Saturday, 7 February 2015

Rational Gerhy, rational critics

The paper bag opens

With much brouhaha, in the presence of the celebrated architect, Sydney's one and only Frank Gehry building was opened  this last week. And the opening was accompanied by the same vehement, self-serving misinformation that has been dished up about it during its construction. It's the building that people love to hate, but they are too lazy to really think about.

Typical was the rant by Elizabeth Farrelly, Sydney's resident public intellectual, architecture critic. Before I quote her, let me be quite clear: I am really pleased that Farrelly can survive by her writing, and she has every right to a fairly held opinion. I am even more pleased that Gehry's building prompts Sydney people to be interested in architecture, and to debate it. So what does Farrelly have to say?  First ad hominem, attack the man:
"Frank Gehry is the Kim Kardashian of contemporary architecture: all curves, no content."
She gets a lot of mileage out of that one in the rest of her review. But as an adjunct academic she ought to know that that's a cheap shot, and if she did it to an architecture student, she would probably be politely asked to stick to the work. Which she eventually does do.

Ferrelly builds her case by starting from the general:
"Gehry's buildings are often described as "organic" – wonky, amorphous, even drunk. This rejection of stricture plays to our hippie baggage, expressionist tastes and individualist delusions."
Content with that simplistic over-generalisation, she expands on the theme in a variety of ways, specifically condemning the interior as nothing special. She ends with:
"Any building that cares so much for forcing bricks to contradict nature that it ties each individually to its frame, and so little for its users that its main street presence offers a soulless concrete space furnished by a low wall, outlet fan outlet and utility door suggests that KK is not the only one unclothed."
Having finally seen the building in the flesh, I strongly disagree with her, and all the others for whom the trite metaphor of the paper bag is an attractive starting point.

First and foremost, the building is extraordinarily rational, just like most of Gerhy's architecture has been throughout much of his career. To understand this, you have to look at how Gerhy has approached the various building types he has designed, and in particular you have to look at the Sydney building as an embodiment of that approach.  Let me try to sum it up.

Gerhy's architecture is described by people who don't know what they're talking about, as a 'triumph of parametricism'. They imply that the characteristic 'complications' are a product of the use and abuse of the power of the computer during the design stages. In fact, Gehry's office famously builds, explores and judges architectural concepts by hand and eye, using their bespoke version of the Catia software to transform the handcrafted complexity into documents from which to build.

If Gehry designs a museum or other major building for the arts (arguably the city landmarks of the contemporary age, on par with the cathedrals of former times), the building is primarily a place marker at a grand scale, designed in the round. It sets out to define the city – in the case of Bilbao, single-handedly.  The building has an underlying diagram, but the principal strategy is a freedom it affords the designer to think of the external form separately from the interior space. Contrary to Farrelly's assertion, that by itself is an idea and a discipline, famously explained by Jorn Utzon in relation to the Sydney Opera House as 'like a walnut in its shell'.

To other kinds of buildings, Gehry applies an almost simplistic strategy.  The approach has been on show at least since the Chiat/Day advertising agency office building in Venice, California.  Now inevitably known as the Binoculars Building, after the centerpiece of the facade by Claes Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen, it is really straight forward: take two vanilla office buildings, dress up the facade of each one with some wonky secondary structure, and front the whole lot by something slightly over-sized and bizarre, but only large enough to work as a place marker at its local scale.  An address, in other words.

The diagram, or parti of the building couldn't be simpler; it's about as complicated as a factory shed with offices attached to the front.  The simple duality can also be expressed as a flat plate building with superficial unduating edges, juxtaposed against a corner or central 'sculpture turned into building'.  It is Gehry's standard solution; think Fred and Ginger in Prague.  I suspect for most of his critics, the problem with Gehry's architecture is that they don't really accept it could be as simple as that.

What does this have to do with the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building in Sydney?  Squint, and you realise that Frank has done it again.

Look at the aerial view.  It's fair to describe the form as a simple square in plan, divided into four quarters, where the two southern quarters rise to 11-12 storeys, the two northern quarters to six.  It is conspicuous from this view that the seriously exuberant brickwork wraps the minor north-west portion (foreground, right hand side), while the brickwork on the bulk of the building is straight up-and-down doing what brickwork does best, going around gentle curves in plan.

But you might think I am cheating; you remember another view of this building, a much bigger facade, more uniformly crumpled.  Indeed there was such a view.  It was a rendering of the main east facade.  Comparison of this principal facade as built, with that originally illustrated, in fact makes another important point: the form has obviously been the subject of ruthless and appropriate simplification, to the point where it retains just the right amount of the original complications, but no more.

Still on the exterior, we can't ignore the gap between the brick masses.  That gap is closed in a fragmented glass skin with complex inter-reflections, anticipating and reinforcing that this is where the interior spatial drama of the building, if any, might be played out.  Looking at it in this frame of mind, what becomes obvious again is just how much value Gerhy squeezes out of how little.  Compared to many of its neighbours, and certainly most other starchitecture, the amount of 'funny glass' in this building is relatively small, and conspicuously simply detailed.

In a similar vein, hostile critics point to the use of uniform, near square panes of glass mounted in protruding boxes, as if they were a betrayal of the curvilinear forms of the brickwork.  Again, viewed with a different frame of mind, it's obvious that Gerhy manages to reduce both the quantity of glass (the weakest point in the performance of any building fabric), and the complications of the detailing of brick and window frame.

But back to the brick.  It is interesting to note how the unusual brickwork is described. Sometimes you would be forgiven for reading that 320,000 custom designed bricks laid by hand are all different from each other. It isn't just loose language; it sounds heroic. You are meant to infer that the builder has managed an impossible task and delivered on time and on budget in spite of the difficulties.

It also happens to be untrue. Yes, the brick manufacturer actually did make a special brick for the project, one where the 'frog' is replaced by a slot for an engineered brick tie.  But if I understand it correctly, they made one special shape, the so-called K-brick.  Not a big variation for an industry that is still providing such wonderful standard bricks as half-bats, king closers, half round capping, saddleback coping, bullnose, double bullnose stop, squint, single cant return with internal mitre, plinth header, tapered stretcher, radial header, and a plethora of other shapes.
Let's think for a moment about the bigger picture. What exactly is wrong with a relatively small team of bricklayers managing to build the facades of a relatively large building by hand? I don't hear the bricklayers complaining about either the opportunity to work, or the opportunity to work on something actually interesting.  Given my advocacy for keeping alive the traditional building crafts in places like India, I can hardly begrudge Gehry the pleasure of doing the same in Australia.
For completeness, we have to acknowledge that the undulating brickwork was slower to lay, and more expensive than traditional decorative brickwork.  And that there is little or no evidence of a careful adaptation of brickwork traditions of detailing to minimise staining and erosion.  But the same or worse can be said of most contemporary 'skinning' of complex shaped buildings, using composite panels held together by clips and mastic.

Elizabeth Farrelly might be on firmer ground describing the building as a product of glib marketing by the client UTS, till recently a minor university even in its home city.  And with her reflections on perhaps exaggerated claims of innovation in teaching spaces.  But her summary condemnation of the building is glib, and smacks of greater interest in claiming authorship of the original 'crushed paper bag' meme.  The trouble is, that meme is nothing to be proud of.  It distracts from seeing the building for what it really is: a building with a rare joyful exuberance.

So what's with the title of this piece?  How can I say that both Gehry and the critics are rational?  For that, you have to remember the meaning of the word: "based on or in accordance with reason or logic".  That only describes how you get from where you start, to where you end up.

In this controversy, those I call hostile critics start from an axiomatic assumption that Gehry is willful, and making materials do unnatural things on a whimsy.  For them, this latest building by the notorious architect is therefore, logically, bad and to be condemned.  But if you look at Gehry's work from a different perspective, you may conclude that it is thoughtful, well based in tested principles, and developed with an extraordinary dedication.

Alternatively, just look at the building, look at the actual building.

See the post on Architecture & Design, here.
Now that the building has had its 'hard' opening, interior images should start turning up soon.

As mentioned in my next post, this piece triggered some off-line feedback.  The most important was from Chris Abel, whose latest book I recently reviewed.  Chris's articles some years ago first to drew my attention to the fundamental differences in approach to the use of software, particularly between Gehry's and Foster's offices.

This time, Chris confirmed that the organizational principles of Gehry's more complex buildings can also be reduced to a duality: functional (even orthographically regular) interior boxes for galleries, say, wrapped in a curvilinear, loosely fitting shell.  And he reminded me of the issues of weathering, to which those free-form exteriors don't seem to pay much attention.

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