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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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.