by Gary Esolen –
A notable bit of bickering happened in the blogspace awhile back about the most high-minded of topics: the relationship of buildings which make a major architectural statement to their (urban) surroundings. It all started when the great architect Frank Gehry gave a talk at a meeting in Aspen, and Fred Kent, one of the founders of the Project for Public Spaces, got up to ask a question. Kent made it clear that he thinks Gehry’s buildings fail to provide the right kind of friendly interface with the life of the streets around them, and he challenged Gehry to comment. Gehry declined, Kent pressed on, and Gehry got testy and called him pompous.
It might have ended there, but James Fallows, of the Atlantic magazine, wrote about it in his blog. Gehry apologized (to Fallows) but only for being grumpy. Kent dramatized the event in his own blog as a “Smackdown,” simultaneously making light of it and elevating himself to the role of a full-fledged opposite to the world-famous Gehry. Then he came back and suggested that it was time to go beyond the “Smackdown” and get serious about what he called “an architecture of Place.” And then he went silent on the topic, perhaps because what he has to say about how buildings and public spaces should be designed and function is well known and widely (rightly) respected.
A bunch of others chimed in, some defending Gehry, some Kent. In the process one supposed remark of Gehry’s, cited first by Kent, was repeated over and over. Gehry is described as having once said “I do not do context.” No specific citation was ever offered, so we are left taking it on faith that he said some such thing, and we have no context for the dismissal of context.
It is believable that Gehry, asked about the relationship of his dramatic building forms to the buildings around them, might have said he was not fitting his buildings into the contextual framework in the usual way (by similarity in forms and materials). But the larger charge seems to be that Gehry just designs buildings and plops them down anywhere, without paying much attention to their setting and how they fit there and interact. It is that criticism of Gehry that I want to respond to. I don’t think it is true or fair-minded.
I first became aware of Gehry’s work in the early 1980’s (long after he was already a highly accomplished architect, but well before the 1997 opening of the Guggenheim in Bilbao that made him a world sensation). He got a commission to design an amphitheatre for the World’s Fair in New Orleans. It was a simple structure originally planned to have a fish-scale metal roof in a style recognizable Gehry’s, and although that detail was dropped to save money I am not the only one with a false memory of having seen that dramatic roof in reality, though it existed only in drawings. The amphitheatre had one huge and brilliant element: the stage, which was on the river side of the building, had a great curtain as its back wall. When there was nothing on stage the curtain was often left open, framing the Mississippi River, with the drama of ships on the river moving into and out of the frame. It was riveting to watch what might seem to be nothing happening, and it was one of the most remarkable exploitations of context I had ever seen.
So I came to the recent arguments about Gehry’s work in context predisposed to think there might be something to his side of things—even though he declined to present his side at all.
In this blog I want to look at Gehry’s famous “Dancing Building” in Prague, often called the “Fred and Ginger” building because it has been compared to the swirling shape of Ginger Rogers dancing with Fred Astaire. The building attracted many of the usual complaints about Gehry’s work, but it has become beloved of most residents of the city. It is a favorite of cab drivers, who frequently offer to take a visitor by there and explain the building’s name. The building certainly does not look like anything around it, so how is it that I am ready to use it as an example in defense of Gehry’s sensitivity to context?
Prague is a city build on a group of hills—seven of them—along the winding Vlatava River. As a result, despite some half-hearted attempts to impose a street grid, there are few streets that run straight for very long. They bend around the hills. They converge into nodes (or radiate out from nodes). They meet in gently curving lines or turn dramatically as you move along them.
As a result the designers and builders of Prague throughout its history have had to figure out ways of turning the corner. A rich vocabulary of solutions to the problem of reconciling traditionally right-angled buildings and straight facades to the curving streets became a signature of the built environment.
One simple and very common solution was simply to set the next building along the curve at a slight angle to the one before, approximating the movement of the street as several buildings with straight-line facades marched around the curve. The more alike the buildings, the more dramatic the effect.
The use of elaborate decoration, especially with curving lines such as arched windows, also keeps the eye moving through the twists and turns of the streets. In the building below, notice the curved decoration at the roofline.
Another frequent gesture is to vary the surface of the façade with reveals and setbacks and bays that create liveliness and make the varying lines of intersection seem more natural. Here is an example of buildings that accommodate to a node of radiating streets in a simple but dramatic way.
Here is a streetscape that shows how effective a simple step-out can be.
On the left the buildings follow the curve beginning with a small shift of angle and then turning dramatically. On the right the one small building whose roofline and façade jut out onto the sidewalk defines the moment when the street changes direction. Gestures of this kind are everywhere in Prague.
Another solution to the constant curvature of the streets is simply to build curved buildings, or incorporate curvilinear shapes into buildings. Towers, cylinders of various kinds, domes, and curved facades abound.
Many buildings use more than one
trick of accommodation to the way streets intersect—sometimes using different effects at different levels
of the building.
Streets converge, none of the intersections at right angles. The corner building on the left below uses a stepped roofline, a curved façade at the second story level, and cuts the corner with an entrance at ground level. The building on the right anticipates the turn with curvature at the roof, and uses the curvature of the false wall before the series of dormers to soften the effect of its dramatic position.
The buildings on the left follows
the street line, with a bay defining the first major turn. On the right a partial octagonal tower with an onion dome marks the point where the street’s angle changes.
Left, sometimes a very simple detail can take the angularity out of a building whose shape has been dictated by intersecting streets.
Variations on these “tricks” of turning the corner occur everywhere on the streets of
If you look back over the pictures above one other element leaps out as central to the architecture of Prague: the repetition and variation of windows. Lines of rectangular windows are interrupted by arched windows. Bays jut out to vary the façade. Windows curve as a building turns. Adjacent buildings may repeat the shape, size, and placement of windows, or they may vary dramatically.
Now look again at Gehry’s dancing building. The glass tower at the street and the drama of the way the windows vary their position are far less strange when your eye is full of the imagery of the architecture of the streets of Prague.
This building, like many of Gehry’s structures, has turned out to fit well into the culture of the city where it was built. Its apparent drama and showiness are in fact contextually adapted to their setting. Ask any cab driver in Prague.