Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Gehry has designed a building that is more about him than us
To criticise Frank Gehry, even mildly, is to be accused of tall-poppyism, slow-wittedness, envy and, that greatest sin, being a nobody. The nobodiness I accept without question but on the rest, I beg to differ.
Germaine Greer, who is critical of Gehry but more critical of Sydney, says he is building here (as opposed to some place civilised like the Cotswolds) only for the most vulgar of reasons, money. Unlike most, we still have an economy. Other commentators say, yes, Gehry’s University of Technology, Sydney, building is facile, but either (a) that’s exactly why it suits us, or (b) it’s still better than most Sydney rubbish.
My view is this. Gehry is certainly more interesting than most architects, and his UTS proposal is vastly more engaging – cleverer, wackier, more inventive – than Sydney’s (or any) norm. This is why he, and it, are even worth the comment.
Critiquing the regular urban dross would take forever and bore us all (especially me) to death. About a building with no content there is nothing at all to say, certainly nothing interesting. If this is tall poppy syndrome, so be it.
So criticism is, in its way, a form of praise; something to be earned. Then again, unlike many, I do not regard criticism as inherently evil. Indeed, I consider it a crucial ingredient of civilisation. If anything, we need more – more acute, more thoughtful, and just plain more. Our city and our lives would be better for it. We gain nothing, on the other hand, by simpering at the great man’s feet.
Thank you, Mr Gehry, oh thank you, yes, whatever you like, Mr Gehry. Let me lick your crumpled designer boots. This is not how to get the best from your architect, ever; certainly not from a starchitect. For Gehry is totally a star. He is one because he is unusual, thoughtful, creative and likeable. He cites the Elgin Marbles as his pedigree (this is examinable material in Starchitect Self-Promo 101, where crumpled-looking likeability is also strongly advised). He is a star but he is not a great architect.
I say this knowing – as you will indefatigably point out – that I am not a great architect either, hugely less great than Gehry. I’m OK with that, and not about to trot out my critic’s qualifications, though they do exist. We are all critics. We all use, pay for, live in, walk around, drive past, smell and feel the buildings that comprise our city. Add thinking, and you have criticism.
Where stardom measures popularity, greatness measures achievement. These are not the same. And Gehry is not great because his buildings are not fully resolved. Their eye-catching exteriors far outclass their interiors, the people bits, which are, broadly speaking, mundane. From a man of his status and talents this is inexcusable.
So, how to tell a great building?
This is criticism’s role. Critiquing a building involves measuring it against three sets of criteria. First, does it fulfil its own intentions? Second, are these intentions valid? Third, does it synthesise these with the demands of structure, economy, use and context to form a single, coherent creation? Does it do the magic? This is resolution.
Gehry’s own interest, his persistent and driving theme, is movement. The Hellenes sought to depict movement in sculpture and so, he says, does he.
Which is the cause of his advanced fish-o-philia. Born Ephraim Goldberg, Gehry once ascribed this to watching the gefilte-to-be swim in his grandmother’s bathtub. True or not, most of Gehry’s career since the ’70s has revolved around fish. In conversation, Gehry rejects metaphor, just as Princess Di rejected publicity, but you would have to say, he asked for it.
For years his fish were single, literal and ubiquitous, appearing in lampshades, jewellery, sculpture, furniture, houses and buildings. Eventually they schooled, into Gehry’s curled titanium cloud phase, like the silver-skinned Bilbao, and Disney. Then, a few years back, the fish were dried, inebriated and popped into crumpled take-out bags.
So, if it’s all about movement, the questions are: is this reasonable? Does he manage it? And do the buildings cohere, inside and out, around this theme? Do they do the magic? If yes to all then, sure, it’s a great building.
(The Opera House fails this test because its interiors, even as Utzon would have had them, deliver so little of the soaring, primitive, music-filled magic of its postcard promises.)
But Gehry’s UTS building doesn’t tick all boxes. Sure, it captures movement, if only of a bag-crumpling type. (Personally, I warm to this pseudo-dereliction, especially in contrast to Sydney’s uber-slick architectural habits.)
As to user needs, Ross Milbourne of UTS says the building was designed “from the inside out” around university needs. But the clear Gehry lineage shows a building that is more about him than us, suggesting a boot-licking stance from a client that clearly defines its “needs” with “great dollops of global publicity” as top dot-point. UTS is a Volvo driver looking to get itself a Saab.
As to whether movement is a plausible architectural aim, I’m unconvinced. Buildings are not transport. Cars and people move; a building is a harbour, not a ship. The stable is not the horse. To choose “movement” as a goal, further, is to choose failure, since at most a building can “look like” movement.
Regarding urban responsibility, Gehry’s mouthing of the tired cliche about glass facades “reflecting” context is almost as shocking as his vocal contempt for environmental performance.
But my real quibble comes with the synthesis. Great buildings – like Palladio’s Villa Rotonda or Mies’s Berlin Gallery – tune inside and out in total harmony. Gehry’s “termite’s nest” (Greer’s tag) does anything but.
If movement is his thing, he could at least move us forward to greener cultural pasture, rather than pretend Sydney needs more faux-habitable sculpture. It’s not a choice between the dull box and the exuberant PR-driven sculpture. There is a third option: architecture. We deserve it.