Frank Gehry, Gehry House, Santa Monica, 1979.
Michael Hays gives us another excerpt from an architect: this time it’s the star Frank Gehry, talking about the piece generally regarded as his first significant work, the work carried out on his own house in Santa Monica. The house was originally built in 1920 and was purchased by Gehry and his wife in 1977. Between 1978 and 1991, Gehry carried out a number of extensions and remodeling phases, resulting in an architectural mess of nearly every conceivable building material, regarded by some as one of the earliest pieces of deconstructivism—a movement from the late ‘80s that grew, unsurprisingly, out of semiotics and focused on fragmentation. Gehry’s excerpt is below, followed by a few noteworthy observations.
“The only important thing about my house is the neighborhood it’s in. The house isn’t a significant example of period architecture. It was just a dumb little house with charm and I became interested in trying to make it more important. I became fascinated with creating a shell around it, one that allowed the old house to exist as an object, and, in a sense, defined the house by only showing parts. When you look through the new house you see featured parts of the old house in an edited fashion. It’s very surreal, and I’m interested in surrealism…
“Working in this fashion is a way of learning. I wasn’t trying to make a big or precious statement about architecture, or trying to do an important work. I was trying to build a lot of ideas, and when I got caught in the game of the old house, it became serious. I began to engage the house in a dialogue by cutting away from it, exposing some parts and covering up others. I found myself trying to create conflict and collision between the new and the old.
“In using the rough carpentry and materials, I wanted to prove you could make an art-object out of anything. This is being done, of course, in sculpture, and I find myself influenced by artists such as Rauschenberg, Serra, Carl André, Donald Judd, Heizer…
“I was concerned with maintaining a ‘freshness’ in the house. Often this freshness is lost—in our over-working details, in over-finishing them, their vitality is lost. I wanted to avoid this by emphasizing the feeling that the details are still in the process: that the ‘building’ hasn’t stopped. The very finished building has security and it’s predictable. I wanted to try something different. I like playing at the edge of disaster.”
There are so many things to point out in this blurb that is challenging to sort out which are obvious, which important, and which are merely personal associations.
I have no clue what kind of neighborhood the Gehry Residence is in, though we can expect that it was a simple ‘20s bungalow Santa Monica community full of houses as individually worthless as the original Gehry Residence—more ‘important’ for the whole than for any individual buildings. This value of the whole is probably what directed Gehry to objectify the house by itself, to draw attention to parts of it, details, arrangements, &c. This ‘surrealist’ fragmentation of the original edifice into specific parts, each worthy of some kind of aesthetic evaluation reminds me of the 1945 Machine Art show, whose thesis was practically the same: ‘look at this mundane, widely reproduced [insert noun]; it too is beautiful’.
Gehry’s use of surrealism as a departure point reminds me of Koolhaas, who we’ve just encountered in the anthology, and whose “retroactive manifesto for the Metropolis” is largely based on surreal juxtapositions. Obviously Surrealism itself was no longer as powerful a movement as it had been in the 20s and 30s, but I hardly expect this second use of it as an analytical, architectural method is a coincidence. Instead, it’s entirely plausible to expect that ‘surrealism’ was a minor fad in architectural critique in the late 70s. Indeed, deconstructivism’s practice of fragmentation bears the mark of Surrealism in general.
I’m particularly fascinated by objectification of an inherited architectural object by constructing shells or partial enclosures around it. This is a method of thinking that is, on the other side, extremely integrational and is being used in various adaptive reuse projects around the world.
The idea of learning through work is interesting but obvious, and we’ve come to expect it from earlier entries in this anthology. (Most specifically I’m reminded of Silvetti’s ‘criticism from within,' as well as Hejduk's 'making.')
Retrospectively, it interesting to see where Gehry’s fascination with keeping details ‘fresh’ by leaving them unfinished appears and disappears throughout his practice. Obviously it was the dominant idea of many specific moments in his house, but we could hardly say the same of his zinc-clad phase (the Guggenheim and the Disney Concert Hall). His most recent completed project, however—the Fondation Louis Vuitton—brings this sense of (freshness-bordering-on-) disaster back to the forefront. (I’ll say no more.)