Exploring intuition JEREMY MELVIN Frank Gehry at the Soane At Sir John Soane's Museum, 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London WC2 until 19 June
If anyone categorised architectural personalities in the way Buddhists do souls, 'intuitiveness' would surely be the equivalent of 'nirvana'. It is the most frequent accolade for Frank Gehry, and bearing it out demands little of the critic. Indeterminate, squiggly lined drawings tend to suggest intuitiveness, and Gehry does those in abundance. The show at the Soane (cut down from a much larger one at the Louisiana, Copenhagen) presents a sample of these drawings, several models and a few chairs - all spread between the small ground-floor gallery and the first-floor drawing room.
Being 'intuitive' brings many advantages. Most importantly, it takes the oeuvre beyond criticism: the stone-wall answer to any doubts about a work is that it is intuitive, and all conversation stops.
How refreshing it is to see Gehry's work in the Soane, for Soane was undoubtedly a genius. But his work is never beyond intellectual challenge - it positively invites it. To Soane, architecture was mental hard labour, and what intuitive leaps he made always proceded from some rational starting- point. So, if any setting can demystify Gehry's squiggles it must be No 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields.
The exhibition takes two approaches. One is a conventional display of early sketches of projects, which fill Eva Jiricna's glass display cases as if they were pages from a Renaissance album. But for me, at least, Gehry's drawings do not have the same force. They are much simpler form- finding exercises whose relevance only becomes apparent teleologically, in relation to the final building, to which many are close. In some cases, a recognisable form does emerge, as in the DG bank building on Pariser Platz, Berlin, where the horse's head motif starts its transformation into built form. The most interesting image, though, is in a sheet of studies for the Disney Concert Hall, which shows a group of rectangular shapes arranged around an oval, much like a Mannerist church with its chapels.
Yet Gehry's drawings rarely give themselves to such mnemonic traces or portray such transformations. With such a small sample of what must be countless sketches it is hard to be definitive, but the building's principal formal characteristics seems to emerge early, immaculately conceived, and needing little perfecting. The drawings may be the mental equivalent of the computer procedure which identifies and describes the forms once they are designed - and on which Gehry is utterly dependent - but they say little about context or function, those prosaic cornerstones from which architecture often starts.
The exhibition's second mode of presentation is quite different. In the elegant Yellow Drawing Room on the first floor is a table of models and scattered papers, with Gehry chairs around it and several smaller stands along the walls. On these are more models, of the Guggenheim, for instance, and the Weatherhead business school in Cleveland Ohio (with its frozen cascades of metal which keep banality at bay). It is as if Gehry has dropped in for a tutorial with Soane, or as if Soane has bought Gehry's material for his museum. Here imagination really can begin to fill out the spaces between the models and the drawings. There is a context to the work, however subjective in origin, which turns the question from what were the designer's intentions, to what are the implications of this design?
The ultimate effect, however, is to give a gloss of respectability to the real story of Gehry's career. He had spent his working life skilfully manipulating cheap materials and basic building techniques in sunny California before a giant pair of Claes Oldenburg binoculars highlighted his Chiat Day offices. Then came computers, rich clients and international commissions, and the rest is. . . not quite history, because the Gehry phenomenon has so far eluded historical explication. This exhibition does not fill that gap, but it does add some readings of Gehry which at least might break the closed loop which dominates discussion of his work.
Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher