I remember clearly what it felt like back in 2001 to walk into the Guggenheim Museum to see the massive Frank Gehry exhibition housed there. It was the most extensive retrospective of his work till then, and it was being held in the most perfect venue, as many critics had pointed out, since Gehry (born Ephraim Owen Goldberg in 1929) was unquestionably the heir to Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural heritage and the Guggenheim one of the master's finest achievements.
As you made your way up the spiraling ramps that mark this distinctive building, there was laid out before you all sorts of wonderful wooden models of Gehry works, their swirls and undulating lines set in the beige tones of the balsa wood the architect favors for such small-scale projections into the future.
But more astonishing than these — and a good deal more puzzling — were the wide array of architectural drawings accompanying these wooden arrangements. They looked like mad, childish scrawls, mostly executed in thin, black, overlapping lines. Were these really Gehry's drawings that led him to the models and then to his bold, undulating architecture, often aglow with titanium?
Indeed they were, and though at first glance they seemed both unwieldy and uninspiring — coded apparently with a language that only the architect could understand — greater familiarity with them led you to an appreciation of their wild beauty; further study also provided a deeper comprehension of the buildings themselves.
Readers who have had no exposure to Gehry's special penmanship and are interested in such matters can now turn to a sweet little book, lovingly crafted, and jointly packaged by Yale University Press and the Princeton University Art Museum. It's called Frank Gehry on Line — but that line reference has nothing to do with the Internet, though you might be able to find some of this funky art there as well.
The work of Esther da Costa Meyer, who is an associate professor of art and archaeology at Princeton, the book comes encased in a corrugated cardboard slipcase, in tribute, I imagine, to Gehry's early modish easy chairs made from that very same, tightly packed material.
Though the drawings reproduced in its bright-white pages can seem joyously unstructured, it's quite astonishing to discover that Gehry considers drawing something of an architecturally charged diagnostic tool, a way of searching for and developing ideas.
Da Costa Meyer reminds us that not all architects are great draftsmen, but when they are they can often be the most exquisite of artists. Looking at their architectural drawings can often be like stepping into the terrain of their dreams.
That doesn't quite seem to be the case with Gehry's work at first glance. But da Costa Meyer makes us see that, with the dawn of the 20th century, "sketches, a more informal type of drawing, came to be privileged over more elaborate renderings when modernity conferred upon them the dubious and elusive notion of authenticity. Executed freehand and linked indelibly to their makers, sketches suggest spontaneity and subjectivity, the immediacy of thought caught on the wing, the wayward whimsy of the daydream. They thus exceed representation, and reveal more about their authors than do accomplished drawings. Autobiographical traces surface here and there: the glimmer of half-remembered buildings, of effects of light and landscape encountered on journeys past. A form of handwriting, sketches reveal idiosyncratic ticks and gestures, clues to the architect's personality. Sometimes close to doodling, they have not severed the liberating relation to the unconscious."
As for Gehry, he has spoken of his sketches as a way of "thinking aloud."
And according to da Costa Meyer, the architect's "peripatetic lines resemble a picaresque odyssey seeking answers across the white expanse of the sheet. As he gropes for the perfect form, trying to anticipate — more or less correctly — the final massing of the final plan, the hesitant empirical nature of the sketch bears witness to an agonizing quest that offers a perch for the viewer's identification. It is just this obstacle course strewn with difficulties, the implacable record of wrong turns and about-turns, that makes the sketch so appealing to modern eyes." Contact the writer at: [email protected] (215-832-0726).