When Frank Gehry completed his own home in Santa Monica he had produced a work of architecture that would lead to a career of exploration of architectural themes surrounding and dissolving what can arguably be described as the essential principles of deconstructivism. For me personally this was and still remains one of his most memorable works. It is the relationship between the existing external skin and the new internal structure, the use of utilitarian local materials and the expressive yet relaxed construction assembly that interested me the most. On the basis of Gehry’s portfolio of work since this project it was clearly about something else for him.
The Electric Music Project (or EMP) in Seattle is, like many for Gehry’s works, stunningly sculptural. Unlike Rem Koolhaus/OMA Seattle Library built seven years before the EMP, the form has taken deconstructivism to astoundingly new heights of the arbitrary. If Derrida had the opportunity he would say that Gehry transposes his philosophy into built form. There are no vendors selling miniature models of the EMP like they do of the adjacent ‘space needle’ famously built during the 1962 World Fair. EMP salt and pepper shakers are yet to be developed and not even a sticker is available for sale inside the EMP (although I was distracted by the Kurt Cobain merchandise and the guitar shaped spatula). Perhaps the lack of merchandise is reflective of the difficulty the public have interpreting or even understanding of architecture of this nature. There is no logic, no reason, no rhythm nor rhyme in the architecture of the EMP. For a building that houses the musical history of modern rock, a music that evolved with and on the basis of the potential that electricity and amplification provided this genre Gehry has missed a most obvious cue. The freezing of a musical moment through newly discovered recording methods and the machination of rhythm itself may be a conceptual element to the design but they would be obscure at best. In many ways this building has taken a path of least resistance conceptually. There is no public/private interface at any point on the perimeter of the building with the exception of the 1962 World fair monorail that unceremoniously plunges through the ‘guts’ of the building exposing the worst of the detailing issues that the frequent the interface between envelope, services and entry points.
The problem with the aforementioned criticism is that this is a building that is difficult to look away from. Whilst not nearly as impressive as his Walt Disney Concert Hall in Las Angeles which adequately addresses the streetscape, it does command the viewer’s attention. The ‘skin’ invokes various levels of intrigue from differing vantage points. The Boeing software his office uses to generate these cladding systems with exacting shop drawings is clearly driving Gehry’s work. It is a deconstructivist notion in itself for the tool to dictate the terms for the architectural expression although I am unconvinced will stand the test of time any more than a Mac Classic has.
A short walk down the street is the $500M Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation building designed by lesser known NBBJ architects. Whilst I did not have the opportunity to thoroughly investigate this building the refined yet ultra conservative architecture appears almost dull due to its proximity to the EMP. This is a building that would usually impress me had I stumbled across it in isolation but the distraction of the EMP is simply too much for the NBBJ building to make an impact in this context. The EMP is as mesmerising and technically intriguing as a plane crash. If it says anything at all about the impact Gehry’s work can have on even the most sceptical of deconstructivist architecture I have a picture of the facade as my screen saver. I’ll let you know when the novelty wears off.