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.

It's true the Corcoran needs an addition. Some of its galleries have been requisitioned for administrative uses, and it can exhibit but a fraction of its collection at any one time. What's more, much of the existing building's frontage along New York Avenue consists of unappealing and essentially undesigned brick façades, along with a sunken parking lot. So in 1998 Levy got the New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger to help him and a search committee identify the architect who could fill the Corcoran out with an eye-popping structure. They requested portfolios from 60 architects and additional designs from three finalists. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the gallery settled on Gehry, apotheosized after the 1997 opening of his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain--the museum world's supreme example of architecture-driven success. A success Levy obviously wished to replicate.

With his engaging borscht-belt comedian persona, Gehry played Washington's arts establishment, ever bent on banishing the capital's philistine image, like a violin. For mandarins like the late chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, J. Carter Brown, Gehry's Corcoran wing couldn't come too soon. In the course of consultations among the commission, the gallery, and the architect, the competition design, which resembled flowing strands of tin foil, was substantially modified. The most significant change, in terms of its relationship to the original building, was that its top was scaled down in relation to Flagg's roof.

That's small beer relative to the problems of architectural appropriateness the Gehry project raises. This episode is a disturbing reminder that a monstrosity can get built in Washington's monumental core if it generates enough media buzz to deprive our mandarins of their precarious aesthetic bearings. But for some reversals of fortune--the dot-com bust, which cut into the donor base for the Gehry project, plus the heavy post-9/11 security around the White House, which the Corcoran says has contributed to a flat attendance rate and alienated potential supporters--Levy's dream might well have materialized.

The underlying, and all-too-widely, ignored problem here is that the academic orthodoxy that guides not just press coverage of projects like Gehry's, but also official review--whether by historic preservation boards, or city planning commissions, or design oversight entities like Fine Arts--is itself a dysfunctional modernist construct.

With regard to historic preservation, the Corcoran is a National Historic Landmark, and a District of Columbia landmark as well. The District's Historic Preservation Review Board reviewed the Gehry design, which took no account of the District's guidelines for additions to historic buildings, not to mention the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation, on which those guidelines are based. Like the Standards, which were first issued during the Ford administration, the District's guidelines do not require that additions be stylistically consistent with the original building. In fact, they discourage it, lest additions (perish the thought!) be the object of unscientific confusion with the original building.

But the guidelines do stipulate "compatibility," or harmonious correspondence, between additions and original buildings in terms of the scale of their respective architectural elements, proportional relationships between the same, rhythm (or spacing of repetitive façade elements), massing, materials, color, and roof shape. On every count, the Gehry addition would have clashed with Flagg's building.

The District's 11-member Historic Preservation Review Board voted against the Gehry project, but not because of its incompatibility with the existing gallery. Rather, it opposed a demolition permit that would allow destruction of Platt's rotunda--a circular domed gallery--and the fine stairhall gallery adjacent to it. Mayor Anthony Williams overruled the board, citing an "exemplary architecture" clause in the city's historic preservation act. (As fundraising lagged, the District government even sweetened the pot to the tune of $40 million.) The Washington-based National Trust for Historic Preservation, by far the nation's most influential preservation organization, raised not a peep in protest.

The sad truth is that the preservation movement has been hijacked. For many--almost certainly, a large majority--of its rank-and-file supporters, historic preservation is supposed to spare us travesties like a histrionic modernist addition to a great classical landmark. But preservation has become a big movement with deep pockets. It needs an apparat. And that apparat, especially in the big cities, relies on the same academic construct the rest of our cultural establishment does.

This construct boils down to one word: history. Not history as a normative concept, but history as mere process. This concept of history, as the architecture historian Carroll William Westfall has noted, is the enemy of tradition. Tradition is about architectural continuities that span the ages, continuities conducive to the ennoblement of the public realm: human scale, arrangement of masses by analogy with the human body to create compositions rather than mere agglomerations, employment of a hierarchy of ornamental and decorative forms crowned by the human figure.

Yet instead of focusing on the historic continuities tradition has nurtured, the academic paradigm cuts the history of art into little fragments. This conceptual Balkanization led Levy to speak of the Flagg and Gehry structures as discrete objets d'art--period pieces--in the Corcoran's "collection," as if it would be lunacy (or, again, philistinism) to insist on any real formal consistency between the two.

The conventional understanding of architectural history has thus become a function of particularized cultural contexts, each with its own religious, political, social, and technological characteristics. Like art history in general, it has been reduced to a pseudo-scientific stew in which aesthetic considerations are all too easily lost in a mass of historical or socio-psychological trivia.

This is the dysfunctional intellectual matrix from which Gehry's Corcoran project, like modernism's many other stylistic variants, springs. It is also the cause of the preservation bureaucracy's failure to oppose the Gehry design. That bureaucracy, no less than our leading architecture critics, would dismiss a sympathetic Corcoran addition as an exercise in "faking history." Architecture must be authentic! These are modern times, so we must be modern! Of course, "authenticity" and "modernity" are subjective notions, not to mention the "genius" so widely attributed to Frank Gehry.

Too bad the civic idealism, the enduring vision of the classical city, that inspired Flagg's design was lost on David Levy and the Corcoran's trustees. The fact remains that when (or if) the Corcoran gets its identity, its mission, and its financial situation sorted out, it will need to build an addition. To build an appropriate one, it needs to get past the current academic wisdom. And one barrier to the restoration of common sense is the fact that, back in the heady days of postmodernism--1987, to be exact--the Washington office of Hartman-Cox attempted to design a compatible Corcoran wing. But that addition would have been a speculative office building that would include some additional space for the museum. It was mainly intended to generate cash for the gallery's depleted coffers. Moreover, Hartman-Cox is a modernist office that went "eclectic" because of market demand. It's done some good work along the line, but it was not equal to designing a worthy Corcoran wing.

So, should a prospective big-time benefactor muster the common sense to say, "How about an architecturally harmonious addition?" you can bet he will be told, "We tried that." Or, "You won't get the Bilbao effect."

Maybe not. But should the Corcoran choose the right classical architect, it would get a new wing that would enhance Flagg's magnificent achievement rather than negate it. And there are architects equal to this brief: the Philadelphian John Blatteau comes to mind, as does the New York office of Fairfax and Sammons, also the London architect Julian Bicknell. What's more, the gallery would actually be ahead of the curve in the resurgence of classical civic art.

Such glasnost would also benefit the gallery's collection and the art school, separating the Corcoran from the postmodern herd. The collection, like the Corcoran's tiresome Biennial exhibitions (one is on display now), basically reflects the art-historical pieties that led to the Gehry addition project. The Corcoran should ditch the postmodern "anything-but-traditional" consensus, and start collecting work by the growing American school of painters and sculptors who are forging new links to the great tradition: artists like Edward Schmidt, Jacob Collins, Randy Melick, Leonard Porter, Brad Parker, and Will Wilson who, increasingly, are represented by leading commercial galleries in New York and elsewhere.

The Corcoran should emphasize its eclecticism and proudly proclaim itself an institution at the service of a pluralistic visual culture. The Corcoran School of Art need not be ideologically prescriptive--as it is now, insofar as its curriculum basically boils down to the "anything-but-tradition" routine. But it should distinguish itself not only by retaining classically oriented instructors in drawing and sculpture, but also by requiring students to study with them to acquire a demonstrable grasp of traditional principles of form and composition.

No doubt, the Corcoran can muddle along indefinitely. The alternative is to adopt a truly propitious identity, eschewing the reactionary taboos of America's institutionalized avant-garde and embracing a wide-ranging, truly pluralistic, postmodernism.

Catesby Leigh is writing a book entitled Monumental America.