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Thread: Gehry Concert Hall at Bard College

  1. #1

    Default Gehry Concert Hall at Bard College

    The House That Bilbao Didn't Build



    People would say to us in New York society, `Don't you know that Frank Gehry is passé?' " said Leon Botstein, the famously and promiscuously erudite president of Bard College, of the architect he chose to design a new performing arts center, scheduled to open here this Friday.

    "I was flabbergasted by this view of the history of architecture," he said. "Can you hold Frank Gehry responsible for not sustaining the kind of celebrity mega-attention which was really a function of the go-go years of the 1990's tulip mania psychology?" And then, as if to distance himself from any accusations of trafficking in popular taste, Mr. Botstein added: "We were never part of this. We hired him before Bilbao."

    Ah, Bilbao. Always Bilbao. The word must mean albatross in Basque.

    There have been other modern buildings that have burdened their designers even as they cemented their fame — Moshe Safdie's Habitat apartment complex in Montreal comes to mind — but there are none that have been co-opted so fully by fashion, none that have so effectively distorted the shape of an architect's legacy.

    Mr. Safdie was a young buck of 29 in 1967 when his celebrated take on a futuristic hill town was built; he had no career to forget. Frank Gehry was 68 in 1997 when the Guggenheim Museum opened its titanium-skinned franchise in Bilbao, Spain, and the sustained clamor of its reception — Philip Johnson said it would be remembered as the only real masterwork of the 20th century — has had the effect of muting the less voluble but equally profound aspects of Mr. Gehry's work. Down the memory hole went his concerted investigations into the use of materials and his simple, rare competence as a creative space planner and intuitive solver of the varied problems his clients throw at him. Gone, in short, were the less photo-ready things he does that every architect must do, and at which he also excels.

    The adulation for Bilbao left no room for precedent. A string of eccentric breakthrough projects like his 1987 Fish Restaurant in Kobe, Japan — as much a study of the properties of copper sheathing as of the fish imagery that haunts the architect — and the 1993 Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, the first of his all-metal-clad dreadnoughts, were written out of the script. Taken together they might have suggested a gradualist rejoinder to those who promoted the new Guggenheim as a singular miracle, deracinated, ready to be whipsawed by fashion. "People think I sprang whole from the head of Zeus," Mr. Gehry likes to say. And he doesn't always say it with a smile.

    In a sense, the reception of Bilbao marked the second time Mr. Gehry had been stripped of the ballast of his past. His own house in Santa Monica, an essay in ennobling the rudimentary stuff of American construction, was completed in 1979. It has proved too perfect a starting point for the writers of architectural histories to resist. But what of the things he had been designing in the 17 years of practice preceding that chain-link and plywood epiphany? What of the many stores for Kay Jewelers? The low-rise office buildings and shopping centers all over southern California? The master plans for city centers in Woodland, Tex., or Cochiti Lake, N.M.? Well, the fashion-forward whispered, it's a terrible thing: Frank Gehry actually had to work for, you should pardon the expression, developers. He must have just been making ends meet.

    One person, of course, never had the luxury to forget that period of mundane work. And it is that long, unsung and perhaps unsingable chapter in his career that Mr. Gehry is beginning to credit with underpinning "whatever the language is that makes these buildings," as he put it in a lecture he gave last month at Columbia University. There, visiting a design school that has earned a reputation as a flash point for passing fancies, Mr. Gehry took the opportunity to harangue the would-be stars in the audience, gently but at length, about the perils of bypassing the bedrock experiences of architecture — including that most difficult one, serving a client's expansive needs with limited means — for fame.

    Maybe it's not important, but it's comforting that there is that kind of base of experience, and I draw on it," he said at Columbia. "And I think I couldn't be doing what I'm doing now if I hadn't done it that way. It's the slow, hard way, and I guess I'm from the old school that says you have to work hard and you can't just fall out of the heavens."

    At first glance, from the far end of the long field where it sits on the edge of campus, Mr. Gehry's new building at Bard does appear to have fallen from the heavens; some students, according to Jacob Cottingham, a senior here, have even taken to calling it "the alien space egg," which doesn't describe it well, or "the mechanized space turtle," which comes closer. But most often, he said, Bard students just call it "the Gehry building." This is apt; the new building, known formally as the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, is a nutshell digest of the architect's celebrated moves: a seemingly windblown confection of his home-brewed architectural adjectives — thin-edged sheets and slumping, overripe masses — resting, at times uncomfortably and at others just so, on the straightforward volumes of the building's two fly-towered halls.

    What is striking here is that, after mounting sky high as a superstructure over the ceremonial entrance to the main, 900-seat hall, and after settling down to form the roof of the lower wing with its rehearsal rooms and black-box theater, this exuberant billow and flow stops short. As you round the corner and descend a slope toward the building's parking lot and loading docks, "Gehry" gives way suddenly to "sparse": the rear is an unrelieved, uninspiring expanse of white plaster-coated concrete walls.

    Where are the rest of the emperor's clothes? This aspect of the Fisher Center is going to be much discussed in the weeks ahead, and it will likely be controversial. Is this Gehry on the cheap? Or Gehry out of gas? "I know it made it look like a stage set," he admitted recently during a stop in New York on his way for a last-minute check on progress at the site. "I agonized about it a lot." And it does look like a stage set. But what is acted out here is not the denouement of a melodrama that had its climax in Bilbao, but the whole story of Mr. Gehry's creative life, in and out of the limelight.

    EVEN the most fluid and difficult to parse of Mr. Gehry's compositions begin with boxes — what are known affectionately in the trade as "dumb boxes." Working primarily in models, he blocks out the square footage of each space in this manner to get a feel for its size relative to the whole. An early-stage model of a Gehry building can look like little more than a pile of these clunky space studies (some bear a passing resemblance to Mr. Safdie's boxy Habitat), but what you are looking at is not a perfunctory exercise to be passed through on the way to architectural play time: these models are the beginning of a careful calibration of the architecture to the client's needs — something that is not always built into a building from the start.

    As other demands are considered, the proto-architectural boxes are usually transformed and hidden under the skirts of a completed building. But at Bard, Mr. Gehry has given us an illicit peek, an unabashed exhibition of a master architect's "old school" priorities. Money also played a role. And one lesson Mr. Gehry internalized during his lost decades in the clutches of developers was to work with, not fight, a tight budget. The Fisher Center cost $62 million, or just under $580 a square foot, not an extravagant sum for a building of this size and complexity. But it's too simple to say that the back was left bare just to save a buck. Like all good architectural decisions — and this may be the most important of Mr. Gehry's overlooked lessons — it is synthetic, accomplishing several objectives with a single move. Here, he was creating an expression of the client's desires (Mr. Botstein said he wanted a building that "does not reflect the arrogant luxury of the client, because we don't possess it") while taking advantage of an opportunity presented by the specific nature of the site. Fisher Hall can be approached from only one direction — it backs up to the trees — and it is a long approach, demanding some gesture that would draw visitors, Mr. Gehry said, "like a moth to the flame."

    "The site made it clear that there was a front and a back," he said. "And they could logically go their separate ways."

    That is the genesis of the "stage set": a bare-bones creative process, ample but not excessive funds, the attitudes of an opulence-averse client, the logic of the site itself. Then there is another factor: experience. "I knew that people would criticize it because it didn't go all the way around," Mr. Gehry said. "But I thought it was appropriate."

    Frank Gehry may be, as he put it — bemused, sighing — "a media star." But beyond that, he's an architect's architect, concerned with all those niceties that don't change when the next season rolls out. "I do respond intuitively to the needs of the client, I do spend a lot of time problem-solving," he said. "But I don't think I'm more virtuous because of that." *

    Philip Nobel, a design critic, is writing a book on the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site.

  2. #2

    Default Gehry Concert Hall - Bard College

    April 23, 2003

    A Heritage Rediscovered, Then Remade


    A lyre-shaped hall with three balconies is part of Gehry's design.

    ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — Inside many a thin building is a fat one straining to get out. Frank Gehry lets it out. Like many of his other projects, Mr. Gehry's new concert hall for Bard College is a Balanchine dancer with the build of a Victorian banker.
    The two-theater complex, the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, ripples across a sylvan setting here, about an hour north of New York. Girded with curving panels of stainless steel, the building gives a new twist to Walter Pater's old adage that all art constantly aspires to the condition of music. Here music might well morph into a hippo in a tutu, whirling en pointe.

    In this setting nature and culture are indivisible. The Hudson River School painters were pivotal figures in the forging of American identity in the 19th century. Respect for that heritage has thus far protected the Hudson valley from overdevelopment. It is now a cultural landscape, an art park in which the stately mansions of Dutchess County figure as sculptural expressions of an urbanizing society.

    Bard's president, Leon Botstein, who also conducts symphonies, has emerged as a great patron of architecture. In 1989 he commissioned Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown to design an addition to the college library, housed in an old Greek Revival temple on a hillside. Cathy Simon and James Stewart Polshek have also designed substantial additions to the campus. An interpretive portrait of those projects could lay the ground for a good general survey of American contemporary architecture.

    The budget for the Fisher Center was a relatively modest $62 million. Mr. Gehry has responded by concentrating his resources on the building's principal facade and the public spaces just behind it. He encloses back-of-the-house functions within a plain box. He used the same Main Street false-front device in his 1993 design for the Weisman Museum at the University of Minnesota at St. Paul. In that project a shiny, wavy gravy of steel faces the Mississippi River; the plain box, to the rear, is clad in red brick. At Bard the metal facade looks toward the campus across a landscape of fields and wooded lanes. The box, of plaster over concrete, contains a smaller, black box theater, along with offices, rehearsal studios and a scenery shop.

    But front and rear are integrated more effectively here. The Weisman, seen in the round, gives the impression of a tooth with a crown on it. At Bard the box is sheltered by a steel roof that sweeps backward from the facade, like a silver ribbon wrapped around both halves.

    Also, unlike the Weisman, the Bard center is a horizontal composition. Surrounded by trees, just a short walk from the Hudson, Fisher Center is as much a piece of American landscape as anything by Wright. Given Mr. Gehry's affinity with Oscar Niemeier, there is no reason not to think that the contour of the roof suggests the silhouette of a female form. Maybe it's the limbs and torso of a June Taylor dancer, viewed through a kaleidoscope.

    Those reared on Mr. Venturi's aesthetic of complexity and contradiction (or on Main Street, for that matter) will find the division between front and rear a natural, even functionalist, means of organizing space.

    The facade and lobbies honor the sense of public occasion. The plain box serves culture workers. The two groups meet on the common ground of performance space.

    Show time. As you approach the hall's main entrance, a portion of the roof appears to rise up like a curtain, allowing you to enter through the transparent membrane of a tall glass wall. Shoulders back. Head high. Soaring to a height of four stories, the lobby is a stage for social spectacle. Scene: a small opera house of 18th-century scale, in modern industrial dress. Balconies to peer down from. Lofty metal stairs to reach them.

    Mr. Gehry will tell you that the low budget forced him to choose narrow prefab panes for the glass wall. To my eye the panes are as characteristic of Mr. Gehry as the rippling steel. He has been using them at least since the Goldwyn Library, a high-security fortress in Hollywood. The library's perimeter walls are brutally frank about their protective function, but the tall casement windows are of Palladian proportions, fit for an ideal villa in a high-crime zone.

    There's no brutality at Bard, just lots of exposed hardware: athletically poised metal trusses, struts and braces that are themselves performers in a ballet méchanique.

    Piranesi, not Palladio, though, is the figure who presides over the lobby, not the first great, ennobling American public space to have been inspired by a great architect of imaginary prisons. Bulfinch was there first.

    Orpheus calls. The main hall is lyre-shaped, gently classical in symmetry, scale and proportions. It's an airy but intimate room, with seating for up to 950 people. An orchestra shell, made of eight moveable towers, is rolled into place for concerts. The shell, faced with panels of pale Douglas fir, is removed for opera and other theatrical events.

    The wooden stage floor is stained a deep mauve, a lush contrast to the light wood shell. Chevron-shaped pine baffles adorn the fronts of the room's three balconies; the walls are concrete.

    When the accoustician told Mr. Gehry that he needed some detailing to help splinter the sound, the architect took a sheet of paper and made some doodles on it. Those arabesques now decorate the walls.

    Did I mention that you are walking into history here? A new building by Mr. Gehry is an opportunity to discover why Michael Kammen used the phrase "mystic chords of memory" for the title of his 1991 book on American tradition. To focus exclusively on the novelty of Mr. Gehry's formal vocabulary is to misrepresent him. The power of his architecture lies more in the echoes of the past that are evoked by his transformation of common historical sources.

    Piranesi, Orpheus, the Hudson River School: Mr. Gehry himself avoids acknowledging such highfalutin references and may not even be aware of them. If he were too aware, he most likely would not go there. He is too interested in the unexpected. The last thing he wants is status by pedigreed association.

    Nor do visitors need to be conscious of the social and cultural heritage Mr. Gehry's work transforms. The pleasure derives from losing sight of the familiar as well as from recovering it from the deep well of modern amnesia. That intuitive, alternating process explains why the Fisher Center seems to vibrate like a well-tempered mind.

    April 29, 2003

    A New Center for Performing Arts


    By now one of Frank Gehry's architectural idioms — sinuous, cresting waves of titanium or steel — has become familiar enough to need no introduction. And yet it remains unfamiliar enough to force an observer to reabsorb it time after time. The newly unveiled Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., has analogies in Bilbao, in the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, and, of course, in the new Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which opens in October. But the Fisher Center is the least urban of Mr. Gehry's billowing constructions. It is encompassed by other things that appear to billow naturally, like trees and the Catskill Mountains, which can be glimpsed in their always atmospheric light across the Hudson. This gives the idiom an entirely new meaning.

    What also gives this extraordinary building new significance is the inescapable feeling that it was built at just the right time. The expansive mood that helped give architecture a new prominence as a public art form has contracted noticeably as the economy itself has contracted. Recent casualties include projects at the Whitney Museum and an ambitious plan for another Gehry Guggenheim on the East River. Looking at the Fisher Center, it's hard not to see it as a grand success in a cultural landscape littered with no less grand projects that may never be built.

    But the Fisher Center represents more than just a commitment to architecture. The building is a reconfigurable hive of theaters, studios and rehearsal halls. It represents a dedication to performing arts education that is itself perilously endangered by the economic and political climate. It's tempting to take refuge, as the National Endowment for the Arts has recently done, in disseminating only the most classic of the classics. In the N.E.A.'s case, that means national tours of Shakespeare's plays. There can never be enough Shakespeare, but by the same token there is also never enough public emphasis on what is new and difficult and pathbreaking in the arts. The Fisher Center is a place where those works, and those artists and performers, will be able to take center stage.

    Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

  3. #3

    Default Gehry Concert Hall- Bard College

    Photo © Peter Aaron/Esto

  4. #4

    Default Gehry Concert Hall- Bard College

    The inside is really nice, but I'm sorry, the outside of this building just looks silly.

  5. #5

    Default Gehry Concert Hall - Bard College

    Frank Gehry's new Sosnoff Theater at Bard College, now in its inaugural season. Accoustical towers onstage can rise and fall as needed.

    Listening Carefully to Bard College's New Performing Arts Center

  6. #6

    Default Gehry Concert Hall- Bard College

    Gehry is way overrated.

  7. #7

    Default Gehry Concert Hall- Bard College


  8. #8

    Default Gehry Concert Hall- Bard College

    Apparently the populace has decided he is passé, so no.

  9. #9

    Default Gehry Concert Hall- Bard College

    Appears that snow would slide off the roof onto concertgoers.

    "I do respond intuitively to the needs of the client, I do spend a lot of time problem-solving," he said. "But I don't think I'm more virtuous because of that."
    Gehry's architecture is skin deep, the armature is afterthought. *

    NY Times: *With its concrete and unadorned wood balconies and orange wood "ribbons" snaking along the walls, the Sosnoff Theater looks plain. The lobbies are small (one might say cramped), and the entire complex's interior comes uncomfortably close to that of a well-appointed high school. Mr. Botstein insisted that all this was deliberate.

  10. #10


    I will working in this building next month. A theatre is a kind of factory - the exterior is just wrapper around rooms whose size & shape are determined by the limits of human sight & hearing. Some of the best theatre's in the world have no exterior worth mentioning. Oddly enough, some of the most respected architects have produced some of the worst theatres (Check out the acoustically handicapped basement auditorium at the Guggenheim!) while no-one remembers the designer of some of the finest theatres in America, the unfortunately named Herbert J. Krapp.

    After I return from Bard next month I will try to post some photos of the building showing the parts they don't boast about in the press kit.

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