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The eminent outsider

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Frank Gehry has just turned 70, and now comes this great whale of a book, with more than 250 buildings and projects. What it reveals is that, while Gehry is the most fertile and exuberant form-maker around, he really didn't get going until he was nearly 50 years old. The earlier work brims with interesting fragments, but there is no ground-breaking project until the famous remodelled Santa Monica house of 1977-78. So here is some kind of reassurance for struggling young architects, as well as proof of the benefits of maturity.

Gehry has always been difficult to interpret. Attempts to enlist him into the Deconstruction camp, or to accuse him of architectural Disneyfication, are farcical. The two essays here are written by distinguished European academics, Francesco Dal Co and Kurt Forster, and, although erudite, they too miss the point.

Both fall into the perennial trap of using Eurocentric ideas to assess American culture. Forster puts Gehry on the couch for a Freudian psychoanalysis of his relationship to his parents and Jewish heritage. The portrayal is of Gehry as a misfit, with a predilection for voluptuous and unorthodox forms that recalls Borromini, the tortured Baroque genius.

Dal Co prefers to apply the trademark methodology that he and Manfredo Tafuri patented long ago, seeing Gehry as struggling with an ideological crisis in artistic Modernism. In other words, how can one create meaningful form in a culture that has lost the certainties of religion and social hierarchy, and is consumed by the economic universe of capitalism? Dal Co's reference point for Gehry is the 'found object' process of 1920s artist Kurt Schwitters, who dredged and reframed the ephemera of German culture for his Merzbau project.

The problem of both interpretations is encapsulated in their inability to explain Gehry's recurrent use of fish imagery. Dal Co interprets it as a post-humanist proposition that man is no longer the measure of architecture, along with a desire to express elusive qualities of movement. More likely still is that Gehry's fish are red herrings, a provocation to architectural culture rather than a significant feature. Gehry is the master of bluff, and hence can only really be tackled in wider social and urban terms. What is most curious about his rise to pre-eminent international status is that he remains on the margins. Some part of Gehry wants to be the rootless, perpetual outsider, constantly moving on whilst transforming all he touches. He is the Leopold Bloom of modern architecture.

Gehry operates better in urban and cultural peripheries. His family moved to Los Angeles in his late teens, but it was his decision to stay on and change his surname from Goldberg. He worked first for Victor Gruen, the immigrant Austrian architect who championed the out-of-town American shopping mall. All of Gehry's efforts to integrate into established metropolitan cultures have failed. He went to Harvard in the late-1950s to study urban planning, but soon left. His designs for major cities, whether Manhattan, Berlin, London, or the American Center in Paris, are easily his weakest.

Los Angeles, for all its cinematic hegemony, lies on the fringe of American culture. What it offers Gehry is rampant aesthetic freedom, and a public space where he can collaborate with gigantist sculptors such as Claes Oldenburg. And even in la, Gehry tends not to design for the Hollywood or Pacific Palisades sites favoured by Neutra or the Case Study crew, but for the looser beach-cultures of Venice and Santa Monica. The fractured urban forms of the Chiat/Day headquarters, the Loyola Law School, or the Edgemar shopping centre, all speak of dissolution and uncertainty in urban life.

Gehry's strength lies in his acceptance of cultural hybridity as the condition of contemporary architecture. Strategies to avoid this by a return to a false unity, as in High-Tech or Minimalism, are flawed. What is needed is an absence of denial. Gehry has thus reached the same point as many current theorists, but through intuition. As in the classic western film, Gehry knows that at some point the jawing has to stop, and the action begin. And this freedom from intellectual concepts of high and low culture enables him to avoid the category-fixation that has bedevilled others like Robert Venturi.

All begins with Gehry's house in Santa Monica, updated in the early 1990s, which slices the typical middle-class dwelling with references to Japan, linguistic pluralism, and the American ghetto. Even richer is the Guggenheim Bilbao, in its troubled provincial city. Its heterogeneous forms and materials abound with allusions to industry, ships and cathedrals, and create the most culturally mixed and spatially audacious project of our times.

Murray Fraser teaches at Oxford Brookes University

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