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May 2, 2011

An Architect's Blueprint for Overexposure

The Wall Street Journal
by Joe Queenan

An Iowa-based philanthropist and architecture aficionado has offered a $300 million reward to any city anywhere in the world that dares to hire someone other than Frank Gehry to design its gleaming new art museum.

"Don't get me wrong, I like iconoclastic, swoopy structures that look like bashed-in sardine cans as much as the next guy," says the philanthropist, who wishes to remain nameless for fear of enraging close friends in the art world. "I like Czech dance halls that look like a 747 plowed right into the façade as much as anybody. I bow to no man in my admiration for an architect who can design an art museum that looks like a intergalactic recycling center. I just thought it would be nice to give the second-most-famous architect in the world a shot at a payday. Whoever he is. I know I've got his name here somewhere."

The philanthropist's gambit underscores how amazingly popular Mr. Gehry's playful, irreverent architecture has become in recent years, and how hard it is to find anyone helming a major municipal building project who would dare to hire someone else to execute a commission. The latest is a 76-story structure in lower Manhattan, the largest swoopy apartment building in the world.

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NoLandGrab: Sure, but how many places can say they have had a Gehry bait-and-switch?

"There's a swoopy, somewhat incongruous Frank Gehry building in Millennium Park in Chicago," says a famous architecture critic who wishes to remain nameless for fear of being perceived as a revolting, disgusting philistine who ought to be hanged, drawn, quartered and then shot, but only after being blinded and flayed alive. "There's a swoopy Frank Gehry building in L.A. There are swoopy Frank Gehry buildings in New York, Seattle, Cleveland, Toronto, Cambridge, Mass., and Princeton, N.J. That's not to mention the swoopy Frank Gehry buildings in Basel, Switzerland, Miami Beach, Las Vegas and Bilbao, Spain. Everywhere you go on the planet, whether it's an art museum, a concert hall, a corporate headquarters or a hospital, there's a swoopy Gehry building. I'm not saying that the world doesn't need any more swoopy Gehry buildings that look like dented Miller Lite cans. I'm just saying that maybe the world doesn't need quite so many."

A city planner who wishes to remain nameless for fear that he will be branded an enemy of iconoclastic swoopiness says that municipalities dread not having a Frank Gehry building somewhere within the city limits, even if it's only a postmodern nursing home or a puckish, irreverent library.

"Elciego, Spain, has a Frank Gehry building," he notes. "Herford, Germany, has a Frank Gehry building. Dundee, Scotland, has a Frank Gehry building. I'm going to level with you: I don't even know where those places are. Nobody does. I think they might be in Europe. But I'll tell you one thing: I know where Biloxi, Miss., is. Well, if Biloxi, Miss., has a playful Frank Gehry building, we just can't afford not to. Even though I can't tell you who we are."

The critic who wishes to remain nameless for fear of having his stately Colonial house firebombed by cutting-edge-architecture buffs, and his family fed to great white sharks a limb at a time over six weeks, elaborates.

"If you're living on a planet where Cleveland has a Frank Gehry building and Biloxi has a Frank Gehry building, for you to not have a Frank Gehry building of your own makes your city look stupid. It makes it look like your city fathers have no vision, no panache, no brio, no chutzpah. You've probably noticed that Schenectady and Tallahassee don't have one of these swoopy buildings."

In the three months since the philanthropist offered his $300 million prize to any city—of any size—that dares to not commission a Frank Gehry building, there has not been a single taker.

"Cities are afraid to seem backward and square," he concedes. "There's nothing a local tourism board or chamber of commerce fears more than acquiring a reputation for being un-cool. So there's a strong possibility that my $300 million might just sit there, unclaimed, forever. Though frankly, I still think the great city of Scranton might step up to the plate."

Posted by eric at May 2, 2011 11:42 AM