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Serious popular pleasure

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Gehry Talks: Architecture and ProcessEdited by Mildred Friedman. Rizzoli, 2000. 300pp. £39.95

'Those whom the Muses entertain are not offered a chair, they are silently shown to the tightrope, ' said Jean Cocteau. This seems relevant to Frank Gehry, who has successfully walked the tightrope and carried architecture to a new level of poetry.Gehry Talks follows the standard format of a book of architectural works, with two introductory essays (by the editor Mildred Friedman and by Michael Sorkin), but most of the text is by Gehry himself, telling his life story and then talking about individual projects.

He does this in such a simple colloquial way that he could almost be sleepwalking. Not a single philosopher is mentioned, and although there are occasional references to such architects as Alvar Aalto and Hans Scharoun, whom one would expect him to admire, the comments are casual - for example, he attended a lecture by Aalto which he very much enjoyed without realising who was giving it.

Just about everything has to be read between the lines.One almost begins to suspect a faux-naif quality to Gehry, even if it is this very lack of guile that has won him the trust of his clients: 'Frank' could hardly be better named. The story of the unbuilt Lewis residence in Ohio could become an architectural classic, as the cost spirals upwards, and Gehry and his client play a pleasurable cat and mouse game, neither of them really requiring that anything be built at the end. The unexpected outcome was the loosening up of Gehry's technique that enabled him to design the Guggenheim, Bilbao.

Perhaps Gehry is the perfect architect to have emerged for a cash-rich playboy economy of the late twentieth century in the US.He helps people to feel good.This is so unlike the puritanical denial of pleasure over the course of centuries, still strongly reflected in our critical standards, that we don't always know how to take it. Gehry is condemned for many of the same reasons that Baroque or Expressionism were condemned, but there is no doubt about his underlying seriousness.

He still has rather a Pop Art attachment to cheap materials, and apparently no love for the display of craftsmanship as an end in itself, anymore than he is interested in the close fit between the inside and outside volumes, but the popularity of the Guggenheim is sufficient proof that we need a redefinition of architectural virtue to catch up with the changed world he has shown us.

There are explanations of the design process, and little snippets of text contributed by members of the office team, but nothing very technical.

Gehry Talks is not the definitive documentation of the projects, and even though it is well illustrated, the pictures don't really convey the experience of the buildings themselves.While there is some talk about their urban contexts, this essential aspect of Gehry's success as a designer seems somewhat overlooked. I personally found myself convinced by the Guggenheim not so much in respect of its close-up or interior forms, but in its relationship to parts of the city from which it was almost invisible.

Michael Sorkin sees the current avant-garde as 'indubitably sourced in Gehry's work' and obsessed by the idea of movement.This could take us back to the beginning of the last century, to the first responses to Cubism, Futurism and cinema.

What, I wonder, would Mendelsohn have done with the Catia computer programme that Gehry uses?

Alan Powers is an architectural historian

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