In discussing the work of Frank Gehry, a comparative mismatch could be found the work of early Modernist
architect Adolf Loos. Gehry, notable for his extravagant formal aesthetic, could be seen as an ineffable
contrast to Loos, whose seminal theoretical paper Ornament and Crime (1908) opposed the
unnecessary use of ornament and decoration on utilitarian objects. Upon closer observation, however,
there is a distinct similarity in their use of the familiar and ordinary element of a window. Loos'
methodology and design of the window as an architectural component becomes a lens, in the literal
sense, to enable a broader discussion on Gehry's symptomatic use of the ordinary rectilinear form
recognizable as window within his more extraordinary formal solutions. This begs the question: can an
architect design buildings which are both familiar yet original; traditional yet contemporary? Or is this
simply a practical contradiction? Does it entangle both the pragmatic and fantastical?
Loos was of the opinion that a material should leave no doubt as to its function. The window has no pretensions. In its design as a window it is not deliberately concealing itself, rather it is notable as a window by the very fact it is a typical window. They are purely functional: to be viewed out of from within, with the byproduct of allowing light into a space. Furthermore, the window is designed at an oblique position—perceivable as random on a facade—to that of the eyeline with an opaque treatment in order to define and exemplify the transition between the exterior and interior. A simultaneous break with and continuation of tradition. Similarly, Gehry's use of the window is as a functional element, it is a symptomatic window; a traditional, symbolic gesture of architectural austerity. In attempt to indicate this, we have categorized Gehry's fluctuations in window treatment into three distinct typologies: the cleanskin; the subliminal; and, the visual salient.
The cleanskin, meaning those projects that have no defining feature as aperture and rely solely on the architectural form to make an impression, is normally derivative of the programmatic use of the volumes rather than an aesthetic decision from Gehry, in other words; the program does not require windows. Gehry Without Windows is a signature in its own right. His most notable examples are the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in Bilbao (1997) and the more recent construction in Abu Dhabi (estimated completion 2013)—they are sightless, they have almost no windows. Nothing to look out from or look in through. The lack of window is incidental, it is simply not required in these projects. No fenestration is immediately visible: the form leads the window by the hand.
The subliminal is best identified in Gehry's InterActiveCorp (IAC) headquarters, New York (2007). The use of a curtain wall cladding system seems distant, a removed design feature in amongst the oeuvre in comparison here. At the IAC the fenestration's basic requirement is to filter sunlight and conceal floor plates and services. The curtain wall system is constructed from 1,150 bespoke panels; each fritted-glass panel was cold-warped into position on site with the requisite silicon sealant applied depending on each joint. The laborious precision employed in the construction and fabrication is noteworthy. But it is the very fact that the function of the window seems to be over-looked, almost reticent. The building requires shade, it achieves this through the oblique banding at floor plates which also hides services and structure from view. This horizontal banding with a moderate, vertical gradient as window treatment means that the window 'openings' see through narrowed eyes, somewhat blinkered. The boisterous resolution of the basic function of the window is thrust upon the facade and the viewer, only latently expressing the window as window.
"Why reinvent the shoe when it works fine as it is"?
Loos, in discussing tradition, advocated that one should not try to reinvent the shoe when it works fine as it is. So, in its very lack of reinvention, one could argue, in the third category—the visual salient— Gehry performs a variation of Loos' reinvention ideology. The window visually 'pops out,' it is the positive variant of the visual salient. A suitable example is at one of Gehry's current projects at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia (UTS) —the Dr. Chau Chak Wing building. The project is designed within a relatively tight urban perimeter block and comprising, most notably, of a rippling east facade entry point made from a corbel-layered sandstone-colored brick so to assume a contextual feel. The use of the robotically installed curved brick wall may well be a relative step away from the metallic facades synonymous with the more iconic Gehry buildings, but it becomes comparable to the Der Neuer Zollhoff, Düsseldorf, (1998) or the MIT Stata Center, Cambridge (2004) insofar as its windows are pronounced—a dominant feature on each of the facades. At UTS, they incisively puncture the curved-brick structure, on the east facade the emphasis seems entirely on the windows themselves almost like a distracting measure from the undulating folds. The double-hung, aluminum casement windows in the comparable projects differ only from the banal by the fact they protrude at alternating lengths from the facade. These boxed-out extrusions are perpendicular to the ground plane, never contorted but pronounced—visible. They glare.
Similarly, the recently completed 8 Spruce Street in New York City (2011) again displays a rectilinear form for the window. But instead of projecting out, they are pushed in. This is the defining example of the negative variant of the visual salient. The capricious stainless steel carapace, draping over a reinforced concrete structure, conceals its windows. They are unable to be deciphered easily. They seem to inconsistently and nervously glance from behind its steel exterior. The viewer is so taken with the drapery that he/she fails to see the tri-part bay window shiftily lurking behind. A further observation of the negative visual salient is at Gehry's Lou Ruvo Center, Las Vegas (2009). Here, the single pane, fixed windows absently stare from its stainless steel clad plate facade. But this absent daydream becomes rather menacing at the connection between research facility and events space. Instead of glazing panels and fixings, the apertures become dormant openings. They droop with and through the form. They do not indicate the interior, instead they are a visual device to deceive the viewer. In an almost Loosian mechanism, Gehry creates a confusion as to what the facade denotes, similar to Loos' Villa Mueller House, depicted previously. In this instance they are an hallucinatory abstraction—they signify nothing.
In the visual salient examples, is Gehry merely laundering the window as window? He makes no bones about it being a window. He gives no theory, proposes no redefinition. It subversively addresses a
history of tradition. A convincing interpretation of a window by the very fact he has taken the window
frame, mullions, bays and glass alike as standardized form. The window is the familiar within the
extraordinary—the window is an identical replica.
Loos' ideology on traditions, conventions and the familiar were largely ignored in his time. His projects were small in scale, the majority of which were residences, and he was neglected within the upper echelons of Viennese architecture circles. Loos' simplified, stripped back forms were in stark contrast to the ornamentation of his contemporaries. Gehry seems markedly opposed to Loos in these respects. However, can it not be said that both are known as incredibly experimental in their radical approach to the aesthetics of architecture and also to the volumetric shaping of architectural space? Admittedly, it is difficult to compare the prowess and notoriety of Gehry today with Loos, however, what can be put forward is a correlation between the two in terms of how their works are greeted by the profession and the public. For instance, a host of Gehry's projects are more often than not labeled or nicknamed be it for public relations reasons by clients or by the media trying to 'make sense' of the 'alien forms'. The UTS building has been monikered with the unfortunate "crumpled brown paper bag" by much of the Australian-based media; not to mention the myriad of names clumsily afforded to the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao: a fish, a mermaid, a swan, duck and an artichoke. It is almost as if commentary on the buildings require the 'familiar' in order to 'accept'. But it is not simply a question of transferable shapes, ornamentation or other such aesthetic devices.
Gehry has been architecturally typecast as both Postmodernist and Deconstructivist. However, his use of the window is not Postmodernist re-appropriation, nor is it bearing the hallmarks of a supposedly Deconstructivist architect. Postmodernism wore history as a badge of honor—however furtively or ironically—in a direct opposition to Modernism, and Deconstructivism, albeit difficult to define, opposed Postmodernism for this very fact. Whereas Postmodernism was dialogical, maintaining and preserving components, Deconstructivism seems to have been centered more on the confrontational interrogation of components and traditions with subsequent fragmentation either in theoretical or practical terms. To label Gehry as Postmodernist or Deconstructivist could be just as clumsy as labeling his buildings as anthropomorphic objects. His built forms may seem to follow a sense of the Deconstructivist unreal, but they are also practical and successful 'working' buildings. What is interesting to consider is framing Gehry's work as symptomatic; as absolute artistic volition with the unconscious marking of the traditional. It is the free expression and clashing of phantasmal imagery, hurtling towards the production of a building through construction technology. A volition rooted in the subconscious—the will to form. His work is the abstract representation of a material idea.
To lend on an example from art, it is interesting to consider the Surrealist Greco-Italian painter, Giorgio de Chirico, who in The Song of Love (1914), composites everyday objects in an entirely unconventional, enigmatic manner. The standard surgical glove nailed to the vertical plane in the foreground accompanied by a green ball and a Greek bust. In the background, a steam locomotive passes through the scene. This is not to suggest that the reformulation of the rectilinear window shape should be thought of in the Surrealist sense of the 'found object.' Rather, it concerns the unconscious 'trigger' as the resolution of a problem. It is the incidental bringing together of conventional objects but not necessarily in the right order. This enigma in Gehry's work is not in the guise of the absurd formalism but in the symptom of a problem--how to make a window. As a result, the visual salient buildings become a sort of architectural androgyny. In works like Marqués de Riscal Winery, Elciego (2006) the windows gaze absently from behind or within the structure, casting cursory glances to the context. Whereas buildings such as the MIT Stata Center or the Dancing House manifest a threatening gaze. The passive being-seen has reversed into an active seeing. We do not see the window, it sees us. It is akin to the intensely paranoid perspective of much of the early work of De Chirico. The banal becomes fantastical salience. The androgynous, sightless mannequins, recollective as window, redefine themselves through an uncanny semblance of enigmatic signifiers rather than simply borrowed, iconographic symbols.
Throughout much of Gehry's early writings, the word 'fantasy' is replayed. Indeed in his 1987 article
"Beyond Function", he describes a fascination with the methodology employed by the painter. He explains the fantastical musings he shares for how a painter confronts the blank canvas. He states that
he cannot feel such emotions towards the beginning of a project as a result of the architectural
constraints. He asks the question of the architect: how do we go beyond the functionality of a building
to encroach upon the feelings the painter experiences when compositionally developing a painting. The
painter is free from the constraints of the legislative aspects of architecture when the canvas is blank.
Gehry's solution was to strip back the functionality of a building into a single volume, which led in turn
to making connections between single volumes or, as he describes it, differentiated objects. He explains
the windows in his own house were crafted, almost haphazardly, and he labels his House For a
Filmmaker, Los Angeles (1981) as influenced by the painter Giorgio Morandi in the placing of
dissimilar elements next to each other in an almost Cubist manner. Furthermore, by removing and
disassociating the context, Gehry forces the viewer to confront the building. Perhaps it is not meant to
be entirely aesthetically appealing but confusing, destabilizing and irrational; "This idea [of
disassociated elements] became an important one for me and I kept working with it. The connections
between the different parts and the way they connect—the awkwardness of it—was something
important to me." Loos' facades functioned on a similar level of confusion. The floor levels became
indistinguishable in relation to the window, creating an apparent randomness to the facade's incisions.
It becomes alien yet inescapably contextual, traditional and familiar. An ineffable, unconscious fantasy
It could well be said that tradition persists because it preserves its own redefinition. "A change with
regard to tradition is only permissible if the change means improvement." In support of Loos'
statement it is also worthy of mention that Gehry, in his 1992 paper for Design Quarterly, when
describing the design of a chair says, "A chair is an essential structure...I don't know if the world needs
a new chair, but it seems to...How can you take a basic structure and reinvent it one more time? By my
rules, designing a chair can't be a stylistic reinterpretation."4 It is not the fact that Gehry uses the
window by accident—this is rather intentional, what is accidental is the window as symptomatic. The
window is incidental to the form and shape—the standardization of the window has been chosen by its
tradition of function. Loos says "Die beste form ist immer schon bereit," which roughly translates to "The best form is always already there."
The use of the window shape is purely incidental—an accident based on the convention and through that convention the shape exists, without it there would be no shape at all. The visual salient ensures the accidental redefinition of the window as moves it beyond function.
1. Loos, A., Arnold Schoenberg und seine Zeitgenossen, p. 399
2. Gehry, F., "Beyond Function," Design Quarterly, No. 138, House and Home, 1987, p. 6
3. Taken from Adolf Loos, Princeton Architectural Press (1996), Panayotis Tournikiotis, p. 169
4. Gehry, F., "Up Everest in a Volkswagen," Design Quarterly, No. 155, Spring 1992, p. 17
5. Loos, "Heimatkunst", Samtliche Schriften, p. 335.