Next in the Gehry/public place series: view from Rome

Previously here, and with related backward links. This note is from an architecture professor in Rome who also happens to be my brother-in-law:

I read with fascination the story of Gehry in Aspen and its sequel - Gehry's unexpected message.

I am a great admirer of Gehry's work. It's brilliant, imaginative, preposterous. Gehry is one of the truly great architects of our age, and I think that shelving his Guggenheim project for Manhattan was a tragedy. Furthermore, there is no evidence of Michelangelo and Brunelleschi being gracious public figures; and Gehry has a perfect right not to be one. He is a designer, not a performer. 

It's also perfectly possible that the member of the audience he objected to was a perfect nuisance and a professional, self-serving provocateur. [For a statement by the person in question, see here.]

Two details, however, struck me (God is in the detail, as that famous architect once said). The first one is the fellow's question. As reported  by Fallows, it made perfectly good sense. This is one aspect of Gehry's work that may very well not have received priority attention (i.e. the "monument" versus the public space and environment brilliant architecture should always create, by design or simply by its own magic). In other words, the question as reported does not SOUND self-serving or aggressive. Therefore, Gehry's reaction appears extreme indeed. He could have explained, for example, why the criticism was ill-founded.

The second detail is the expression Gehry chose  to make amends (?) to Fallows: "I apologize for offending you". A classic case, I think, of excusatio non petita. Apologize for what? Could it be that the unknown member of the audience could be confined to his pathetic world of inane pompousness, whereas this influental and widely esteemed member of the press [this is my in-law writing, in what I know to be a sarcastic mocking amiably wry tone] deserved, say, a deference bordering on adulation?

Adulation, deference and pompousness are indeed  traits frequently found in great architects (Le Corbusier used a lot of the first two in trying to ingratiate himself to the powerful, and Frank Lloyd Wright certainly possessed the third one). One wonders.

Even architects of the very lowest ranks, such as I, are not immune to bouts of pompousness. I shall therefore confess that Gehry, much as I admire him, is in fact one of the main unnamed dialectic protagonists of this little opus of mine, titled "Barefoot and Prada". The book's leitmotif is that while many barefoot architects make themselves and their profession proud by working with the world's poor in a spirit of service and virtual anonymity, others, the so-called "archistars", are the "Prada" of today's high-end, profligate, extreme new urban environments. Hence an exhortation to the Prada architects to descend from their pedestal and lend their talent and prestige to improving the living environments of the least fortunate.

Judging from the Aspen confrontation, I strongly, and sadly, doubt my architect hero would be interested in this mission.

Pietro Garau

First Faculty of Architecture

Sapienza Universita' di Roma

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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