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One-trick pony


Frank Gehry Architect At the Guggenheim Museum, New York, until 26 August

In 1953, when Frank Lloyd Wright was in the early stages of designing the Guggenheim Museum in New York, an exhibition opened - in a temporary gallery on the prospective site - to celebrate Wright's lifetime achievements.

Now, nearly 50 years later, it is Frank Gehry's turn. With his completion of the Guggenheim in Bilbao and a commission for another Guggenheim museum on Manhattan's waterfront, Gehry's name is now, like Wright's, intrinsically linked to the architectural vision of the Guggenheim Foundation.

This retrospective exhibition reviews 40 of his projects in depth. It explores the development of his ideas and style by using large-scale photographs, drawings and video walk-throughs, but mainly by means of a magnificent display of production and display models.

The exhibition works its way up the spiral rotunda, beginning with a beautifully crafted model of Gehry's recent New York proposal. This is situated alongside some of the early scheme models for the New York site, consisting of wood-block spatial development plans and scrunched-up tracing paper visualisations.

A description on one sketch scheme states that 'the Guggenheim planning team. . . concluded that the basic building image was neither strong nor distinct enough (and therefore). . . had to include a skyscraper component to establish a dialogue with its neighbours'. The finished proposal now looks very interesting - from all angles - and does seem to engage with the skyline, waterfront and the public arena.

Seeing the progression of Gehry's aesthetic over the years is fascinating, although I don't think that he has surpassed his design for the Vitra Design Museum, which, though clearly derivative of Le Corbusier's Ronchamp, has a freshness and timeless simplicity. This endearing quality is quite lost in his later work - maybe due to Gehry becoming enamoured by the technical 'freedom' offered by computer graphics and consequently losing a certain sense of the human scale. In fact, Gehry's later works seem to be many variations on a single architectural joke.

The phrases 'humble aesthetic', 'honesty to materials' and 'reminiscent of the unbuilt Samsung Museum of Modern Art', reappear in the exhibition notes time and time again.

It's a surprise, indeed, to find those first two phrases associated with Gehry's work. In fact, it could be argued that taking predominantly two-dimensional materials and forcing them into a three-dimensional geometry is an untruthful aesthetic, his roofs proving difficult enough to construct in silvered cardboard at 1:500 scale.

Many schemes owe their genesis to sophisticated computer modelling. While Gehry's use of computer-aided design technology might be seen as a legitimate extension of the Modernist credo, the exhibition states that the new computer visualisation processes have 'facilitated the realisation - on an ambitious new scale - of the gestural quality he has long prized'. Faint praise indeed.

Designs for the Nationale-Nederlanden building, or the EMR Communication and Technology Centre, for example, are delightful, but the lasting impression from this exhibition is that Gehry, especially in his signature work, has become a one-trick pony, introducing random 'organic' forms to the frontages of otherwise undistinguished architectural slabs just because he can.

It is populist and fun stuff, and goodness knows architecture needs a bit more of that, but it is in danger of becoming tiresome. I was faintly relieved that the top floor dedicated to Bilbao and Disney was closed - another funny, wavy roof would have sent me over the edge.

As with the phase that fellow Pop Art pensioner David Hockney went through several years ago, Gehry currently seems to be stuck in a born-again, computer-infatuated world of visual gags and sculptural provocation. He said in his acceptance speech for the Pritzker Prize in 1989 that 'acknowledgment by an important jury does not engender complacency'.Unfortunately it seems that, for the time being, it may have done exactly that.

New York is currently host to two Frank Lloyd Wright shows ('Frank Lloyd Wright and the Art of Japan' at the Japan Society Gallery and 'Light Screens: the Leaded Glass of Frank Lloyd Wright' at the Craft Museum) and exhibitions on Mies van der Rohe at both the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art

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