"Yes, but what do you think about Bilbao?" is the cocktail party question architects have tolerated in the decade since Frank Gehry designed that shiny titanium wiggle. Sometimes, the answer is "not much." Gehry went on to international fame, and his museum did much for a declining city of the global rust belt. But as a critical work of design, Bilbao lacked depth. It had little to say about the issues it raised, such as the often mutually skeptical relationship between modern art and modern design, the evolving linkages between structure and form, and the subtle interplay between a building and its city (other than being a diamond in a rough setting). Plus, they say art doesn't look good there.
While Daniel Libeskind and Peter Eisenman offer complex commentaries on their own sculptural architecture, Gehry has rarely made intellectual claims for his swoopy, crinkly buildings. But even by those reduced standards, the Bilbao Guggenheim has suffered in light of subsequent Gehry projects that feature increasingly familiar versions of the same formal manuevers but at clumsier scales and with cruder details and seemingly arbitrary intentions—witness Seattle's Experience Music Project, Los Angeles's Walt Disney Concert Hall, and the Stata computing center at M.I.T., not to mention a new line of Tiffany necklaces. Those missteps make Gehry's latest project all the more interesting: It's a smart, simple office building that adds a grace note to the many uninspired residential towers now going up near Manhattan's West Side Highway.
This building—Gehry's first completed New York project after almost 20 years of tiny interior-design gigs and unrealized grandiosities—houses the new offices for Barry Diller's media conglomerate, InterActiveCorp. Baroque complexities are appealingly absent. A rectangular five-story base, enveloped by a 14-foot rectilinear glass panel system, progressively creases toward the top into a five-bay, zigzag geometry resembling the business end of a lemon juicer, as 1,500 custom glass panels distort to accommodate this shift. Thousands of tiny white ceramic dots, called frits, adhere to each panel. Like the Benday dots in a Lichtenstein painting, they're dense around the edges and fade out toward the middle of each panel, so the circa $100 million, 550,000-square-foot building appears crisp and spiky in profile, yet blurry and stripey on its surface. The angles animate the building from the perspective of speeding cars below and allow for sweeping views from the abundant corner offices within. Some of the tubular cast-in-place ferroconcrete columns are canted to recall the twisting geometry of the facade. Broad 35-foot spans open up the interior. There's an airy lobby. That's about it.
In press accounts, Gehry trots out the usual metaphors to describe the headquarters: It's like billowing sails during the day and a glowing lantern at night. Only it isn't, really. It's more like an office building, not too fancy, by a highway. Which may be why it succeeds. The adjacent cityscape of bulky warehouses-cum-galleries and the big sky over the nearby river recall the scrappy Los Angeles neighborhoods where Gehry's career began and where his best buildings remain. Those buildings tested an emergent formalism of torque and shift, later dubbed Deconstructivism, against a necessary economy of humble materials. As in Gehry's own epochal 1977 renovation of his conventional balloon-framed Santa Monica House, the tension between extraordinary geometry and an ordinary kit of cladding and structure is thrilling.
An echo of that economy animates the IAC building. The coarse off-the-shelf doorways and entrances bring the building down to earth. And although those 1,500 curving glass panels are custom-made, they're cold-formed—meaning they started out flat and were twisted on-site, by Italian specialists Permasteelista. That makes the building vastly cheaper and introduces a healthy restraint in the deployment of curves and creases.
The bigger picture at stake in this transition in Gehry's work from ingenious to would-be genius is the architect's cultural role. We're familiar with The Fountainhead notion of designer as Prometheus, bringing back from the cutting edge forms we didn't know we needed. Gehry has seemed happy to play that role in his most disappointing recent engagement, as designer and public face of the Atlantic Yards development, which will bring 22 dire acres of skyscraper to downtown Brooklyn. Gehry's presence adds a thin veneer of the visionary to what is essentially a private urban renewal project of the kind discredited since the 1960s.
But there is a deeper role the architect can enact, one that amplifies the poignance of IAC's address on the West Side Highway, the road that defines the western edge of the former World Trade Center complex. That site still offers the clearest view of the gap in the New York skyline, which speaks, among other things, of the continuing failure of private developers and starchitects to address Ground Zero in a convincing or timely way—to embrace the more profound task of being not just a form maker, but also a process manager, choreographer of complexity, translator between ideal and real. The ramshackle competence of the IAC building enables one to hope that Gehry, now 77, with a half century of professional practice behind him, may be capable of returning to his roots in that role. And that would be something worth celebrating, perhaps even with cocktails.