolworth Building to do a hoopty-do thing."

A cartoon guest on The Simpsons

Up inside the spireless tower, the Gehry-designed show apartments are much of a piece, views aside, with their white oak floors, stainless steel kitchens, swooping furniture and sinuous, brushed stainless steel door handles. For the most part, city professionals will rent these – although the rents are not especially high for this patch of Manhattan. So, while the tower is imbued with a great visual sense of freedom, an anything-goes spirit, its future population looks set to be pretty homogenous. Those living here will, soon enough, be able to enjoy a 50ft seventh-floor swimming pool opening on to a deck, as well as a gym, spa, library, children's playroom, screening room and an underground car park.

With a Manhattan skyscraper to his name, Frank Gehry is increasingly part of the myth and legend of modern America. It's not just that his wildly energetic and boldly sculpted buildings are world-famous; this humorous, emotional and still-ambitious man has become larger than life. He has guested as a cartoon version of himself in The Simpsons. His master sergeant in the US army in the early 1950s was Leonard Nimoy, the future Mr Spock, who would surely find 8 Spruce Street "highly illogical". And, already famous enough to be the butt of satire, 8 Spruce Street featured in an April Fool's spoof in the New York Times this year: the heat reflected from its shiny surface was so great, the article claimed, that it had caused fires in neighbouring buildings.

"I don't want to do architecture that's dry and dull," Gehry says. "When you talk to New Yorkers, like the guys you met in the Irish bar across the way from 8 Spring Street, like my dad, you want to show them something like Bernini or Picasso, not some dumb thing that bores the pants off everyone." Gehry pauses. He's laughing now. "Do you think they'll let me have a go in London?" © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 04 2011

RIBA v Bieber: the battle for architecture's future

The Royal Institute of British Architects' latest report is downbeat, but the profession retains its allure. Even Justin Bieber wants to be one

Will there be such a thing as an architect in 2025? The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) isn't too sure. This week, its think tank, Building Futures, has published a report – The Future for Architects? – that will make rather disturbing reading for most British architects, and for anyone harbouring old-fashioned or romantic notions of what an architect might or should be.

The report hints darkly at the death of the typical, medium-size British architectural practice (ones with around 25-150 staff), and suggests that most work in the future will be carried out in emerging countries a long way from home. The firms that will survive will either be small scale, local studios or high-powered, business-minded international offices with multilingual staffs based around the world.

The former, the report suggests, will nurture the craft side of architecture, designing new houses or restoring old buildings, while the latter will act increasingly as multi-disciplinary design teams working on the skyscrapers, ever-bigger shopping malls, and massive urban developments of the future. Building Futures says that between 2010 and 2020, growth in construction will rise by 18% in the developed world, and a whopping 138% in the emerging world. On one level this is a simple reflection of economic growth in countries such as China; but it also reflects the general retrenchment of large-scale public projects, from school buildings to new hospitals, in Britain, a country scaling back on many fronts.

Some of the 40 architects interviewed by Building Futures say that the very word "architect" itself will soon be as outmoded as "wheel tapper" or "lollipop lady." They didn't use these exact terms, but they do expect to be called something like "creative consultant" rather than "architect" in the future.

Weirdly, this comes at a time when more young people than ever want to become architects. The RIBA report notes that between 2004 and 2009, the number of students signing up to Part 1 architecture courses in Britain rose by 23 per cent. Significantly, more than half are women. In the United States, Mattel Toys clearly believes that women architects are the way to go. The latest in their "Barbie I Can Be" line is Architect Barbie, the world's newest starchitect, launched this week. Naturally she sports thick, black-rimmed glasses together with a skyline print dress and – wait for it – a pink blueprint holder.

Teenage boys and girls on either side of the Atlantic might also be excited to learn that Justin Bieber, the 16-year old Canadian teen heartthrob, says his ideal job would be that of an . . . architect. A few years ago, Brad Pitt worked for a while with Frank Gehry on the design for a shocking wave of towering new apartment blocks in Hove: that's Sussex, not California. He, too, would have liked to be an architect, but he had to make a few films and these, presumably, got in the way of his dream career.

Thinking of Gehry and the lure of what have been called starchitects, the report states that there will still be a demand for their input, but that the stars charged with building design might extend more frequently to fashion designers, product designers and artists, the faces of household name brands.

Although it has become fashionable to think that other types of designers and even artists can usurp the role of the architect, this is rarely true. Take the Orbit – the great winding red tower at the centre of the 2012 London Olympics site. Although the artist Anish Kapoor is almost always credited single-handedly with its design, in practice he is working hand-in-hand with the engineer Cecil Balmond and the architect Kathryn Findlay, who are fleshing out the practicalities.

So, Architect Barbie and the daydream ambitions of Brad Pitt and Justin Bieber are not so easily dismissed. What they represent is the enduring dream of the architect as a kind of glamorous, intellectual, artistic star. A practical one, too. While there is a certain glamour in architectural practice, the truth is that much of the work involved is the stuff of hard slog. Whether or not Barbie would be up for the challenge, the image of the architect as hero and artist is clearly both enduring and marketable.

It's not all doom and gloom. Alex de Rijke, founder partner of dRMM, and one of the architects spoken to by Building Futures, says "we're a medium size team of 26 architects based in London, and we're thriving. What we can offer is adventure in design as well the ability to see through projects on any scale. We're small enough to be intimate, big enough to deal with major challenges and, by nature, we're collaborative; we work perfectly naturally with engineers, contractors, clients and artists in all media. I don't see us as the past."

De Rijke speaks from a position of strength. His forward-looking practice is justly celebrated for its fresh approach to schools and housing. "Things are certainly changing", he says, "but what I'd question is the role not of architects as such, or whatever we call ourselves in future, but the profession. Our job is invention and design; I'm left wondering if it'll be bodies like the RIBA that'll go rather than us." As the global nature of the construction industry changes, can a locally based institute keep pace and retain relevance?

"The Future for Architects?" is best seen and read, perhaps, as a wake-up call for British architecture and construction. As RIBA's Building Futures director Dickon Robinson says, "This report seeks to stimulate a discussion about the challenges and opportunities which architects in the broadest sense face, in the hope that the ensuing debate will put them in the best position to succeed." But when you have the likes of Brad Pitt, Justin Bieber and Barbie knocking on your studio door, how can anyone say there's no future for architects? © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 20 2011

A cinema audience for architecture

From The Fountainhead to Blade Runner, the way films portray buildings and architects has nothing to do with reality, right? You'd be surprised

Howard Roark is, up to a point, a plausible name for an architect, but I am less convinced by Stourley Kracklite. Roark, played by Gary Cooper in King Vidor's schlockfest The Fountainhead is a picture of toned muscle and angst, handy with a rock drill and brutal in his wooing. In contrast Kracklite, played by Brian Dennehy in Peter Greenaway's The Belly of an Architect, has a waistline that authentically overwhelms his belt in the manner pioneered by the 20-stone James Stirling.

Both films have always fascinated me. In the case of The Fountainhead, it's not so much Roark – a tortured genius somewhere between Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright – who's the special attraction, although it's hard not to warm to an architect who, rather than see his work compromised, breaks into a building site and lays the dynamite charges to blow it up. Even if you might not want to actually hire him, he gets your attention. But what is really seductive is the idea that The Fountainhead's villain-in-chief is an architecture critic. The silkily evil Elsworth Toohey is portrayed filing copy from his bathtub and inciting the masses against Roark. If only.

Kracklite, even without the same mercurial menace as Gary Cooper, was equally fascinating as a kind of awful warning of the worst things that can happen to a curator. I saw The Belly of an Architect when, not unlike Kracklite, I was curating an architectural exhibition in Italy. In his case, it was on Étienne-Louis Boullée in Rome; in mine, the Venice Architecture Biennale, although I am happy to say I managed to get through the experience without being poisoned, which was more than Kracklite achieved.

Cinema and architecture have a relationship that goes back a long way, and is both superficial and profound. Half a century before Brad Pitt began hanging around Frank Gehry's studio and working on sustainable low-cost houses for New Orleans, Alfred Hitchcock was obsessed by architecture. He filmed it, he designed it, he evoked it. North By Northwest is full of architecture, starting with Saul Bass's titles, which begin as an abstract grid that is gradually revealed as the glazed facade of the UN building in Manhattan. Later in the film, you see a lot of the UN's interiors, which through the lens look much like the kind of buildings Zaha Hadid is designing today (North By Northwest is one of her favourite films). Later in the narrative, there is the Vandamm house in North Dakota that looks more like Frank Lloyd Wright than Frank Lloyd Wright, but which was actually a set built by Hitchcock.

Camille Paglia pointed out Hitchcock's continuing architectural obsessions years ago. The architecture critic Steven Jacobs has documented them in detail. Jacobs has examined, shot by shot, Hitchcock's key scenes, used them to draw floorplans and published the results in a book entitled Hitchcock and the Wrong House. It's a remarkable exercise that demonstrates the unpredictable interaction between spaces that can only exist in the film world and those that are more physical and can be realised in the architectural world.

We know what the flat in the Maida Vale terrace that is the setting for Dial M for Murder ought to look like on the basis of the exterior shots. Jacobs's drawings show that the simple orthogonal plan, implied by how the spaces looked through a camera lens, would actually have been overlaid by wedge-shaped projections to achieve the shots that Hitchcock wanted.

What makes it so fascinating as a study is that it shows the precise point at which physical reality overlaps with dreamlike images. There are other connections between film and architecture worth pursuing, too. They are both activities that require introversion and extroversion of their practitioners. To make a film, just as to design a building, takes a creative impulse, as well as the business acumen to assemble the finance, and the personality to impose one's will on construction workers, actors and crew.

What is not always clear is the precise nature of the comparison. Is the architect playing the part of director, or the star; the headline name that can get a development funded, in the same way that signing up Colin Firth or George Clooney can greenlight a film? It does happen occasionally when a developer looking for visibility or an easy planning consent, commissions Norman Foster or Frank Gehry, and bankers come up with the mezzanine finance to build a business park or a block of flats or a skyscraper on the strength of their involvement.

A more plausible analogy for the architect is with the screenwriter, whose work is rewritten until everything that made it distinctive has dissolved under layer upon layer of mush.

But just because a film has an architectural theme does not necessarily tell us much about architecture. Watching a lifesize replica of the spiral of the Guggenheim museum being obliterated in a storm of automatic gunfire in The International is more architectural product placement than spatial insight. Michael Caine's walk-on performance as an architecture professor in Inception is no more helpful as an insight into the mother of the arts than the random fact of Woody Harrelson's character in Indecent Proposal being an architect.

It's not simply a question of the distinction between arthouse and blockbuster. While a documentary such as My Architect may tell you a lot about the inner life of the son of an architect, it does not reveal much about architecture, perhaps because it was architecture that ultimately deprived Nathaniel Kahn of his father, Louis. In the Die Hard films, on the other hand, Joel Silver (who collects Frank Lloyd Wright houses) took audiences deep into the entrails of skyscrapers and airports, to demonstrate how buildings and complex spaces work, drawing a much less two-dimensional portrait of them than he achieved of his human characters.

In Heatwave, director Phillip Noyce provides another take on The Fountainhead. Richard Moir plays Steve West, an ambitious architect on the verge of his breakthrough project, a housing complex called Eden, in a rundown part of Sydney. "Why are you doing this?" asks Judy Davis, playing the community activist trying to stop the project from demolishing her neighbourhood. "Because if I didn't, somebody with half my ability would." Later, when West sees what the work has become in the hands of his ruthless property developer client, he echoes Roark: "It's not what I designed."

Some films can capture an architectural mood even before architects are aware of it. Blade Runner really did trigger an interest in dystopia, an exploration of the city of the future as messy and dark. It's not a film's namechecks or plotlines that can really tell us something new about architecture. Of course there is a certain narcissistic flutter when Maria Schneider, playing an architecture student, appears in The Passenger: would anybody else be discovered lurking in quick succession outside both the brutalist concrete of the Brunswick Centre in London and on the roof of Gaudí's La Pedrera in Barcelona?

But there is more to it than that. The real architectural quality of the film is in the climactic, uninterrupted, seven-minute continuous take that begins inside Jack Nicholson's hotel room in southern Spain, moves round the room and out through the window, to make a circuit of the square outside. It's the same sort of crystallization of space that the cinematographer Vittorio Storaro achieved in The Conformist, when Jean-Louis Trintignant is lost in the endless spaces of a fascist minister's office, and the screen is suddenly filled by a vast bust of Mussolini's head that is carried across the screen from left to right.

This is the kind of magic that architects always wish that they could work, but their buildings are static, and they can't impose their viewpoints on the people who experience their buildings. It doesn't stop them from trying.

Deyan Sudjic is an architecture critic. He narrates the film How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr Foster?, released on 28 January. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 09 2011

Gehry's building 'like paper bags'

On 17 December, when Frank Gehry unveiled the model of the building he has designed for the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), the vice-chancellor, Ross Milbourne, told the press: "We've got the Opera House, and it's hard to say we are going to beat that, but from what I've seen we'll have an equally outstanding icon at this end of Sydney." Gehry broke in: "We don't want to beat that." Too late. The entire Australian media announced his building as a rival for the opera house.

The Sydney Opera House may be one of the best known structures in the world, but it is also a worse building than anything Gehry would want to put his name to. The original design by Danish architect Jørn Utzon was rejected by the Australian judges in 1956, only to be reinstated. By the time the opera house opened in 1973, it was more than 10 times over budget. Utzon struggled to protect his vision of a building made of sails until 1966, when he was obliged to close his Sydney office and return to Denmark, because the New South Wales state government would not meet his fees. Government architects took over the project.

In the 60s, there was no way of making Utzon's paper nautilus volutes. The roof shells were eventually realised in clunky ceramic tiles. The interior makes a nonsense of the black-opal seascape outside, and the auditoria don't work. The tinkering goes on. In 1999, Utzon re-designed the reception hall. He died in 2008, without ever having returned to Australia to see the finished building. Gehry has got to believe that UTS will be better clients in the 2010s than the various NSW governments were in the 1950s and 60s.

Utzon had spectacular Bennelong Point as his site; his white building would be visible against the ultramarine waters of the harbour from all points of the compass, not least from the giant span of Sydney harbour bridge. Gehry will have to make do with a car park on the corner of Ultimo Road and Omnibus Lane. This inner suburban area is one of narrow streets and mean houses interspersed with utilitarian structures of overbearing dreariness. When the project was first announced, Gehry was asked if he liked the site. He answered: "I like the problem." The most exciting aspect of his new building is its contribution to the raised pedestrian network suspended over the congested roadways around it, which predates Gehry's concept by 10 years. Gehry's bigger buildings are usually visible from high-speed traffic arteries; people wanting to understand the volumes of this one might have to travel past it on Sydney's despised monorail.

It makes small odds that the Australian press has already dubbed Gehry's building the "brown bag". When young Australian architects describe themselves as embarrassed by its "dowdy proportions", attention should be paid. UTS is already responsible for the most brutal buildings in Ultimo; it might now be making a mistake of a different kind. Imagine five brown paper bags with 15 windows cut in each side, scrunched up and then unscrunched and stacked together, and you've pretty much got it. The concept is so Frank Gehry that it could almost be self-parody, and that's before you realise that the pierced, flared and rolled east facade is clad in brick, in pretended hommage to "the dignity of Sydney's urban brick heritage". The earliest housing in Ultimo was built of sandstone, a material in which the achievement of flares and frills is relatively easy. When Gehry claims that in draping rectangular solids he is simply following the example of Michelangelo, he must know he is talking nonsense. He calls the building a tree house apparently because it has a core of public spaces from which more secluded spaces branch off. It looks more like an abandoned termites' nest.

Milbourne was inspired to approach Gehry by the Ray and Maria Stata Centre he designed for MIT, completed in 2004. In 2007 MIT brought a lawsuit against the Gehry partnership, claiming serious defects in design and execution. The matter has now been settled out of court. Gehry says that initial problems are only to be expected with complex and innovative construction. The western elevation of Gehry's UTS building is to be walled off by huge rectangular sheets of glass, which are expected to mirror fractured sections of the surrounding cityscape. With so much glass trapping the blinding Australian afternoon sun, and so much dazzle, the UTS building is likely to have costly problems of its own.

Gehry is building in Sydney because Australia is one of the very few countries in the world that is not experiencing a recession. UTS has an enviable billion dollars to spend on its 10-year programme of renewal; the new building will cost something in the region of A$150m (£96.5m). The Gehry partnership has the logistical expertise to get the building up on schedule and within budget. History will not be repeated. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 15 2010

Frank O. Gehry Since 1997 at Vitra Design Museum

The Vitra Design Museum is the first building that Star Architect and Prizker Prize-winner Frank O. Gehry realized in Europe. In total there are four buildings by Frank Gehry in the Basel region: the Vitra furniture factory and the Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, the Vitra headquarters in Birsfelden, and the building on the Novartis campus in Basel. Thus the Design Museum is the perfect location for an overview of Gehry’s most important projects since 1997.

On display are 12 projects, displayed in the form of large competition models, original drawings by the architect, and developmental models from the Gehry Partners archive. Among the projects shown are the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum, the DZ Bank Building in Berlin, the Neue Zollhof in Düsseldorf, the AGO Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, the Ray and Maria Stata Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago, the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, the IAC Building in New York, and the Beekman Street Housing skyscraper in New York.

On the occasion of the exhibition, VernissageTV met with Jochen Eisenbrand (Curator, Vitra Design Museum). In the above video (excerpt, complete interview after the jump), Jochen Eisenbrand talks about the concept of the exhibition, the importance of Frank Gehry’s work for architecture, how he got the commission to build the furniture factory and the Design Museum for Vitra, and the “starchitect” phenomenon and the “Bilbao Effect”.

Frank O. Gehry Since 1997 at Vitra Design Museum. Interview with curator Jochen Eisenbrand, November 9, 2011.

For the full-length version of this episode and photo galleries hit the jump.

> Right-click (Mac: ctrl-click) this link to download Quicktime video file.

Frank O. Gehry Since 1997 at Vitra Design Museum. Interview with Jochen Hildebrand (Curator, Vitra Design Museum). Full-length version:
Frank Owen Gehry was born in 1929 in Toronto, Ontario. The Canadian-American Pritzker Prize-winning architect lives and works in Los Angeles, California. His buildings, including his private residence, have become tourist attractions, such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

By the mid ’80s, his work had attracted international attention and he was commissioned to build the Vitra furniture factory in Basel, Switzerland, as well as the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany. These projects established him as a major presence on the international architecture scene.

A catalogue has been published to coincide with the exhibition and familiarizing readers with all of Frank O. Gehry’s and Gehry Partners’ projects since 1997. The exhibition is organized and produced by La Triennale di Milano. It is conceived by Germano Celant in collaboration with Frank O. Gehry and Gehry Partners, LLP. The exhibition design is by Studio Cerri & Associati.

Photos of the exhibition Frank O. Gehry Since 1997 at Vitra Design Museum:

Photos of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry:

October 04 2010

For sale: Dennis Hopper's house

The Easy Rider star's sleek mansion, designed in part by Frank Gehry, is up for sale. But no one is buying. Could its edgy location in Venice, LA, be putting people off?

It was one of those Hollywood-in-the-hood myths, part of the fabric of living in a town with a single industry: entertainment. Deep inLos Angeles's Venice district, it was said, less than a mile inland from the heft of the Pacific, was the house. It stood in the hood, down on Indiana and fourth, past Broadway, past Brooks – an area that scared the lights out of Charles Bukowski, the drunken postie-turned-poet who was afraid to look out of the window when he lived there, for fear of the eyes peering back in at him.

A haven for low-lifes and low-riders, crackhouses and gangbangers, that spit of Venice was immune to the polite society emerging around it. Instead it revelled in the fear; the fear where black met Latino and joined together to glare at the Anglo. The first time I came here, the estate agent I was following stopped her car, got out and clack-clacked her way back to me to profess that she was lost. Then she looked around. "I can't believe I got out of my car!" she screamed. "I'm a white Jewish princess out of my car! Here!"

In a frenzy of sequins she skanked back to her car and we sped off, bouncing through the storm drains, crossing the crucible of fourth-fifth-sixth-seventh avenues before arriving at Lincoln Boulevard and the security of its third-world shanty.

I often wondered if it was really Dennis Hopper's house there on fourth and Indiana. By then I was living a few blocks away, in one of the safely gentrified parts of Venice. Julia Roberts lived across the block, Ed Ruscha had his studio at the end of the street, and I never walked as far as Indiana. But still, you could drive past – and I did, peering at the fences, the walls, the hedges. And then I found it: deluxe, A-list-size palms towering overhead, skewed building blocks piled one upon the other.

The giveaway that there was some big mother of a star living there, behind the barrier, was that this was a triple lot. Want to tell people you've arrived in this town of infinite real estate? Bag a double lot, or bigger. Then they'll notice you, even in little old Venice. Frank Gehry did it (out-did it, even) by seizing his own triple-lot a few blocks away. The lot's still there, in fact, ringed by chain-link and as bare as the day he bought it – the planners, the zoners and the permit department having aced the hot-shot architect with his wibbly-wobbly planes and crow's-nest shtick.

Gehry also designed parts of the Hopper Compound, as it is known, to house the actor's formidable art collection. Forget about Hopper's own pretensions, his abstract fancy-pants photos of street paintings, those candid snaps of his fellow myths in their heyday and his papier-mache banalities. That was just dabbling. His eye as a collector – now that was for real. His early investments in art, when he played the penniless punk (long before he played the advertising icon), helped pay the debts and move him up the ladder. Hopper, he would tell you, was the first to buy one of Warhol's Campbell's Soup paintings. For $75.

I met him once, and told him about my interest in his house, how we were near neighbours, and he told me the story of how a Guardian journalist had come to his house for an interview and fucked him over. Invitation aborted.

Now that he's dead, the Hopper Compound, one of the stranger remnants of his idiotic reign, is on page 15 of the local rag's property listings; the fruit of a dispute between Hopper's estate and his estranged widow. To date, there are no takers. The price has dropped from $6.245m to $5.194m, and the Hopper myth is reduced to a banality that might serve as a motif for the death of celebrity: the knowledge that his house had "dishwasher, dryer, garbage disposal, refrigerator". TS Eliot probably had something to say about it all. Or Charles Bukowski.

This article was amended on 5 October 2010. The original referred to Charles Bukowski as the drunken Polish postie-turned-poet. This has been corrected. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 06 2010

Can architecture cure cancer?

Cancer care doesn't have to mean grim hospital wards, believes Maggie's co-founder Charles Jencks: uplifting buildings benefit both body and soul. But are they just an architectural placebo?

In pictures: Maggie's Centres present and future

Charles Jencks would be the last person to claim that architecture could replace chemotherapy, but he's the first to argue that it can make a difference to cancer patients. As the driving force behind cancer care charity Maggie's, and a well-established architectural writer, Jencks often finds himself having to defend his views. The Maggie's Centre initiative, named after Jencks's wife, Maggie Keswick, who died of cancer in 1993, has grown from a one-off project to a mushrooming nationwide network – six existing buildings with more on the way, and a lengthening list of high-profile designers: Richard Rogers, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas. As the idea has taken off, so Jencks has come under fire from both the scientific community, who question the validity of his claims (or media distortions of them); and the design community, who wonder if Maggie's Centres aren't injecting more architecture into small healthcare facilities than they strictly need.

Jencks is not advocating some deterministic equation between architecture and health – as if the sight of a well-detailed staircase could somehow zap away a malignant tumour – but he does believes in what he calls an "architectural placebo effect". "A placebo is a phoney cure that works," he explains. "This is very hard for the medical profession to get their teeth around because they hate placebos but scientifically, placebos work in about 30% of cases that are psychogenic diseases. You have to believe in a placebo or it won't work, but if it works it's obviously working in some indirect way, through feedback in the immune system, let us say, or in the willpower of the patient to take a more strenuous exercise in their own therapy.

"You can imagine all sorts of ways in which architecture adds to the placebo effect," he continues, "and in that sense it's impossible to measure. Here's a funny insight: in a way, the carers are more important than the patients. Because if the carers are cared for, they turn up, they enjoy it and you create this virtuous circle, this mood in a Maggie's Centre which is quite amazing. So architecture helps do that because it looks after the carers. There's a lot of people who would quite rightly attack that notion, and I don't want to claim that we can yet prove it, but we hope to."

Jencks presents his case in a new book whose title succinctly sums up his approach: The Architecture of Hope. "It is my hope, and it was Maggie's hope, to live longer with cancer. And I think any cancer patient, if you dig not too deeply, they want to live. So is there an architecture that helps you live?"

If there is, Jencks argues, it is not to be found in the modern hospital. He describes the space in which Maggie herself received her weekly chemotherapy as a form of "architectural aversion therapy" – a windowless neon-lit corridor of Edinburgh's Western General Hospital. Many of us are familiar with similar spaces. In the industrial age, the design of healthcare buildings has been dictated by the demands of hygiene and efficiency: hard, sterile surfaces; bright, white spaces; long corridors; artificial ventilation systems. The template has been updated a little in the PFI age with atrium lobbies and toothpaste-coloured cladding, but these places are still overwhelmingly alienating.

Jencks and others, such as the Dutch academic Cor Wagenaar, believe that modernism created a rupture in the long, intimate relationship between architecture and health. That history stretches back to ancient Greece, where temple complexes such as Epidauros were about healing the spirit as well as the body, and even Stonehenge, which recent findings suggest may have been a hospital. Its modern roots lie in the Enlightenment, when it was first proposed that good design of the built environment could do more for public health than the medical profession could. In a way, Maggie's Centres reconnect with this "secret tradition", says Jencks. Yes, we need medical environments to cure us, but we also need to feel like people again, rather than patients. He is not alone in this. Witness the Circle group's recent hospital in Bath, designed by Foster and Partners, which feels more like a boutique hotel. They, too, are recruiting architects such as Richard Rogers and Michael Hopkins to rethink hospital design on a more humane scale. Or there's the AHMM's bright, fresh Kentish Town Health Centre, also nominated for last year's Stirling prize, or Gareth Hoskins' civic-minded health centre designs. Things are changing.

There's no great architectural secret at work in the design of Maggie's Centres. They are defined by inarguably positive qualities: light, space, openness, intimacy, views, connectedness to nature – the opposite of a standard-issue hospital environment. They are domestic in scale, centred around the kitchen, a place where you can make yourself a cup of tea and have an informal conversation. In Jencks's words, they are buildings that hug you, but don't pat you on the head. It's not just about giving people architecture, he argues – it's also providing information, relief, psychological, emotional and even financial support – all of which contribute to the urge to go on living. Nor is there any set of instructions for architects as to how to achieve these goals. Frank Gehry's building, for example, combines a crinkly-roofed fairy tale aesthetic with a serene view over Dundee on one side and a garden maze on the other. Zaha Hadid's outlet in Fife has been compared to a Stealth bomber – sharp and black on the outside, but mercifully calm and light inside. More recently, Richard Rogers's London Maggie's Centre shut out the city behind rhubarb-pink walls and opened up an oasis of intimate, domestic-scaled spaces, all capped by a protective roof.

The award of the 2009 Stirling prize to Rogers' building was another gesture of approval for the Maggie's Centre approach, but it also raised the question of whether they really needed such star names to design them. In addition to the six existing Maggie's Centres, there are another six under way, including designs by Dutch superstar Rem Koolhaas, the late Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa and some of Britain's best-known names – Piers Gough, Chris Wilkinson, Ted Cullinan and Richard MacCormac. There are plans for as many as 23 buildings further down the line, even outposts in Hong Kong and Barcelona. If the brief is so relatively straightforward, why the starchitects? Is there a danger that Maggie's Centres are becoming more about prizes than patients – a free pass for virtuoso architects to get something built?

In Jencks's defence, Koolhaas and Hadid were fellow students of Maggie's. Gehry and co were lifelong friends of the couple. They just happened to hang out with future superstar architects. Besides which, Jencks says, without the media attention generated by these names, the charity would not have attracted the public donations that are enabling it to expand. Cancer affects up to one in three adults, after all. A great many people have been affected by Maggie's Centres already, and each of the new buildings hopes to serve a catchment area of two million people. "This was not thought of way back, that architecture would make such a difference to raising money," says Jencks. "And it's a double thing: it raises our profile, but it also gives us good buildings which last, so we benefit in the long term. I can't understand why other institutions haven't done the same." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 27 2009

Enlightened age is cast into shadow

A decade of unprecedented investment in galleries and museums is ending and a return to the dark days of closures, entry charges and pandering to the familiar looms

It is a space dedicated to the fruits of patronage. Against whitewashed walls and beneath a startling glass canopy, the Leonardos and Donatellos, the choir screens and sculptures, the tapestries and caskets speak to an age of extraordinary wealth and aesthetic ambition. But the newly opened medieval and renaissance galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum also testify to the fact that our own epoch of remarkable cultural investment – like Florence after the Medici – is shuddering to a halt.

The fear is that a collapse in private philanthropy combined with a political arms race of expenditure cuts and quango-bashing could soon return our galleries and museums to the dark days of charges, closures and pandering to the familiar. Nothing less than the democratic capacity of British culture – the ability both to fund great art and open up life chances – is what is at stake.

It began a decade ago with the relaunch of the Royal Opera House following its £178m refit and has concluded with the re-engineered V&A and the equally stunning transformation of the Ashmolean in Oxford. Crumbling Victorian edifices have undergone architectural open-heart surgery and fusty old collections have been taken into the 21st century. Indeed, the Noughties marked a period of unprecedented postwar cultural prowess.

Of course, modernisation was never without its controversies. The great chunks of National Lottery and Arts Council cash swallowed up by the ROH set the mark for over-ambitious and poorly managed projects, a view only endorsed by the millions who watched the BBC documentary, The House, chronicling Sir Jeremy Isaacs' rumbustious attempts to manage Covent Garden. But few today, enjoying the acoustics and surviving the crush of the once derelict Floral Hall, would deny the transformative effect of the redevelopment on the opera house fabric and its artistic capacity.

With the new build came a new philosophy. The intervention of philanthropist Paul Hamlyn inspired a markedly more activist approach to audience development, with deprived schools and then Sun readers targeted for subsidised opera tickets. For this has been the mantra in arts and heritage over the past decade. Public money for modernised galleries meant access and inclusion had to change.

The culture shift began with free entry to museums and has developed down the years to force once standoffish institutions to engage with wider School trips, outreach and working with diverse communities have come to rank as highly as research and fundraising. audiences. "Most museums can no longer afford to blithely concentrate on their collections at the expense of their visitors," as a recent study puts it.

It is the move from a museum being about something to being for somebody. The families and groups now wandering through Kelvingrove museum in Glasgow or Middlesbrough's Institute of Modern Art are very different to what they were 10 years ago.

Of course, there has been some guerrilla resistance by curators concerned more with restoration than education. A leading fine art director, Philippe de Montebello, spoke for many of his peers when he revealed: "To me, audiences are second… Our primary responsibility is to works of art." But the combination of social activism and public funding tied to popular engagement meant that such disdain could never be sustained.

With growing audiences has come the appreciation that museums can rebuild urban economies. Once this was christened the "Bilbao effect" in homage to the impact that Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum had on urban renewal, economic expansion and local pride in the decaying, northern Spanish port. But the problem with Bilbao is that no one goes back. A culture-led programme of civic regeneration needs to be about much more than the kind of single iconic building dispatched by the studios of Gehry, Daniel Libeskind and Santiago Calatrava.

Instead, it has to offer numerous competing cultural attractions which bring in not only tourists and culture vultures but the kind of young professionals and knowledge-workers attracted to high-end civic environments. Manchester – with the Whitworth and City art galleries, the Imperial War Museum North and the People's History Museum – has been doing just that.

When in 1966 the young German critic WG Sebald arrived to take up a post at Manchester University, he found a city that seemed to "have long since been deserted, and was now left as a necropolis or a museum". Once "one of the 19th century's miracle cities, it was now almost hollow to the core".

Today, after a decade of cultural investment, it is that sense for the past – in its museums and cultural institutions – which has helped Manchester recover from its post-industrial nadir. So too in Liverpool, where the Tate Gallery at Albert Dock, the International Slavery Museum and the European Capital of Culture events have all helped to kick-start urban regeneration. And in the northeast, the Newcastle-Gateshead quayside redevelopment – including the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, the Sage Gateshead music centre and the Gateshead Millennium Bridge – have revived this district as a social space and powerfully updated Tyneside's urban identity. For with the revitalisation of museums there usually follows a broader appreciation of the historic fabric, as warehouses, wharfs and factories come to be valued as purveyors of civic sensibility rather than obstacles to economic development.

But Britain's museums have done more than gentrify the urban core. Over the past 10 years they have provided cosmopolitan spaces in our multicultural society, offering a vehicle for a shared socialunderstanding. In the face of mass-migration and stark, post-9/11 and 7/7 religious tensions, Britain's great conurbations have mostly remained free of communal violence. Our civic institutions have played an important role in that by offering settings for transcultural dialogues. "The museum is about the world," according to American curator James Cuno, with a social purpose "to breed greater familiarity with the rich diversity of the world's cultures". And from the 2007 bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade to the exhibitions charting Iranian heritage at the British Museum, our cultural institutions have done just that.

Of course, some ventures have not succeeded. The National Football Museum in Preston expensively confirmed that fans are far more committed to individual clubs than the game's history. Sheffield's National Centre for Popular Music lasted 15 months, while it is fair to say that The Public in West Bromwich has still to prove itself. But intellectually and socially, our artistic and heritage institutions display a far more confident sense of themselves than when the ROH went dark.

As such, they have been part of a broader shift in political and cultural activity. With nosediving membership of the mainstream political parties and church pews sitting empty, the British public have taken to exploring ideological and aesthetic issues in book festivals, ideas weekends and evening debates in unprecedented numbers. It is a secular, almost Enlightenment vision of citizenship and public life which marks a passion for culture in its broadest sense quite unheard of two decades ago.

When Tony Blair sought to connect his premiership with this artistic revival in a 2007 speech at Tate Modern, Sir Nicholas Serota stressed just how important government funding had been to this process. What was more, "Tony's commitment not to return to the stop-and-start economy in the arts is crucial".

Two years on, with seismic cuts to Arts Council budgets and the Olympics succubus swallowing ever greater Lottery funds, such certainty already feels dated. Benefactors are burying their cheque books, endowments are plummeting, builders are going bankrupt and government departments are working out where to inflict 15-20% cuts. At the very moment when, after the big build, our museums and galleries need secure revenue streams, they will be confronting a funding crisis.

Things might be even worse under a prospective Conservative government with little feel for the cultural fabric. In the past, Tory frontbenchers have mooted the return of museum charging; now they talk in anodyne terms of quango savings. But numerous arts projects are already looking in jeopardy. In theory, new funds for the British Film Institute archives and the Tate Modern extension are safe, but I wouldn't bet my Jackson Pollock on it. Meanwhile, in Manchester, plans for a Royal Opera North look ambitious, while the British Museum will struggle to finance its new wing. None of which is to suggest that great art cannot emerge during eras of austerity, but the democratic capacity of culture certainly takes a hit when acquisitions falter and education departments close.

Of course, there is another way. The Dutch government has decided to protect the culture budget during the downturn. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has lent £31bn to the nation's universities and museums to safeguard the "cultural heritage". Sadly, Britain cannot afford such largesse. The great boom of the art years was – like Medici Florence – closely and painfully wedded to the financial services bubble. And the effect of the Lehman Brothers crash in September 2008 will continue to be felt in even the most modest local gallery.

All we can do is retreat to the glorious V&A galleries and bask in the afterglow of this decade's astonishing cultural rejuvenation. As we do so our gaze might alight on Sir Paul Pindar's house: the beautiful, timber-framed Jacobean frontage of a 17th-century Bishopsgate home which at one point contained this Stuart merchant's extensive cultural collection. Now, for all its elegance, it is just a facade. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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