"Architects are like Italian tenors," critic Joseph Giovanni said in his introduction to a recent panel discussion with Frank Gehry, Cesar Pelli, and Thom Mayne. "Once they start talking about their buildings, they can't stop singing." An overflow crowd showed up at the Mar. 30 event at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, part of L.A. Design Week, to hear three of the world's most famous architects critique each other's work.
Gehry kicked off the presentation by talking about the 14-room hotel he had designed for the Marques de Riscal Winery in Elcigo, Spain, 50 miles from his landmark Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. The husband and wife owners, he said, wanted to make a Bilbao-like statement and romanced him over a bottle of champagne corked in the year of his birth, 1929. (There was drama bubbling up as well. "The wife's father was a major architect in Madrid, and this was a slap in the face to him," Gehry added.)
"It's classic Frank," Mayne said of the winery, whose curvy pink and gold canopy cascades over a more traditional sandstone structure. "The skin is escaping the body." Like most of Gehry's work, Pelli added: "It's just a phenomenal will of an individual over matter."
Gehry also showed a slide of the new headquarters he has designed for Barry Diller's Inter Active Corp. near the Chelsea Piers in New York. Gehry said its giant glass panels were bent more than three inches to give the impression of sails. "Barry is a sailor, as I am," Gehry said. "He has a sailboat that'll be in the harbor in front."
Another sweeping glass structure by Gehry is a human-resources building for drug giant Novartis (NVS) in Basel, Switzerland, which the architect said cost a pricey $700 per square foot to build. Pelli asked how he was able to convince a corporate client to approve a building with relatively little space for offices. "It's a pharmaceutical company," Gehry said. "It's not a bottom-line place."
Pelli followed Gehry with a presentation of work, unveiling a striking red glass addition to the Pacific Design Center itself, in addition to new concert halls in Miami and Orange County, Calif., a new arena in Tulsa, Okla., and a pair of skyscrapers, including the 88-story Two International Finance Centre, the tallest building in Hong Kong.
The other panelists concurred that the buildings, while impressive in their own way, had little in common with each other and revealed little about the architect behind them, a charge Pelli didn't disagreed with. "I don't design for me," he said. "We have different devils urging us and different angels helping us."
Pelli's biggest concession to architectural showboating was the National Museum of Art in Osaka, Japan. The museum lies underground, and the Agency for Cultural Affairs specifically asked for a more iconic image on the outside. Pelli's solution was to create an enormous stainless steel sculpture that has been likened to stalks of a bamboo grove.
The last to present was Mayne, the winner of last year's Pritzker Architecture Prize, who takes a very different approach. His buildings, such as the California Transportation Dept. offices in downtown Los Angeles, unmistakably bear his mark. His signature look includes street numbers or signage built into the structure or architectural elements that jut out from the building.
"They are layered, dynamic, there's a sense of movement," Pelli said. Two of Mayne's soon-to-be-finished projects are the federal courthouse and General Services Administration building in San Francisco and a National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration facility in Maryland. His popularity with the feds led Gehry to jokingly ask: "Are you a Republican?"