We didn’t stay in Bilbao, but we did stop for a few hours at Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum. Of Gehry’s work, I’d only seen his pavilion and footbridge in Millennium Park, Chicago and a barely-worth-mentioning winery, Marqués de Riscal, currently under construction in Elciego, Spain. I’ve never been impressed by Gehry’s work in photographs, but I was withholdingjudgmentt until I set foot inside his most famous building.

AtMillenniumm park, I had beendisappointedd by the Pritzker Pavilion. The flowing metallic forms become flattened when viewed from a distance, it’s merely a surface treatment, despite their plasticity. Where the Disney Concert Hall’s acoustics may havebenefitedd from “wacky” angles (since the elaboration of an auditorium wall will dispel standing waves), the Pavilion would not. With only open air around the audience, acoustic calculations are much more straightforward: it’s a question of loudspeaker power. Fortunately, the loudspeaker plan isingeniouss: speakers are suspended from above at regular intervals, meaning a more even field of sound can be generated, with no eardrum-shattering hotspots near the stage. Thetrelliss is by far the best part of the structure, not only providing the structural support for the distributed speaker system, but providing a sense of enclosure in the massive park, despite being a transparent lattice.

So while the curvaceous forms atMillenniumm park did nothing spatially, I hoped thetrelliss indicated Gehry’s capacity for the kind of experiential architecture that his folded metal signature initially seems to deny. At Bilbao, I hoped to be pushed and prodded into interesting spaces, hoped to find my field of vision completely filled by massive flowing forms, perhaps something akin to hiking through canyons.

Fortunately, I did find this architectural experience at the Guggenheim Museum.

Richard Serra’s amazing Snake, a permanent exhibition in the Bilbao museum, features enormous sheets of steel twisting through the museum’s largest gallery. The scale of the work is huge, so walking around and through the gallery is truly an experience. Very few pieces of art are so huge, ororganizedd so skillfully that they take up your entire field of vision. The endless possibility of paths one can take through the gallery, the play of light on the Cor-ten steel, the materiality of the steel you’re, of course, not supposed to touch. Viewing slices of curved plaster through slits between Serra’s sculptural forms is without a doubt the best way to view Gehry’s Guggenheim.

Unfortunately, this kind of experience is confined to Serra’s sculpture: I found the museum itself bland and static. Gehry’s work seems to lack the attention to structure and materials that characterize Serra’s sculpture or, say, Gaudi’s work,elsewheree in Spain. Both Serra and Gaudi apparently possess an innate understanding of their materials. For Serra to create a gigantic, self-supporting sheet of curved steel, he needs to have an intuitive grasp of the physical forces at play. By comparison, Gehry seems content to sketch out the forms, and have the computer fill in the details, with the end result that the form of the building’s skin is divorced from its structure, so the entire composition is less Architecture (capital A) than sculpture (lowercase s). The Pritzker Pavilion is a prime example of this: Simply walk around back, and see the structural framework propping up the arbitrary curving sheets.

I have no doubt that Gehry’s embrace of CATIA and building-integrated-modeling will have a profound effect on the way architecture is practiced during the 21st century, perhaps as much as modern suburbia takes up the ideals from Wright’s Broadacre City, or as modern office parks resemble Mie’s skyscrapers. In short, I don’t feel that Gehry will be the one to realize the full potential of an integrated modeling system.

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