The Magazine

Gehry, Going, Gone

The Corcoran Gallery needs an addition, but not this one.

Jun 27, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 39 • By CATESBY LEIGH
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WHAT LOOKS LIKE A HUMILIATING finale to the Corcoran Gallery of Art's quest for a new wing designed by Frank Gehry has shaken the museum, one of the nation's oldest, to its roots. It is once again wracked by the same sort of institutional self-doubt that afflicted it after it buckled under pressure from Congress and cancelled a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition in 1989.

All the nagging questions the Mapplethorpe fiasco raised, questions which lingered during the 1990s, have resurfaced: How can an admission-charging, financially strapped gallery with an eclectic collection, carve out a bigger niche for itself in a city where the competition is so fierce? How can a museological pudding-without-a-theme define its identity, and make itself a prime Washington destination?

Corcoran director David C. Levy's solution to these problems was more or less this: Throw some celebrity architecture at them! Levy, who formerly headed the Parsons School of Design, and the New School for Social Research with which it merged, resigned last month as the Corcoran's board suspended its unsuccessful fundraising campaign for the Gehry wing. Now the board has to start from scratch. It should see this as an opportunity.

The Corcoran has a superb collection of American painting and sculpture, with distinguished works by John Singleton Copley, Benjamin West, Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Sully, Frederick Edwin Church, Thomas Cole, Hiram Powers, and Daniel Chester French. Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, George Bellows, and John Sloan also figure in the collection, which is qualitatively, if not quantitatively, weaker in postwar American art because the gallery's trustees were late in taking an interest in modernism.

The gallery is also home to some fine European works, thanks largely to a bequest from the Montana senator William A. Clark. The Clark bequest includes the Salon Doré, a truly magnificent French interior designed by the architect of the Arc de Triomphe. The Corcoran also boasts superb animal bronzes by Antoine-Louis Barye and a large photography collection. Less distinguished is the gallery's School of Art, a garden-variety postmodern redoubt not known, to put it mildly, for its rigor.

How to fully exploit these assets' potential, and secure a brighter future for a distinguished Washington institution? The first step is for the Corcoran to free itself of the conceptual straitjacket--the dysfunctional academic mentality--that led to the Gehry addition scheme. Gehry's design is an affront to the magnificence of the existing building. Completed in 1897, and designed by Ernest Flagg, the latter boasts heavily rusticated foundations of pink Massachusetts granite. The walls above are Georgia marble. The Flagg building brilliantly negotiates the oblique intersection of 17th Street and New York Avenue with a hemicycle enclosing an auditorium and a gallery above. Its elegant 17th Street façade is beautifully and intricately detailed, with an inventive, overscaled Doric frieze with squat columns conceived as triglyphs alternating with recessed metope-panels of Roman grillwork. Canova's couchant lions flank the impressive main entrance, and a griffin crowns each end of the long, handsome copper roof.

During the 1920s Charles A. Platt, architect of the Freer Gallery on the Mall, added an unassuming new wing fronting on E Street--the Corcoran's southern elevation--to accommodate the Clark bequest.

Gehry's revised addition design, which would double the Corcoran's size, includes three great folds of stainless steel billowing outward along New York Avenue. The folds at each end of the addition deliberately suggest raised skirts in the way they incline upward to accommodate entrances. The roof consists of another stainless-steel fold, an irregular conic section tilted upward toward the west, away from the original building. Here and there glazing is stashed crazily into gaps and slits, including the big gap for a new main entrance. Gargantuan sidewalk skylights over the art school's expanded underground facilities frame the path to this entrance.