Paul Goldberger and Eric Owen Moss on Avant-Garde Architecture, Frank Gehry, and Los Angeles vs. New York

Paul Goldberger and Eric Owen Moss on Avant-Garde Architecture, Frank Gehry, and Los Angeles vs. New York

By Dwell
Dwell on Design NY's keynote speakers, architecture critic Paul Goldberger and architect Eric Owen Moss, began their discussion with the origins of modern architecture but ended with a deeper subject: how can you be an architectural insider and outsider?

Eric Owen Moss began the conversation with a brief history of modern architecture: it's always been a constant appropriator of other fields. He said architects like Walter Gropius took an industiral aesthetic from assembly lines, Le Corbusier was inspired by Cubism, and Kenzo Tange used anatomical terms to formulate the metabolist movement. Throughout this history of modern architecture, each movement has thrived on opposition: "architecture needs an adversary, a target... what is it taking down or remedying?" 

"The arbiter of cultural content was New York—New York said so—and New York agreed. And Los Angeles didn't." - Eric Owen Moss

The idea of avant-garde architecture—and how to judge its succeses and failures—set the stage for their discussion of Los Angeles and Frank Gehry. Goldberger's latest title, Building Art (Knopf, 2015), is exploration of the life and work of Gehry. Both panelist's close familiarity with the book's subject filled the discussion with funny anecdotes (if you get the chance, ask Goldberger about Frank Gehry, his psychiatrist, and chain link fences). However, you can't talk about Gehry without talking about where he got his architectural start: Los Angeles. Was Gehry's success due to the city's freer artistic atmosphere in the 1960's? L.A. was farther from the the cultural and institutional gatekeepers of New York City. There was no absolute agreement among the panelists (PG: "L.A. cares a lot about being thought to not care as much." EOM: "That's something a New Yorker would say.") but there was consensus that Los Angeles has changed. It's no longer a backwater of sorts: "The expectations for LA are different, now it's a city among cities," said Moss.

The Wintons commissioned Gehry after reading about his work in The New York Times in 1982. It was the pick of a client with premonition, and as the final structure indicates, an open mind. The architect was asked to create a space for the Wintons' visiting family—five kids and plenty of grandchildren necessitated the extra room—and complement the main home, a brick Philip Johnson “donut” on a 12-acre plot on the shores of Lake Minnetonka. But Gehry followed his own muse, and often talked about the home he created as pure sculpture, according to Victoria Young, the Professor of Modern Architectural History at St. Thomas University and Coordinator of Frank Gehry’s Winton Guest House. “Even the original models have all these disparate shapes,” she says. “The first model he presented to them had a log cabin, referencing the fact that the Wintons' fortune came from Canadian lumber." Since it was a guest house, Gehry felt free to experiment. "You can explore things in a way you can’t in a place people live in all the time.”

"Frank Gehry couldn't have done what he did, or broken as many rules in New York." - Paul Goldberger

Is Frank Gehry still avant-garde, now that he's regularly awarded, sought-after, and part of the established architectural scene? "Everyone says you're nuts," said Moss, "then everyone wants you to do [your architecture] everywhere." Golberger reflected that this was the paradox of the bestselling filmmaker, dancer, or painter: "It's hard for a best-seller to be avant-garde." Ultimately, Moss mused that you'd have to walk through Gehry's office, look at the models, and "make a judgement for yourself" whether his work is still radical. While Goldberger countered that "all work is in a social and political context, and how work relates to that is in interesting story," it seems the fate of the successful avant-garde architect remains in the eye of the beholder.

"[Frank Gehry] is eighty six and half and still desperately wants to be thought of representing the avant-garde." - Paul Goldberger

Frank Gehry’s Stata Center in Boston is home to MIT’s computer scientists and engineers.

"If you fail, you're out, and if you succeed you're out." - Eric Owen Moss. "It's the paradox of the avant garde." - Paul Goldberger


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