To thee I dedicate this photograph

Posted: April 24, 2012 in Humanity is a virus

So, drinking late again, finished some work again, feeling bereft again.
So why not fulfill one of my promises and talk ARCHITECTURE?  I mean, as long as I am alienating everyone.


O let’s get started, this is gonna be fun!  O yes it will, dammit.  Shut up and sit down.


Way back in college, I first saw Frank Gehry’s work with his own house, a drastic remodeling of a bungalow in California; it became an icon it what came to be known as Deconstructivism.  But like other isms, it was more a label than an actual description.

I like his house.  It was inventive, and economical, and explored the ideas of working n and around an existing structure.  It was cool and hip and kind of weird.  And obviously designed by a whackaloon.  So of course I felt a kinship.

But he eventually made it to Starchitect status, and from what I’ve seen (I will admit here that I have not visited in person the buildings I rip on; feel free to donate to my travel fund so I can be better informed) his work turns into various permutations of crumple titanium-foil buildings.  My analysis of pictures and pland indicate that there is an intriguing interweaving of the three dimensional aspects of the building with the program; but the buildings are also notorious for leaking and other functional failures.

I may only be a second-rate midwestern small-time architect, but I find Frank Lloyd Wrights’ response to clients complaints about leaking ceilings – “that’s how you can tell it’s a roof”- to be facetious and annoying to someone who just wants a functional building.  I am firmly in the camp that aesthetics are an important element for the built environment, but if the buildings don’t fulfill the basic functions of habitation, then the failure is as stark as if the thing fell down.

You can tell that I grew disdainful of the Gehry work.  You should also be aware, that as architects get famous and largely successful, they perforce add in a substantial support staff who are charged with working, dancing, drawing to the Master’s whims; the easiest way to get along is to be good at aping the Artist’s style; understanding of the underlying theory becomes faint at best.

Hey, can you tell I am bitter and dismissive of my betters?  O yes. And not deservedly; I have had projects leak like a bladder infection also.  Every architect has, although few are drunk enough to admit it.  But at least ome of us take it serisouly enough to pay large amounts of attention to avoiding it.  [ side note.   I worked with a good friend of mine, who had spent time working for a forensic engineering firm in analyzing building failures, and he taught me tremendous amounts of how to make buildings not suck so much].

OK so let’s sum up our preview, shall we?

  1. I am not especially a big fan of Gehry’s big-time work.
  2. I like modern architecture
  3. I also have a deep fondness for old and historic buildings
    1. Although I do not necessarily think aping historic images is the best way of dealing with it.
  4. And that I think buildings have to function.

So, when we went to the Art Gallery of Ontario, I was skeptical, knowing that the big remodel. addition is Gehry work.  Fuck, the attached restaurant is named “Frank”.  Fuck that ego, dude.

The new entry is along the whole norther street, and the promenade is covered by a curving, arcing glass upper portion that hits me in my sweet spot.  I love arcing, curving, and transforming figures like that. And coming in the front door, there is an intriguing, question mark-shaped ramp leading up to the kiosks; clad in smooth cherry-ish wood, it also hits me in a sweet spot.  I do think there is not enough friendly quirkiness in our built environment.

We took a tour, and the docent told us that Gehry spent some of his childhood in Toronto.  She also mentioned that the biggest donors to the museum had a strong interest in seeing their infatuation with boats and ships to be represented, and I can see where that Gehry’s impulses were restrained, maybe forcefully.  I ha e long thought that architect’s best works are almost always done when the architect lives within constraints, not when the budget is open.

And this is one such.

Gehry was forced, ostensibly, to maintain a classical atrium in the middle of the block, and he responded by sliding those cherrywood panels behind the arched openings, and then inserting a coiled stair in the same wood climbing through the space.  It is one of those collisions of dissimilar things that just plain works, like Run-DMC with Aerosmith.

The overall building and internal circulation is a well done melding of the succession of museum spaces, and the circulation brings you through galleries, and then through architectural elements, and then back through the art.  The art is not distracted from, and the architecture crops up at intriguing places.

And then you wind up in this space:

O my.  I find that just lovely and compelling.

I am of the opinion that Gehry’s personal connection to the city inspired a more considerate, maybe personally involved, approach to this project that makes it so much more satisfying than others his firm has done [ FWIW, i also asked the docent about leaks, and received an evasive response).  The museum board made him abandon the crumpled-titanium knee-jerk building.  Although he did manage to use titanium siding on the south additions, anodized in an attractive blue.

I recognize that I respond to the detailing in that grand space, because I have done similar; but hey, I don’t think I need to apologize for liking architects that work veins that I have also found to be rewarding….

In the end, this building has made me reconsider my opinion of Frank Gehry.  The building and addition had its own character, but it never overwhelmed the museum displays.  It was a fine balance of those aspects, and the necessary functions were not only accommodated, but the whole experience was elevated.

Here’s some few photos, but I encourage you to visit and see for yourself.

  1. Jennifer says:

    And then you wind up in this space:

    That is lovely.

    As far as leaks, Frank can chat with Helmut Jahn.

  2. fish says:

    Looks like an awesome space, but I have always been partial to Geary (especially his house). I am also a sucker for fusing modern elements to older classic spaces (see: Pyramid, Louvre.

  3. ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© says:

    FWIW, i also asked the docent about leaks, and received an evasive response


  4. Helmut Jahn was a pioneer on building failures, true.

  5. but I have always been partial to Geary

    Is his work anything like Frank Gehry?

  6. Wow, how beautiful. I love how you describe everything too.

  7. mikey says:

    Nice. Two things.

    First, I was born and raised in Marin County. And, as you probably have gathered, I have always been a bit of a problem child. So I was regularly hooked up and taken to the county jail, sometime for the night, sometimes until bail could be posted. The Marin County Jail is at the Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff’s Office is at the “Civic Center”. The Civic Center was famously designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and has, among other atrocities, a blue roof. Hence, we always called the county jail the “blue roof inn”.

    Second, in the early eighties I worked for a company called Sequoia Supply, a building products wholesaler who developed a number of innovative strategies. One of our innovations was to develop a distribution program for GluLam beams. We purchased them in a few dozen standard sizes and all in sixty foot lengths, and cut them to order. This allowed smaller contractors access to, say, a couple of twenty two foot timbers of a specific dimension, something that previously would have had to have been ordered from the manufacturer, if you could even find one that would take that order. Now this was a tremendously profitable product for us, as smaller contractors discovered that they had immediate, cost effective access to these standard sized products. Ahh, but then there were architects. If we had a standard sized GluLam in stock, say 5⅛ x 18, an architect would insist on ordering one that was 5⅜ x 17¼. Now, hey, what the hell do I know? I’m sure they had very good reasons for doing it. But the cost of a custom GluLam was SO much greater than a standard one cut to length, you just got the feeling this was a dude that had NO interest in controlling costs – indeed, there was almost a sense of pride in blowing up the budget…

  8. The problem, mikey, is that manufactured lumber factories create proprietary products, and in order to avoid having their competitior’s products substitued, make the sizes and specs slightly different; so the architect (and usually, engineer) would pick one product to calculate for, usually using the manufacturer’s provided software. So the specs will call for a proprietary product, to coordinate with teh structural calculations.

    But the designers may not have full knowledge of product availability or costs at any given time. I would suspect that if the contractor had asked for a sustitution, the designers would ave allowed it, if the size was close. Usually the safety factor will acocmodate slight variations.

    There are sometimes other reasons for specifying a particular product over another, but that is what I’ve usually run across. Actually, on one project, an overzealous inspector tried to halt construction because I had authorized just such a substitution without re-calculating the structural elements and submitting the new calcs to the City (every other inspector would have passed on it).

  9. fish says:

    Is his work anything like Frank Gehry?

    I think they are cousins.

  10. Kathleen says:

    I am very excited to read this post but first I have to go watch soccer

  11. The Marin Civic Center was ostensible Wright’s last building before he died, but as I mentioned up above, big-time architects often have staff and proteges that are more or less responsible for later works. An art historian who specializes in Wright once laid out a compelling case that much of Wright’s later work was of a style that departed markedly from earlier works, often contradicting Wright’s own stated ideals; the teacher implied he was of the opinion that the building and others, were more likely largely teh work of William Wesley Peters and the rest of the Taliesin Fellowship.

    Random fact.

  12. ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© says:

    I can’t wait until Kathleen comes back and reads this post!!

  13. another kiwi says:

    This is a good post and I too like the space with the curving wall. I agree about the non-leakiness being important.

  14. Von says:

    Pretty. Can I just say that? Pretty?
    I like lots and lots and lots of windows.

  15. There was a lot more to the museum, but these were the two spaces that allowed photography.

  16. I like lots and lots and lots of windows.

    Usually not a good idea in museums. This was handled well though.

  17. I can’t wait until Kathleen comes back and reads this post!!

    She’s too lazy.

  18. Kathleen says:


  19. Kathleen says:

    also I give you a calming manatee:

  20. Jennifer says:

    I’ll be passing that wise manatee on to others who desperately need it now.

  21. herr doktor bimler says:

    these were the two spaces that allowed photography

    Law-abiding Zombie is law-abiding.

  22. mikey says:

    Man, those Manatees are fugly mothers, kinda like condoms-in-use with eyes. Snake eyes.

    Not to be confused with Ground Balls with Eyes…..

  23. Law-abiding Zombie is law-abiding.

    I have been chided about intellectual property rights before.

    those Manatees are fugly mothers,

    They could be hockey players…..

  24. The big curvy space is nice, but I didn’t much like those stairs: seemed mean to not let people look over the rails in a space for looking. And this is pretty much in the wheelhouse of the people who wanted the addition, but it’s a big and bright and beautiful space: the art that goes in there has gotta be durable, and the rooms with smaller more fragile items near it have to be sectioned off to avoid the light. They should reorganize the collection a bit so that area can have more open doorways.

  25. M. Bouffant says:

    Law-abiding Zombie is law-abiding.

    Problem is, everybody (Zombies & people) are law-abiding just ’til they stop abiding by the law.

  26. ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© says:

    Abiding by the law!

    Abiding by the law!

    Nope. Just doesn’t have the same ringtone.

  27. Kathleen says:

    DUDE no one hates on manatees!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  28. Kathleen says:

    Also, I will be back to read this post once I watch soccer

  29. I don’t believe the problem is fame, given how many unfamous architects suffer from the same diseases as Gehry or Wright or Johnson. The problem is prioritization. Gehry puts crumpled titanium’s appearance ahead of waterproofing, Wright put big cantilevers and his belief that he understood structural design ahead of structural design, and Johnson put cleverness ahead of usable space.

    Utilitas, Firmitas, Venusitas motherfuckers. All three matter. Particularly the Venusians, because those alien assholes will zap you with their space modulators.

  30. I don’t believe the problem is fame

    I don’t think I said that it was. My point with the starchitect crap was that an architect who had achieved Big-Time status is most often rewarded by being removed from the actual design of projects, which becomes the responsibility of associates that are likely not as talented or not as privy to the client’s needs and wants. But in this case, from what I hear, Gehry was much more directly involved, and had a personal interest of some sort; my actual thinking is that his more direct invovlement, coupled with a little shorter leash from the clients, resulted in a better building.

  31. Sometimes the star no being involved is a good thing. Robt AM Stern can’t design to save his life. ( Or write, either, from what I hear.)

Go ahead, tell me how I fucked up this time.

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