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Sketches of Frank Gehry

An Illuminating, if Superficial, Look at a Well-Known Architect

Frank Gehry is the rarest of contemporary architects. His name alone brings with it instant recognition of his distinctive architectural style and several well known buildings that stand as works of art on their own. Gehry's style emphasizes curvilinear shapes, sinuous lines, and reflective material. When the Guggenheim Museum-Bilbao opened in 1997, it was hailed as one of the great buildings of the modern era (and quite possibly the high point of Gehry's career). Gehry's commissioned work, however, has included exhibition design, furniture, libraries, office buildings, restaurants, schools, and visual and performing arts venues. He's also designed (or more accurately, redesigned) his house to fit his architectural vision.

Directed by Sydney Pollack (The Interpreter, Tootsie, Out of Africa), Sketches of Frank Gehry explores the life and work of architect (and Pollack's friend) Frank Gehry in documentary form. Sketches of Frank Gehry is Pollack's first documentary, shot on both film and digital video. Combining the usual talking heads (e.g., architects, critics, friends, etc.), Gehry at work sketching ideas (hence the title) for new buildings, model-making, footage taken in and around Gehry's buildings, and a free-ranging interview with Frank Gehry that took place over five months, Sketches of Frank Gehry may offer only limited insights into Gehry and his evolution into one of the premier architects of the last quarter century, but it's more than an adequate primer for viewers interested in modern architecture (and Gehry's place in the pantheon).

With an All-American name like Frank Gehry and a reputation as one of America's premier architects, it's surprising to discover that Gehry is neither American (he was born in Canada, but moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was 17) nor a W.A.S.P., as his name implies. In fact, Gehry changed his name from Ephraim Goldberg to Frank Gehry in the mid-fifties to avoid the anti-Semitism that could have negatively impacted his career. Gehry graduated with a degree in architecture from the University of Southern California, studied city planning at Harvard University, before settling into a career as an architect.

Gehry ultimately moved away from the purely functional, modernist approach in architecture he learned in college and practice to a looser, more organic style, welding an aesthetic derived from sculpture to function, in essence designing buildings that many, critics and public alike, consider "art." Less than ten years later, Gehry received the highest award for architecture, the Pritzker Prize. He also received the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects. Besides the Guggenheim Museum-Bilbao, Gehry's other celebrated buildings include the Vitra Design Museum in Germany (989), the DG Bank Building in Germany (2000), the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Southern California (2003), Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts in New York (2003), and the in-progress Museum of Tolerance in Israel (expected completion in 2008).

Is Sketches of Frank Gehry hagiography? For the most part, it is. The film foregrounds Pollack and Gehry's easygoing, long-term friendship, so it's not surprising that Pollack's respect and admiration for his friend is evident in every frame. Whatever criticism Pollack includes is muted by the praise Gehry receives from other architects, critics, and friends. Only one critic, Hal Foster, a professor of art and archeology from Princeton, is given time to voice his criticisms of Gehry's work, but his criticisms are undercut by his often condescending tone and his admission that no artist or architect should escape criticism, regardless of whether that criticism is deserved or not.

Also missing from the documentary is whether Gehry has begun to repeat himself (as artists often do in middle age) and the future direction of his work as an architect. While he claims that the he has yet to design the "capstone" to his decades long career, he may be in denial (e.g., his most innovative work may be already behind him). As for Pollack's direction and handling of the subject, he certainly deserves praise for making an often esoteric discipline intelligible to the lay person, but he also deserves some criticism for not digging deeper (and for inserting himself one too many times into the documentary).

Ratng 3.5 out of 5 stars