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No Rest for the Gehry

With several large projects about to open and others in the pipeline—such as housing at London's Battersea Power Station site—Frank Gehry has his hands full.

By Fred A. Bernstein
April 16, 2014
Image courtesy Battersea Power Station Development Company
Frank Gehry and Foster + Partners unveiled their designs for residential buildings that will be part of London’s redeveloped Battersea Power Station site. Gehry's buildings are in the foreground.

If you’re wondering when architects will get the respect they deserve, the answer may be: never. By some measures, Frank Gehry, 85, is having a good year, with several large projects about to open and others in the pipeline. But nothing comes easy. After 10 years of work on the performing-arts center at the World Trade Center site, Gehry learned—though not from the client—that he might lose the commission. A few weeks later, Congress weighed in on his design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial on the National Mall; Rep. Aaron Schock called it a “theme park without a coherent theme.” And in London, he was attacked for seeming to ignore the need for affordable housing when his design for residential buildings at London's Battersea Power Station site was unveiled.

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First the good news: both Gehry’s Biomuseo in Panama and his Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation in Paris are scheduled to open this year. Projects in the works include the Facebook West campus in California’s Silicon Valley (in February, the company moved into the offices he designed in New York City); a visual arts center in Arles, France; and five large apartment towers at Battersea. (After Rafael
Viñoly’s role in the mixed-use project was reduced from architect to master planner, the developer asked Gehry and Norman Foster to design buildings for its 42 acres.)

But in unveiling his titanium towers for Battersea, Gehry “walked straight into a raging debate about the capital’s affordable-housing crisis,” according to the Guardian. Housing advocates attacked him for not including a single affordable unit among his 700 condos. Gehry responded that he had nothing to do with the number or location of affordable units (a formula worked out by the developer and the local governing council).

Meanwhile, it’s been a decade since Gehry was chosen to design a performing-arts center at the World Trade Center site, on a plot now occupied by a temporary commuter station. In February, The New York Times reported that the center’s new management team was considering reducing the size of the project and might scrap Gehry’s plan entirely. Damning with faint praise, Maggie Boepple, the newly installed president of the center, said that Gehry is “excellent at models. We love his model.” But, she added, “so many mistakes are made when genius architects design a building” before the program is in place. Gehry told the Times he had received nothing but “radio silence” from the center’s executives. Still, there may yet be a reconciliation. At press time, a spokesman for the center said the organization was negotiating with Gehry Partners.

Meanwhile, on April 3, the National Capital Planning Commission gave a thumbs-down to Gehry’s plan for the Eisenhower Memorial. The commis​sioners voted 7–3 to send Gehry back to the drawing board to address the size and position of the stainless-steel tapestries that are the focal point of his design. The commission, whose approval is required before the project can proceed, isn’t saying no to Gehry—just keeping him on a short leash; it asked him to return every two months, starting in June, “to provide updates on the design modifications.” As if the architect has nothing else to do.

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