Timeline: A Decade of Gehry’s Missed Changes

Even a starchitect like Frank Gehry can’t completely escape the hair-pulling vicissitudes of the profession.

Leon Krier’s recent broadside against Frank Gehry’s proposed design for the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C., had me thinking about the world’s most famous architect. For a man who created one of the most important buildings of the 20th century, Gehry, who turns 83 in a couple of days, has hit a fair number of potholes in recent years. Here’s a quick review of some of them (at least the ones I could think of off the top of my head):

December 2003: In February the Walt Disney Concert Hall opened to universal acclaim. The consensus? The creator of the Guggenheim Bilbao had done it again! Frank Gehry, as a global cultural figure, could not be riding any higher. That perception begins to change when the developer Bruce Ratner unveils his colossal Atlantic Yards proposal for downtown Brooklyn. It includes a new Frank Gehry–designed sports arena, along with Frank Gehry–designed commercial towers and apartment buildings. (Confession: I liked it, with a few caveats, but I didn’t live in the neighborhood.) The scheme lands on the doorstep of Brownstone Brooklyn with a resounding thud. In a very bad early sign, Robert Moses’s name is invoked.

2004: Among the cultural elite of Brooklyn, Gehry goes from world’s most influential architect to pawn in a real estate game played by Ratner. This line of thinking persists for the better part of the decade, as does fierce neighborhood opposition to the plan.

August 2005: Hurricane Katrina strikes the Gulf Coast. A huge, runaway casino barge strikes Gehry’s half-completed Ohr-O’Keefe Museum in Biloxi, Mississippi. This is greeted in some parts of Brooklyn as some sort of cosmic payback.

November 2007: Three years after the Stata Center opened, MIT sues Gehry and his contractor, citing a long list of complaints: cracking masonry, poor drainage, mold, persistent leaks throughout the building, and sliding ice and snow. (The suit is settled three years later.) Longtime partner Jim Glymph takes the fall.

April 2008: In response to delays at Atlantic Yards (mostly, related to lawsuits) and a slowing economy, layoffs begin at Gehry Partners. Even Gehry’s name can’t protect the firm from the tidal wave sweeping the profession.

May 2010: In Chicago, during a Q&A with Thomas Pritzker, Gehry makes an offhand comment about LEED and incurs the wrath of the green building movement. Gehry claims his remarks were taken out of context—and, in truth, his criticisms weren’t new—but still, you can’t roll your eyes at the mere mention of LEED, in a public forum, and not get called out for it. Indeed, he was. A media shitstorm ensued.

February 2012: A week before Leon Krier’s somewhat predictable takedown of Gehry’s proposal for the Eisenhower Memorial, the Eisenhower family goes public (on the front page of the New York Times!) with its own criticisms of the design. They’d prefer a more…monumental approach.

Of course this timeline is a bit like compiling a list of Kobe Bryant’s missed shots. It does illustrate the downside of architectural fame: stalled projects and missteps are glaringly public.  Maybe there’s an inverse good news/bad news formulation at work here. The bad news: even Frank Gehry can’t completely escape the crazy, hair-pulling vicissitudes of the profession. The good news might be exactly the same thing.

Categories: Arts + Culture

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