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What is Architecture, Mr Gehry?
On an overcast day in early January 2015, we find three representatives of ArchiTeam in Sydney. New developments in draft, and future ideas talked around a table in a Surrey Hills café. One key topic arose from the discussion: inviting discourse on Architecture.

Which brings to mind two words: Frank Gehry.

Curious, we trundle our way to the edge of Chinatown and the almost completed conversation starter: Gehry’s Dr Chau Chak Wing Building at the University of Technology. Dubbed the ‘paper bag building’, conceptualized as a ‘tree house’, this building aspires to be as iconic as the Opera House. Part of a 10 year masterplan of redevelopments to UTS facilities, it is in the company of the Denton Corker Marshall Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology, which in turn is overlooked by another big international presence: One Central Park apartments and shopping centre by Ateliers Jean Nouvel and PTW Architects, complete with vertical garden by botanist Patrick Blanc himself. This is a happening precinct for architecture in Sydney.

Frank Gehry’s Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, University of Technology.
Frank Gehry’s Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, University of Technology.
Denton Corker Marshall Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology, University of Technology.
On arrival, I am underwhelmed by Frank Gehry’s building. Its main approach on both street frontages doesn’t reveal the stacked series of crumpled forms seen in glimpses of the model, and the conversation between shards of glass and contours of brickwork is fleeting and best gleaned from the laneway alongside the building. It doesn’t respond to the urban fabric in the way of the Dancing House in Prague with its generous corner address. (Needless to say this is my favourite Gehry work). I am dissatisfied with the detailing on the soffits of the brick overhangs. And so on.However.Standing next to another Architect, we are of differing opinion. And so I look again. And this time I dismiss my preconceptions of the iconic Gehry building, and I take in the beautiful stepping of bricks across sinuous curves, and the floating of square reflective windows set amidst the bricks. The Mary Ann Street entrance is a thing of delight, a modest glazed door pressured by a curving weight of bricks above on the right, and the sharpness of sliding glass to the left. This is the slightly brutal interface between the two languages of the building that in other locations sits a little askew. It is perhaps a reference to the solid and the fluid, form and reflection, brick and glass. It is an interesting and intriguing building, and despite any and all criticisms, I am glad it is there.The press surrounding this building talks of the “Frank Gehry effect”, with the most notable example being the reinvigoration of the rundown town of Bilbao in northern Spain after the arrival of Gehry’s metal-clad Guggenheim Building. I remember being surprised on visiting the Guggenheim Bilbao to find it a gleaming mass of metal and glass, set against the grime of the old town. Gehry has become almost synonymous with commissions to produce statement architecture (a fairly insidious term, however I’m in press parlance here). So in slightly more eloquent speech, is it then an assumption that original and unique architecture is being acclaimed for exactly that: being original? Or perhaps to go further, is architecture being acclaimed for being unknown, unprecedented, and rewarding the risk of its commission?

In late October last year, at a press conference in Oviedo, northern Spain, Gehry infamously stated “98% of what gets built today is shit”, giving the finger to his audience.

 

Reading between the lines, this isn’t a critique of architects, but rather a critique of conservatism; of the repetition of same-same building typologies at fear of producing anything original that may, perhaps, produce criticism of what architecture is.

So what is good (or great) architecture? I’m intrigued to find out (of course I have my own theories).

Let’s talk a while.

Article  by Zoë Geyer of zga and Director of ArchiTeam Cooperative

Photo’s by  Zoe Geyer, Anna Czermak and The Guardian

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