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Gehry Doubts
by Jan Sand
2007-04-06 09:45:06
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I went through the formal training for the discipline of industrial design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York from 1954 to 1959. It was a fascinating and revealing experience and, for me, emotionally and intellectually it was something of a mental earthquake.

From my first awarenesses as a child of the many logics which order the universe, I have been a non-conformist in confronting the varieties of fantasy that operate in motivating much of human activities. Since placid social order depends upon the bland acceptance of standard rules, I have always found myself in trouble in many common social situations.

The Pratt industrial department had been dominated by a man named Alexander Kostellow but unfortunately he had died the year before I arrived and his crew was rather disorganized during my stay. Although many of the instructors were clever people and had been well indoctrinated by this forceful man there was an ambience of disarray in the department during my stay. It manifested itself as a flurry of sub-disciplines flocking around the vacuum left by Kostellow's absence. Nevertheless the structure of much of the material was firm enough to sustain the general structure. I found much of the terminology murky and it was only long after I graduated that I could sort out in which direction the disciplines were generally oriented.

But my maverick character kept acting up. My quest for Kostellow's ghost became pointed in my contact with Rowena Reed, Kostellow's widow who was a force in herself when she conducted classes in abstract sculptural design designated in the curriculum simply as "3D". All the other instructors did their jobs reasonably well but the emotional intensity "Miss Reed" conveyed to her classes displayed a passion for her subject that left the other instructors far behind and whether I agreed with her approach or not I could not help being swayed by her primal force.

And, unfortunately, my resistance to conformity bristled at her disciplines. These disciplines, basically, analyzed any sculptural design in terms of three interactive visual qualities: a dominant aspect, a sub-dominant aspect and a subordinate aspect. All submitted design efforts were critiqued in this framework and I had difficulty then, and still do, in fitting all good designs into this formal strait jacket.

Before I had entered Pratt I had become acquainted with the outlook of the old Bauhaus design school in pre-Hitler Germany and its slogan of "Form follows function" made logical good sense to me. The overwhelming bulk of nature's organic creations were the result of optimizing their function within their operating area with no concession to aesthetics and nevertheless they were all impressively beautiful. So I was extremely suspicious of design that disregarded function. Abstract sculpture has no function beyond aesthetic stimulation but I was orienting myself towards designing useful objects so purely aesthetic standards seemed to me to be out of kilter with something useful and might probably warp a good utilitarian design away from its proper purposes.

At one point in my time at Pratt Buckminster Fuller gave a lecture and when he was asked what he thought of industrial design he replied that he thought an industrial designer would die happy if he had made the world a bit shinier. At the time I felt insulted by his remark but since then I have come to appreciate the insight of his comment.

And this brings me, at long last, to the work of Frank Gehry.

There is no doubt that his work is sensational. And the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao certainly has an emotional impact. All that shiny metal donates all the delight of a 1950's chrome plated product of Detroit somehow combined on a colossal scale with a warehouse supply of sheet metal disarrayed by a tornado.

And, incredibly, it is visually pleasing. But what the hell goes on inside? Can any of the internal art compete with this huge hollow sculpture? How does it function as a museum?

I have seen other Gehry structures, buildings given an arbitrary twist or leaning hither and yon trying to recover from an adventure past the looking glass. If they were human I would feel they were physically challenged.

But do they function properly or even better because of their weird alien appearance.

I hope so, but I have doubts.

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