- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 2004

Museum architecture used to be a quiet, neutral background for the display of art. But ever since Frank Lloyd Wright shaped New York’s Guggenheim Museum into a giant corkscrew, architects have been treating exhibition spaces as attention-grabbing artworks in their own right.

The current master of this approach is Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry, who has been shaking up the staid museum world for the past two decades. Like Mr. Wright, Mr. Gehry earned international fame for his own inventively curvaceous Guggenheim. In Bilbao, Spain, the titanium-clad offspring of the New York museum opened in 1997 and quickly turned the declining industrial city into a major tourist destination.

That success has prompted other institutions to commission their own Gehry creations in hopes of repeating the “Bilbao effect” and boosting their public profile and visitor attendance. One of them is the Corcoran Museum of Art. Five years ago, the Corcoran selected Mr. Gehry to expand its exhibition and educational spaces with a major addition along New York Avenue, due to break ground in 2006.

Enclosed by rippling metal walls and roof, the edgy expansion has left some wondering why Washington’s oldest museum would choose to build a contemporary design so at odds with its stately beaux-arts galleries.

To put its selection in perspective, the Corcoran is exhibiting models of the Gehry addition alongside seven other museum projects by the architect.

“Frank Gehry, Architect: Designs for Museums,” on view through March 21, traces the evolution of the architect’s crazy curves, from the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany (opened in 1989), to the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, Miss., now under construction.

But visitors unfamiliar with Mr. Gehry’s architecture won’t emerge enlightened about much beyond the architect’s obsession with sculptural shapes.

Like many one-man shows on architecture, the Corcoran exhibit suffers from being co-organized by the architect whose work is on view. The other sponsor is one of Mr. Gehry’s clients, the University of Minnesota’s Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, which opened in 1993 and is also featured in the show.

Photographs and architectural models — many of them impressive in their details — are presented as pristine artworks rather than as tools to explain the complicated process behind Mr. Gehry’s design.

No labels pinpoint the specific locations or the design intent of the photos or models. No floor plans or cross sections are included to explain the practical purpose of each building. No explanation of the spatial development from model to model is given to elucidate Mr. Gehry’s iterative design process for a single building.

During my visit, this lack of information led one visitor to puzzle over model photos of the Corcoran addition, noting, “I can’t tell if this is the inside or the outside of the building, or another design altogether.”

As a result of its superficiality this exhibit unintentionally reinforces the stereotype of Mr. Gehry as a capricious collage-maker.

That’s unfortunate because the architect deliberately fine-tunes his colliding shapes to relate to a particular place. The flowering curves of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, which is only cursorily represented in this show, follow the slopes of the nearby hillsides.

On the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus, the Weisman Art Museum is positioned to connect a pedestrian bridge and a transit stop.

To achieve this site-specificity, Mr. Gehry painstakingly refines his designs through dozens of three-dimensional studies. He may start with a series of boxes, carve them into blobs and prisms, then arrange and rearrange them into a dynamic composition, a process only hinted at in this show by the study models for a museum in Herford, Germany.

The fragmented shapes are arranged like cubist sculptures so that they appear to precariously perch on top of one another. One delight of this exhibit is being able to peer into large building models to see how this illusion is achieved.

In recent years, the architect has managed to build increasingly complex curves by designing with software pioneered by the French aerospace industry; however, his computer studies, along with so many other drawings, aren’t shown here to explain the innovation.

Once he arrives at an overall design strategy, Mr. Gehry exhaustively studies the spaces of his building through models. That’s best illustrated through the Experience Music Project, a rock-music museum in Seattle devoted to native son Jimi Hendrix that’s well-suited to the architect’s frenzied forms. Mock-ups of the lobby and store reveal a concern for the smallest details, including lights, furniture and signage.

Before revealing Mr. Gehry’s addition to the Corcoran, the exhibit treats visitors to historic photos and drawings of the very galleries in which they are standing in the Corcoran’s monumental marble edifice, designed by architect Ernest Flagg in 1894 and seamlessly expanded along E Street in 1925 by Charles Adam Platt.

Next to Flagg’s magnificent hemicycle, Mr. Gehry’s expansion appears wildly untamed. But compared with the other projects in his show, its gently bending bays and angular skylights look almost conservative. In fact, by the time the expansion is completed (another $14 million must be raised before construction begins), Mr. Gehry’s rococo curves may be as outdated as Flagg’s beaux-arts classicism.

The newest museum architecture, as exemplified in the recently opened Museum of Modern Art in New York, seems to signal a return to simpler, more austere spaces that defer to the art on display.

Mr. Gehry may have already anticipated that shift. As evidenced by several models of the Corcoran addition, his billowing facades merely serve as a wavy frontispiece to boxy galleries, stacked like packing crates inside the new wing.

WHAT: “Frank Gehry, Architect: Designs for Museums”

WHERE: Corcoran Museum of Art, New York Avenue and 17th Street NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily except Tues. Open Thursdays until 9 p.m. Exhibit continues through March 21.

TICKETS: $6.75 for adults; $4.75 for seniors; $3 for students; $12 for families; free for children under 12

PHONE: 202/639-1700

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