Piano, Gehry, Huxtable, and Mayne

August 11, 2010

May 31 could not have been a more glorious day for the groundbreaking of Renzo Piano's new wing at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Pritzker Prize ceremony in Millennium Park.

Temperature in the mid-70s, low humidity, bright sunshine, not a mosquito in sight—nothing short of perfect! A perfect day as well to hear from a trio of design luminaries and the preeminent critic in the field.

After the opening festivities, Piano, Frank Gehry, and Ada Louise Huxtable engaged in a lively discussion of contemporary museum design, hosted by TV's Charlie Rose. Piano spoke eloquently of his roots in Genoa as the son of a builder. His countrymen, he said, are innately concerned about quality construction, "the struggle for beauty and for well-crafted work." Referring to Chicago's architectural tradition, he said that when buildings are built well, they exude a magic all their own.

Gehry engaged the audience with a lighter touch. When Rose brought up the "Bilbao effect" ("After Bilbao, everyone wanted their own Bilbao, right?" he asked), Gehry replied, "When they come to me and ask for the Bilbao effect, I charge them more." In truth, he said, "I didn't think Bilbao was all that good when it was finished," and he has not really been asked to do another museum.

Gehry spoke more seriously of the mundane demands of the job: budgets, time constraints, site limitations, cultural issues. "I'm 76, and I go into the office every day in absolute terror," he confessed. He spends a lot of his time talking to those who will use his work; for Disney Hall, it was the musicians, to get a feel for their innate aural sensibility. He was relieved when Pierre Boulez looked at the model and said, with utmost confidence, "It's going to be perfect."

Huxtable, the first Pulitzer Prize winner for distinguished criticism (1970), bemoaned the "synthetic quality" of American culture. The doyenne of American architectural commentary expressed mixed feelings about "loosened standards" in museum design—present company excepted, of course. "We're coming into the era of the theme park museum," calling the recently opened Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., "seductively destructive." Ideals like quality, beauty, standards, and judgment, she said, may not be popular today, but it is the role of the architect to subvert popular opinion and uphold these ideals.

Later that evening, as the public assembled at Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion to honor Thom Mayne, the 61-year-old Pritzker laureate spoke of the "great power of architecture" to find connections and intersections from the individual's vision. "I'm engaged more in the process than the result," said Mayne. Looking out at the Michigan Avenue skyline, he spoke of cities as "continuously changing, evolving, mysterious." What frightened him was the current climate of "uniformity in the face of diversity." This, he said, always leads to nostalgia, but fortunately, he concluded, "This is temporary. It has to be." Let's hope so.


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