4 April 2010


From a photo by Doug Joyce

One of the great experiences of an interesting and vibrant city is in the personal act of
moving through it. The processional quality of walking down streets endowed with the quality of being great ‘outdoor rooms,’ the act of moving through from one interesting surprise to another, these all make cities compelling to be in on a day-to-day basis. Even to someone very familiar to a certain street processional, moving through one of the great urban volumes remains a sublime experience. Taking-in the space itself, the tree canopy, the mass and detail of the flanking buildings, the shop windows that draw you in, and the interesting vantage point that you see ahead, these are the things that keep us in love with a city over time.

Great cities always have great buildings in them, from different eras, and probably of different styles. The great streets and public places always employ a dialog amongst the buildings that line them. You don’t want to zoom through a place like this, you want to take it in; you want to take whatever time you have and enjoy your experience in it. This is an uplifting experience; it is one of the major rewords for living in a great city. These buildings that line your progression, they are working together, even if their creators never intended them to. They are conspiring to give us pleasure in a hundred ways. Stops and starts of different rhythms. Complementary materials. Building heights and faces that alter or remain the same to give an inexplicable joy to the sculptural effect in the outdoor room. There is repetition, or not, undulation, or not, and uniform style, or not. When it works, it is an unmitigated joy. Taken in it’s totality, it’s part of what I call a
crafted city.

Like it or not, you build a building in a city and you are assigning your creation to be a part of this. Your building, your edifice, the fruits of your labor are placed in dialog,
in context, with its surroundings. When it is finished it is relinquished to those who will use it and to those who experience it along with a dozen other things as they pass by. It is no longer possessed by it’s creators, and it is definitely not a single object only capable of being beheld by itself. It contributes to and is affected by context.

Here in Los Angeles area where I live, the great architects struggle with context, and with how they want their buildings to be perceived in their surroundings. I’ve heard Thom Mayne dance around this, sometimes describing the time and place where his team’s buildings are placed as providing part of his informed response, but this is a fine point with him. Other times he is quoted as rejecting contextual influences outright, unimportant to his firm’s work.

There is murmuring amongst the proletariat about these lofty positions. Frank Gehry
got in trouble over contextualism last summer at the Aspen Ideas Festival, where he was giving a presentation. “I don’t do context”, Gehry said in response to someone in the festival audience who persisted in questioning him on how he thought his building fit into the cites that they were built. Gehry had a point; most recently his buildings, at least on a superficial level, have nothing to do with context.

But it’s interesting to note that Gehry has in fact done context well in the past.

When I first moved to Los Angeles in the 1980s, I thought that one of the really exciting things that was happening to the city streets here was where Gehry or one of his protégées had done work, these buildings would do marvelous things to the environment around it. These (then new) buildings captured the disorganized, low-scale building type of LA, with its dominant pop-oriented signage and apparent lack of permanence, and spun it into a design vocabulary. They had the effect of drawing the whole block in on their game, and as you would hope for in a place like LA, they provided a great dynamic experience as you drove by. The added benefit was the buildings made great city blocks to stop and walk by, too. They were extrovert architecture, but they were also buildings that did their part to support the public place; they took their turn in supporting their context. If you had to look at Los Angels streets of that era (or any other era for that matter), the public ways were and are populated with the ridiculous and the sublime, the refined and the gaudy, all participating the whole spacial and processional quality of the street. The buildings that Gehry and his kind were doing took that chaos and made sense of it.

As time has gone by, fame has bolstered Gehry’s artistic pursuit (along with the rest of his school) towards pure form, less and less encumbered by the fact that the work is also a building which participates in it’s urban surroundings. These newer, more ambitious projects do less to activate their surroundings, tending to work as individual forms, oblivious to surroundings. They are pure icons; they participate in an unintentional way in the larger work of art, the interstitial that is the public place.

I don’t mean to pick on Frank Gehry. I’ve been in his presence a couple of times in my life, and I believe him to be a humble and thoughtful individual. He is also a great architect. Around Los Angeles, for the title of Great Iconic Architect, he trumps even Tom Mayne. His work simply stands out in it’s surroundings.

However, these icons also exist at the pleasure of the urban fabric that surrounds it. All the bland buildings, the buildings of quiet integrity, and the buildings which are great and do their part to weave together a compelling city fabric, are all assembled to provide the jewel box, the sweet setting for Gehry’s personal expression of a building. Yet make no mistake, the icon exists in context, even if it’s creators can’t or won’t acknowledge it. After all, the real work of art is in the great public space between the buildings; that space that as you move through it delights you with it’s details, the play of light, the music of it’s pushing and pulling spaces, its great kinetic qualities. The jewel in the jewel box becomes an incidental embellishment to these grander forms.

Maybe Mr. Gehry is coming to grips with context. His competition winning design for the Eisenhower Memorial seems to have axial site-lines and everything.

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