Gehry’s language—evolving from that early primitivism to the current state of High Gehryism—can be seen influencing a new generation of designers. People speak of “the Bilbao effect,” wherein a declining Basque city was revived economically by the construction of a rock-’em-sock-’em, world-class building. There is, however, a second Bilbao effect to consider: the rise of spectacle and showmanship in architecture in the wake of Gehry’s masterstroke. “I think in talking about the post-Bilbao world you have to look at people in the generations after Gehry—the work of Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, people like that. The larger-scale spectacle seems to be a big part of that,” says Goldberger. (Of the individuals V.F. polled, Goldberger picked more of the top-rated buildings than anyone else. See tables on pages 162–63.)
With Bilbao, Gehry presented a long-awaited solution to one of the most vexing problems in architecture at the end of the 20th century. Modernism, especially when deployed in urban settings on a grand scale, was largely loathed by the general public and eventually dropped by the design establishment. The cold, alienating, concrete-glass-and-steel environments imposed on many major cities were finally judged to have destroyed more user-friendly urban plans in the name of “slum clearing” or futuristic redevelopment. Postmodernism, a movement emphasizing a return to decoration, historical references, and fewer desolate urban plazas, which reached its height in the 1980s, seems in hindsight like a frail fig leaf attempting to cover up the sins of what had gone before.
…Things progressed slowly from there, as the architect continued to work more audacious swooping and compound curves into his designs. Eventually he found himself hitting the outer limits of what was buildable. This frustration led Gehry on a search for a way to fulfill his most far-reaching creative desires. “I asked the guys in the office if there was any way they knew of to get where I wanted to go through computers, which I am still illiterate in the use of,” he explains. Gehry’s partner, Jim Glymph—“the office hippie,” in Gehry’s words—led the way, adapting for architecture a program used to design fighter planes. As Gehry began to harness technology, his work started to take on riotous, almost gravity-defying boldness. He dared to take the liberties with form he had always dreamed of, fashioning models out of sensuously pleated cardboard and crushed paper-towel tubes. He always works with models, using scraps of “whatever is lying around”—on one occasion a Perrier bottle. “I move a piece of paper and agonize over it for a week, but in the end it was a matter of getting the stuff built,” he tells me. “The computer is a tool that lets the architect parent the project to the end, because it allows you to make accurate, descriptive, and detailed drawings of complicated forms.”
…With 9 votes in the V.F. poll, Peter Zumthor’s Thermal Baths, in Vals, Switzerland (1996), came in third, providing support for the popular notion that the 67-year-old Swiss designer is the ultimate architect’s architect. Zumthor, who for years worked at the Department for the Preservation of Monuments in the Swiss canton of Graubünden, has a very small oeuvre—the majority of these structures in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. He became a phenomenon in the high-design world with the unveiling of the baths at Vals, but he shuns the spotlight.
The small Zumthor studio is housed in a barn a day’s drive north of Zurich, a location almost as remote as Vals. While the baths are venerated by the architectural intelligentsia, they are virtually unknown to the general public outside of Western Europe. One reason is that Zumthor tried long and hard to ban publication of his work in magazines and books. Buildings, he maintains, must be experienced in person to be understood. (Paul Goldberger wrote a detailed article on the Vals baths in V.F. in July 2001.) Zumthor’s work exudes severe, minimalist perfection. Mies van der Rohe at the height of his influence comes to mind, but, instead of the spare machine aesthetic sought by the high Modernists, Zumthor’s buildings have an artisanal feel, bespeaking his early training as a carpenter. It’s hippie Mies—an unlikely fusion, but a welcome one for those who remain nostalgic for mid-20th-century Modernism.
I go back and forth on Gehry. Some of his stuff is amazing, others (such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall) is both atrocious and a traffic hazard. Similarly, I absolutely love some – most – parts of Zumthor’s thermal baths and loath others.