Frank Gehry, or the inhabitable fish
Where sculpture was once part of architecture, with Modernism it became clinically separated as something literally and figuratively exterior to the discipline. The decoding-recoding series on Eikongraphia researches this troubled relationship between architecture and sculpture. The Modernist opposition of abstracted surface and sculpture have in the last decennia approached each other – the surface has become sculpted, and the sculpture has been abstracted to become inhabitable.
In this latter evolution, the oeuvre of Frank Gehry is the key to understand the way architecture has again become sculptural, has again become iconographic, representational. Tracing the roots of the ‘mother of all iconographic buildings’, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, one starts to suspect that the design represents an abstracted school of fish, and that the design is a result of an evolution that spans 15 years. It took ‘De Stijl’ painter Piet Mondriaan more time to go from literal to abstraction.
The fish-motif first appears in the design of extension of the Smith House (1981) in the sculptures in front of the building volumes. The design was discarded by the Bel Air Fine Arts Commission because it didn’t look enough like a house.
In the city of Kobe, in a crappy docks neighborhood, a huge fish was the right gesture to distract visitors to the Fish Dance Restaurant (1986-1987). At the same time voluminous fish and thin billboard, the enormous sculpture is empty and clad with copper mesh, so that it is transparent or glimmers in the sun.
From the Smith House to the restaurant in Kobe the fish-sculpture had grown towards a building of its own. And the space inside lured. It is the most beautiful space of the restaurant, and one cannot enter it. Just as one has to enter the Statue of Liberty, the inevitable step was to inhabit the fish. The whale swallowed Jonah, but now we volunteer to get inside.
The inhabitable fish appears for the first time in the designs for the Lewis House in Lyndhurst, Ohio (1989-1995), that Frank Gehry worked on with Philip Johnson & Partners. In the early designs the house was dominated by a large whale-like form. In another version of the house transparent fish seem to climb out of the water in the back of the house. In order to inhabit the sculpture, the literal form of the fish in abstracted. The abstracted representation opens form up to new meanings. It still looks like a fish, but it could be anything, such as a house.
The design for the Vila Olympica in Barcelona is a bump in the oeuvre of Gehry. The fish sculpture is abstracted, but not inhabitable. The design is a step backwards to that of the inflated billboard. Striking is that Gehry himself did not propose the fish-figure in the first place, but that it was asked for by the collaborating architects.
The breakthrough is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (1997) in which Frank Gehry not just designs a single abstracted fish, but a school of them. Sitting at the riverfront in the city center of Bilbao, in between elevated twisting roads, the building is cut loose from the city fabric, becoming something totally on its own. The school of fish embraces you.
The earlier designed, but later finished Walt Disney Concert Hall (2003) in Los Angeles can be considered as a building with an even more abstracted, boxier architecture than the Guggenheim Museum.
And the next step in this evolution? Gehry continues to design fish-like blobs, at grander scale than ever before in Paris, Dubai, Singapore, etcetera. But Gehry also announced that he again considers the box. The hungry box has eaten the fish. Burp.