Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Sydney need not swallow the getting of Gehry hook, line and sinker
It always seemed likely, in a perverse kind of way, that, as e-learning infiltrated the academy, the bricks-and-mortar life of universities would become more important, not less. And so it has come to pass.
After the University of NSW and Sydney Uni, it is now UTS’s turn to civilise. And compared with its confreres, it is raising the design stakes. Not just to international level; not just to Pritzker level. After all, if Stanley Quek builds Frasers Broadway as planned, there’ll be not one but two international Pritzkers – Norman Foster and Jean Nouvel – just over the road.
No, UTS is aiming higher, at architecture’s only truly household name, the Frank Lloyd Wright of our time.
Frank Owen Gehry is not just an architect. He’s an industry. History will remember him as having Bilbao-ised our civic world, for better or worse; turning the ubiquitous square box into a titanium meringue.
The vice-chancellor of UTS, Ross Milbourne, says a Gehry in Ultimo will give students “a truly unique experience that inspires learning and discovery and excites studying and socialising”.
Is he right? And are these really his motives? Or is the getting-of-Gehry more an ontological exercise, designed to prove that UTS, like Bilbao, actually exists?
Cut to the fish. Through the ’80s, fish became Gehry’s constant leitmotif; fish lamps, fish pendants, fish sculptures, fish-shaped pavilions. Why fish?
“In Toronto,” recalls Gehry, “when I was very young, my grandmother and I used to go to Kensington, a Jewish market, on Thursday morning. She would buy a carp for gefilte fish. She’d put it in the bathtub, fill the bathtub with water, and this big black carp – two or three feet long – would swim around in the bathtub and I would play with it. I would stand up there and watch it turn and twist … and then she’d kill it and make gefilte fish and that was always sad and awful and ugly.”
He is still doing the fish. Gradually they got bigger and more habitable, with wilder but more abstract curves and gleaming titanium scales. One day the fishy smell was gone. But one thing hadn’t changed. They were still essentially sculptures; form over content.
Gehry, the postmodernist, employs the sleight-of-hand of which the postmodern prophet Robert Venturi accused Mies van der Rohe; solving the problem by simplifying it until it’s like, what problem, where?
So, while your classic Gehry gleams like some heaven-dropped blossom, as soon as you hit the front door you see it’s the same old aluminium extrusion sitting square-eyed in the same old glass screen. He’s done it, you realise, by not doing it. All glam, no gumption. No being-there.
But there is hope. My favourite Gehry is his own house in Santa Monica. A modest exercise in timber and corrugated-iron eccentricity, it dates from 1978, before eccentricity became required reading. Wonky is too sober; it is whoops-a-daisy. But it’s a real, functioning house.
So it would be great to have a Gehry in Sydney, especially rubbing shoulders with a Nouvel and a(nother) Foster. But, I’d like him to have another idea, not ichthyological; something with a magic more spatial than material.