Challenge vs. Comfort

In light of Frank Gehry’s much talked about interchange with a reporter in Spain this last week, Rem Koolhaas’ perspective on Challenge vs. Comfort seems like a relevant discussion.  To some, Gehry’s work might qualify as challenging since it is certainly not the norm and because it challenges us to re-evaluate the architecture to which we have become accustomed.  It challenges the idea of form following function and asks whether architecture can be sculpture. But has Gehry fallen prey to what is comfortable for himself?  Where is his recent defensiveness coming from?

Frank Gehry flicks off reporters in Spain

Frank Gehry flicks off reporters in Spain

Koolhaas, in his talk on Challenge vs. Comfort, posits that we have lost a sense of adventure, mystery and daring in art and architecture.  Instead we have conformed what is popular, what is easiest and most predicable.  When presenting this talk in Milan, he presented a number of his projects that highlight unpredictable and more challenging moves, such as the unmarked Prada store in Beverly Hills (since altered).  It creates mystery and interest by challenging expectations for retail establishments, particularly those on Rodeo Drive.

I recently traveled to Boston during our “field trip week”, where I toured the campuses of Harvard and MIT and encountered Gehry’s Stata Center.  It is unquestionably Gehry.  It could have been situated anywhere.  Maybe I didn’t give it much of a chance, but it certainly didn’t awe me as Charles Correa’s building across the street did.  It felt hulking and awkward, like a relative with uncomfortably poor hygiene that has forced its way into a more refined gathering.  It drew attention only because of its flamboyance, as if insecure across from the repose and elegance of the Correa piece.

Gehry's Stata Center at MIT

Gehry’s Stata Center at MIT

While I am pleasantly surprised by aspects of Gehry’s latest work in France (criticism of which prompted his outburst), I can’t help but feel that he has made his point.  His Guggenheim in Bilbao was a huge success–I would love to visit it someday (okay, the fact that it’s in Spain is a part of that)–as was the Disney Concert Hall.  But now that he has developed a style such that his buildings are unmistakably his, is he really challenging anything?  Is he challenging himself?

In the documentary Sketches of Gehry, Gehry is questioned about his response to criticism of his work.  How does he take it?  He says that he pays no attention.  He moves on.  I give him props for believing in what he is doing, but in my mind you have to do better than that.  His reaction in Spain only reinforces this–if you have something to contribute to the conversation, at least articulate it to us rather than deriding everyone else.  If 98 percent of architecture is “pure shit”, why call it architecture in the first place?



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