The selected group of architects who have reached the status of world-renown practitioners have also become part of that public realm in which their ideas have been inserted. As much as they get media attention, they are also inevitably subject of criticism. From this point, few contemporary architects have been scrutinized and praised as much as Canadian-born American Architect Frank Owen Gehry, a man who at his 86 years old continue challenging people through his controversial buildings.
That same architect who has been under the spotlight for projects such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao or his most recent building in Paris for the Louis Vuitton Foundation, has not erected any building of such scale in Japan yet. Even so, Gehry has landed in Tokyo with much expectation to present a couple of solo-exhibitions.
One of them and subject of this article, is being held from middle October until the beginning of February at 21_21 Design Sight in Tokyo. Primarily a venue devoted to design culture, it has dedicated for the first time a whole exhibition to the work of one of the most prominent architects in the last fifty years. Directed by the young Japanese architect Tsuyosohi Tane (DGT.), the show is not intended to be a conventional architecture exhibition but one aiming to convey the ideas and design process of Frank Gehry. Hence Tane was asked by Issey Miyake to organize an exhibition on the architect’s most important projects, undertaking the mission with an insightful yet simple approach: reproducing Gehry’s architectural world as seen by Gehry’s himself.
Tane, together with his French based firm DGT, is the winner of 2006 International Competition for the Estonian National Museum, and had already achieved a strong curriculum in Exhibition Design. He spent some time with Gehry himself in his office, watching him while working and trying to find a reading key to his working process. Tane understood that explaining Gehry’s work only through his projects was limiting the revolutionary potential of his architecture.
He then decided to adopt the concept of “idea”, whose connotation is loosely referred to the whole development of a project from an early impression to a finished building. Idea, as explained in the main video of the exhibition and introduced as Gehry’s Manifesto, is not only the seminal early shape given to a project but rather the entire process of creation, development, discard and recreation until the idea arrives to its final identity.
To better express this process, Tane divided the exhibition in three main spaces introduced by an empty hall projecting pictures in the walls of Gehry’s most celebrated and significant realisations. Here we can find The Guggenheim in Bilbao (1997), The Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (2003) and the recent Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris (2014), labeled as Gehry’s Masterpieces.
The first gallery is the “Gehry’s Room”. Here Tane introduces Gehry in his day-to-day life. We can find the aforementioned video of his Manifesto, pictures from his self-designed house, some of his furniture and personal objects, books, paintings, sculptures and others of his stimuluses’. A set of vintage TVs reproducing old interviews, documentaries and videos echoes the international allure of Gehry as an international media figure as depicted in the famous clip from The Simpsons episode satirizing on him and his work. In the same space we can also find a recreated portion of his office displaying many “Rough cut of Ideas” as Tane refers, such as models made of cloth or acrylic cubes and ideas in their earliest phase.
The second and largest gallery is freely divided in two main themes: “Idea Evolution” and “Idea Realization”. According to Tane’s words, while the first subsection explains “the process by which ideas take form while trying ideas, tearing them down, and throwing them away” the second one “follows the process through which Gehry’s ideas become reality” through the exposition of the notorious Gehry Technologies, the “cutting edge design technology that makes Gehry architecture possible”: Digital Project BIM software, mockups of sparkling titanium and stainless steel are here displayed.
The space organization is apparently chaotic with large clusters of wooden boxes displaying the several projects chosen by Tane to represent the full design process of Frank Gehry. Among the projects we can find the Dr. Chau Chak Wing Building for the University of Technology in Sidney (2014), the Eight Spruce Street Tower in New York (2011), the Facebook West Campus Building in Menlo Park (2015) and the ongoing LUMA Foundation in Arles (2018). All the projects are presented from the early ideas, then the discarded ones, then more defined and finally the definitive models with pictures of the realized building. Sentences from Gehry, selected excerpts from interviews chosen by Tane, are printed alongside the boxes offering an interpretation of Gehry’s philosophy related to each project. Another glimpse of the process through which Gehry unveils himself to the viewer.
At the entrance of the second gallery it’s possible to see the impression that Gehry can express of his work as seen through Tane’s eyes. A large diagram, called “Ideagram” tries to simplify his reinterpretation of Gehry giving a reading key for the exhibition. At its center we can find the first spark of the whole design engine: the idea. Diverting from it we can find the three main branches of Gehry’s architectural process: People, Technology and obviously Architecture. Each smaller branch is hence divided in all the inspirations, the aims and the technological equipment Gehry has to deal with in his design journey. Each of those variables give the process itself a circular movement where starting ideas develop continuously and come back to always different ideas again.
The third and smallest gallery is the space called “Gehry’s Secret”. Here the minimalistic approach chosen by Tane aims to exemplify one of the most hidden aspects of Gehry’s attitude to design. Pictures of 1970s factories from Los Angeles outskirts made by Gehry are opposed to the architect’s drawings, sculptures and sentences having fishes and snakes as subjects. Tane decision to associate factories and fishes (an old and recurrent obsession of Gehry) lies in the intuition to compare the dynamic and elegant movement of fishes with the modern and poor industrial materials often used by Gehry in the composition of its famous architectural surfaces. An eventual contrast is only apparent since Gehry’s design is clearly inspired by these two visions.
Although all people have ideas, not many have learnt as Gehry how to polish them until finding their power to challenge other established ideas. When reading again the manifesto he presented in the exhibition, there is a simple yet sincere statement of how ideas operate in his mind. There is first an exhausting but fluid self-analysis of his own ideas until finding the “piece de resistance“ as he names it, one that can endure the impact of other ideas. Moreover, presenting his manifesto in an oversized crumpled sheet of paper might be also a hint to read it as another Gehry’s irony, where making such an act is nothing more but part of his process without the aim of claiming any philosophy. With or without it, there would be no Gehry if there would be no cities aiming to fill their gaps with ideas of such eccentric nature.
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until 7 February 2016
Frank Gehry: I have an Idea
21_21 Design Sight, Tokyo