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Architect Frank Gehry's work pleases and awes

| Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012

Frank Gehry has easily become America's most celebrated — and significant — architect since Frank Lloyd Wright.

His wildly curvy buildings with what seem to be randomly fragmented facades break all kinds of architectural precedents. They can leave innocent onlookers totally uncomprehending, yet also in awe. If Gehry has generated a puzzled public with his buildings, it seems to be a pleased public at the same time.

What's more, he has led the way to public anointment of a whole class of suddenly celebrated architects who can similarly amaze — the so-called "star" architects who, like Gehry, can turn out museums or concert halls and the like that sometimes seem ready to fly off the ground.

Los Angeles-based Gehry has dropped unlikely buildings into places all over the world. A 76-story skyscraper apartment building opened recently in New York City with a gleaming, curvily faceted, stainless -steel facade that makes the huge building seem to shimmer and ripple in the daylight. It's said to be the tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere. Among his next buildings to open will be a canted, off-center cluster of office and hotel spaces in Barcelona and a museum in Panama City.

The first question that has to be asked of this kind of architecture is why• Why design and build in this way?

And the first answer that has to be given is this: Because it's possible!

Although Gehry's designs certainly spring from a supple mind, they are, nevertheless, dependent creatures of the digital age. His office is famous for using a computer program originally intended to provide designs for airplanes. These types of programs make it possible to precisely digitize curving structures and shapes, and then translate those into models for buildings. They can even provide exact guidelines for builders and fabricators, allowing them to precisely cut and assemble the required shapes for the frames and claddings of buildings.

The old T-square and triangle approach to design has been made almost obsolete by computers, and even some relatively small design studios can now use the kind of design programs that Gehry pioneered for architecture. These programs have opened up ways to create all kinds of dynamic and exciting exterior shapes — and interior spaces that architects could mostly only dream of before the digital age.

But, then, that raises the big second question. And that is, does this kind of architecture "work?" Does it provide functional and attractive spaces for users of a building• And the answer to that is like the answer you would give for any kind of craft: When done well, definitely yes.

The nearest Gehry building to us is in Cleveland — the now 10-year-old Peter B. Lewis Building of the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. This unusual building seems to be an inexplicable explosion of concave and convex stainless-steel-clad shapes that go off in several different directions from within a red-brick base.

It's not one of Gehry's most famous buildings — like say the nearly contemporary Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles or the renowned Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain — but it is one his best. And after 10 years of use, the folks who "live" in that building — operating a business school — seem to like it very much indeed.

"I think an elevating space elevates people," says Fred Collopy, an associate dean at the Weatherhead School who has been involved with the building from the design stages. He says most faculty and students — even those initially skeptical — have come to find the building comfortable, functional and inspiring.

The center of the building is an atrium that brings daylight down through all six of the building's levels. This almost amoeba-shaped atrium is pierced by six huge, obliquely sloped, square-ish pillars — concrete on the inside but clad on the outside with panels of warmly colored, veneered plywood. They seem to provide a stabilizing force amid a swirl of irregular geometries created by the rooms and balconies that surround the atrium. It is hard not to be inspired by this spatial collage.

Collopy is especially pleased with the careful way the classrooms in the building were designed. He notes that Gehry listened attentively to what the faculty wanted in the building, and that one oval-shaped classroom — where the teacher is surrounded by the students and an oculus brings daylight into the lower-level room — "is the single-best teaching space I've ever been in."

Gehry's goal is "wedding and fitting the building to the users' needs," says Pittsburgh architect Matthew Fineout, who worked for Gehry for 10 years and was the project architect on both the museum in Bilbao and the Cleveland building. "He's not just doing geometric gymnastics. He, ultimately, wants to make spaces that are really inviting to people, he wants to influence the way people feel," Fineout says.

Architecture can be evaluated in a number of ways, but examining how a building makes you feel can be a good place to start. (Recall the awe you feel stepping into a huge cathedral, or the self-reflection that might be inspired by a small chapel.) Not all Frank Gehry buildings are as successful as the building at Case. But it is a striking example of how exciting and inspiring these new shapes — shapes that architects now have the tools to create — can be.

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