I Wish This Architecture Prize Were Real

As someone who spent several years working across the street from the Frank Gehry designed Stata Center and had more than a few meeting there, I appreciate Joe Queenan's wicked satire:

An Iowa-based philanthropist and architecture aficionado has offered a $300 million reward to any city anywhere in the world that dares to hire someone other than Frank Gehry to design its gleaming new art museum.

"Don't get me wrong, I like iconoclastic, swoopy structures that look like bashed-in sardine cans as much as the next guy," says the philanthropist, who wishes to remain nameless for fear of enraging close friends in the art world. "I like Czech dance halls that look like a 747 plowed right into the façade as much as anybody. I bow to no man in my admiration for an architect who can design an art museum that looks like a intergalactic recycling center. I just thought it would be nice to give the second-most-famous architect in the world a shot at a payday. Whoever he is. I know I've got his name here somewhere."


"There's a swoopy, somewhat incongruous Frank Gehry building in Millennium Park in Chicago," says a famous architecture critic who wishes to remain nameless for fear of being perceived as a revolting, disgusting philistine who ought to be hanged, drawn, quartered and then shot, but only after being blinded and flayed alive. "There's a swoopy Frank Gehry building in L.A. There are swoopy Frank Gehry buildings in New York, Seattle, Cleveland, Toronto, Cambridge, Mass., and Princeton, N.J. That's not to mention the swoopy Frank Gehry buildings in Basel, Switzerland, Miami Beach, Las Vegas and Bilbao, Spain. Everywhere you go on the planet, whether it's an art museum, a concert hall, a corporate headquarters or a hospital, there's a swoopy Gehry building. I'm not saying that the world doesn't need any more swoopy Gehry buildings that look like dented Miller Lite cans. I'm just saying that maybe the world doesn't need quite so many."

The other thing I'll note about the Gehry-designed Stata Center is that it's actually a pretty disfunctional building. Even if you're deranged and think it looks good, it doesn't work well as a building. Offices lack privacy. Sound baffling is non-existent. Millions of dollars were spent to resolve what were flaws due to design issues (leaks, mold, etc.)--design problems Gehry refused to change.

And it's fucking swoopy.

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Another problem with that entire part of town (MIT / Kendall) is the general lack of planning and interaction between the buildings and the outside world. We went to EVOO a couple of weeks ago and I was struck by how every building was enclosed onto itself, barely any street-level retail space.

Granted, many of the buildings are either on MIT campus or owned by biotech startups, but a little bit of mixed use could really add something there as opposed to what we have now: drive to work, work, drive home, leave a large area devoid of any life for the rest of the time.

I don't think Stata looks swoopy (I go by it frequently). I think it looks more like someone dumped out an intergalactic ice-cream truck on the sidewalk.

Architecture is full of great minds who design "spaces". Functionality; I want to say it takes a back seat but, quite frankly, it often ends up in the trunk.

Frank Lloyd Wright, seemingly, designed in a leaky roof on every project. It was something of a trademark. If the roof didn't leak you knew it was a knockoff of Wright design.

They are good at spaces but forget about people, and what people do when they aren't taking in those spaces. Y'know ... live, work.

When they do include people and some level of functionality they leave out consideration of people who aren't living there. Architects are notorious for huge windows overlooking beautiful vistas that fishbowl occupants. Hard to pad around in your underwear without shocking the neighbors in most designs.

I once rented an apartment in a building owned by an architect that ran his own firm out of the first floor. Of course, the apartment was the firm's own design. The architect admired how I used my numerous bookcases to create space. He also thanked me when I pointed out that while the kitchen was quite lovely, the lack of any drawers whatsoever was a wee bit annoying.

Life lesson #1: there's always a downside to having an architect for your landlord.

When the firm expanded, they took over my apartment and moved me up a floor. Rather graciously, they gave me the key to the new apartment--no charge!--a month early so I could move things upstairs at a relaxed pace. However, the new apartment did not have a balcony, like the old one had. Since a space to build my own sukkah had been part of my original reason for moving to that building in the first place, the firm even more graciously created a skylight for me in the new apartment according to my specs.

Life lesson #2: there's always an upside to having an architect for your landlord.

By william e emba (not verified) on 05 May 2011 #permalink

On a semi-related note: When did overhead lighting become an architectural sin for apartments and homes? I grew up in a home that had light switches on the walls and lights (of various types) on the ceiling. When the switch was flipped, the light turned on and illuminated the room. Simple. Problem solved.

When I graduated from college and started moving in to more modern apartment buildings, I found that the only rooms that reliably had overhead lights were the bathroom and the kitchen. Every other room is "bring your own light or sit in the dark."

Now wherever I go, I have to tote a half dozen crappy floor lamps and run power cords all over the floors. Floor lamps are awkward, generally provide poor lighting, take up floor space, fall down when you bump into them, and require an outlet nearby. How is that a win in any way whatsoever? Why did this trend begin?

By Troublesome Frog (not verified) on 05 May 2011 #permalink

Electrical code demands a switch controlled light, or switched receptacle, an electrical outlet entirely or partly controlled by a switch, at each exterior door. Switched receptacles are usually cheaper to wire and the builder saves money because they don't need to buy a light fixture.

If I ever become filthy rich, I'll commission a museum design by H.R. Giger. Then I'll just sit across the street and smile as I watch children soil themselves in fear at the sight of it, while their parents try to keep their bagel from making a surprise return. The crowning glory will be when the critics gouge their own eyes out and spend the rest of their days rocking in a fetal position in a padded room.

Maybe I'll even pair it with a commission from the local evo-devo lab to just throw every teratogen they have at some poor embryonic critter, then turn it loose to roam the hallways.

I don't like to quotemine, but I found this in the comments of the WSJ article and had to put it here.

Sounds like a joke to me. Some writer who's jealous because avuncular Frank makes cool-looking things that people and cities enjoy and desire. The irony is that many architects are far more prolific and pervasive than Frank, but the writer misses their work -- drab towers, junky big box boxes and shopping centers, arenas, and whatnot -- and notices the Gehry buildings because they're distinctive. The complaint is about what? The herd mentality? The false notion that they're getting something unique? That's a straw man. No one ordering a Gehry building thinks that's true anymore, but neither is it possible for everyone in Los Angeles to visit Bilbao when they feel like seeing a Gehry. Is the complaint that there are too many, like, say Picassos? Are there too many Picassos and is it risible that one museum would try to get one when there are so many already in other collections around the world? Or is the gripe about the buildings' style, their "swoopiness," their non-conformity and their apparent lack of functionality (they actually work quite well)?

Also, many people in the comments seem to be taking this quite seriously, and (this is the saddest/funniest part) someone earnestly suggested the money go to rebuild Japan...

By Herp N. Derpington (not verified) on 05 May 2011 #permalink

Troublesome Frog, I feel your pain /Bill Clinton. My biggest complaint about this setup is they always put the switch-controlled outlet on the same wall as the cable TV/internet hookup, so if you use the switch to control a floor lamp, your TV and everything connected to it gets power-cycled as well. I've actually had to tape switches in the on position to keep visitors from flipping the switch unknowingly.

By Rob Monkey (not verified) on 06 May 2011 #permalink


I kind of figured it was a money saving trick, but it still sounds seriously cheap. You're building a building and you have electricians crawling around and running wires through the walls. I'd love to see what percentage of the cost of a new building the additional wiring for overhead lights would be. I'd even go for cheap ugly fixtures. Anything to get me away from the scourge of the floor lamp.

I even went so far as to think about halogen floor lamps. Until I thought about how often I've seen fluorescent floor lamps fall over.

By Troublesome Frog (not verified) on 06 May 2011 #permalink

Oh, I might recommend putting CFLs in your floor lamps, Frog. You can put the 100 watt equivalent CFLs in pretty much any fixture, as they only draw ~25 watts. I put in a ceiling fan/light combo in my house a little while ago, and even with having to put in a new box/wiring, it was totally worth it, I can actually read on the couch without going blind now.

By Rob Monkey (not verified) on 06 May 2011 #permalink

$14 million just plunked down in architecture before they even spread a yard of concrete. Pathetic.

Then I love this quote:

"It's really quite pleasurable and people like it, but it does involve some risks in that it's impossible to keep it from leaking."

The primary reason for a building's existence is among other things, well, to "keep it from leaking". When a building design knowingly make probable something as intrinsically wrong as uncontrolled leaking, it's just plain stupid. A car with oval wheels might look cool too, but you'd have to be an idiot to design it, buy it, and most of all, use it in a very public function.

While I blame the architect and I hate the word "elitist", I also have to blame the elitist A.H.es that signed off on this "art" in the first place. Money (and sense) is clearly no object to some people.

Rob Monkey,

I'm a big CFL fan and my place is loaded with them, but the reality is that those floor lamps just don't light the place as efficiently as a good overhead light with the same bulb in it. And cables on the floor suck.

Actually, I'd like to see a slightly "bigger" CFL become the standard replacement for the 100 w bulb. The new ones are pretty good but to my eye, they still don't have the punch of the 100 watt incandescent. Could be the spectrum, but I doubt it.

I'm wondering why, when they decided to make the "26w CFL == 100 w old bulb" connection, they chose a CFL that was slightly weaker than the bulb it was replacing rather than sucking some additional power and producing something slightly more powerful. I suspect that it's the volume/area problem with the CFL bulb form factor, but it would have been nice to be able to say, "It's only 32 watts and it puts out more light than a 100 watt incandescent," rather than, "It's only 26 watts and it's almost as good as the bulb it replaces!"

When I own my own place, all rooms will have overhead CFL fixtures. I'm sick of feeling like I'm working by candlelight.

By Troublesome Frog (not verified) on 06 May 2011 #permalink

Troublesome - A ceiling mounted fixture is the worst kind of room lighting in so many ways: You sure as hell can't read comfortably by a ceiling light; in bed you stare right up into the ceiling light (glare); in the family room watching TV your irises close down due to the overhead light (glare); in the living room every human face is a death mask, cast in shadows. In utility rooms and garages ceiling fixtures are fine. But a home built with ceiling fixtures in every room screams cheap, old fashioned and ignorant.