V. Frank Gehry and the Post-Modern Approach to Social Strife
When I was a teenager, my parents warned me to be cautious on an afternoon outing with my friend to Venice Beach. My father explained that I might unwittingly anger a female gang member who would be all set to fight me, having pre-greased her face with Vaseline and hidden razor blades in her hair or under her tongue. Without seeming to stir the wrath of anyone, we enjoyed a stroll along the beach while eating French fries and ice cream, watching street performers against an ocean backdrop. My parents are not the only ones who envision Venice Beach—designed by Abbot Kinney to resemble Venice, Italy—as somewhat bloodied.
Venice Beach is one of the only wealthy areas of Los Angeles that openly embraces the glamorous image of violence that the city as a whole has inherited. Ann Bergren notes that the area’s Gold’s Gym, which was established across the street from a lushly painted restaurant and gourmet ice creamery, looks like it inhabits a building that was originally created for a light-industrial factory, when in reality the gym is its first occupant. The critic goes on to say that “the development of Venice, California depends not on erasing the ghetto, but on maintaining it as a marketable material and style.”
In the panoramic Venice, CA: Art + Architecture in a Maverick Community, Michael Webbwrites, “Residents chat with friends and neighbors as they walk or bike around, coexisting with a hood in which gangs face off and bullets fly.” Some of the multimillion dollar homes in which these residents live were built by the most prominent architect of the Los Angeles metropolitan area: Frank Gehry.
While Gehry’s designs embrace the motif of glass walls so treasured by his modern predecessors, other materials and other intentions play a roll as well. In Design Quarterly, he playfully mocks the conservative ideals of his wealthy clientele: “I became interested in chain link fencing not because I like it but because I don’t. The culture seems to produce it and absorb it in a mindless way, and when I proposed to use it in a way that was decorative or sculptural, people became very upset. There was a discrepancy: people may have had it around their tennis courts, around their swimming pools, or around their backyards, where it was only chain link. But if I proposed to use it as a screen in front of their house, they were annoyed and confused.”
Gehry’s friends love to point out his social conscience, his ability to draw attention to the rough edges of an urban environment rather than escape it. And he has even taken this aesthetic to his own Santa Monica home, which is covered with chained link fencing and corrugated aluminum siding. Not visible to the passerby is the window “made by taking a hammer and banging a hole and then gluing a piece of glass on it.” The notion of breaking barriers has obviously entered into Gehry’s mind. But his manner of cleaning up the mess that causes such fracture seems more like an inside joke than a preventative measure.
One client who embraces the architect’s aesthetic and sense of humor is Colors director Dennis Hopper. From the outside, Hopper’s home is a squat quadrilateral structure of corrugated aluminum, surrounded by a tongue-in-check white picket fence. But, as shown in Michael Webb’s coffee table book, inside are loft-sized spaces, feeding into a courtyard with a pool where prominent art pieces are displayed with a frequency that borders on chaotic. Alongside the photographs, the director brags in a clean, tasteful font, “The gangs know where I live but so far they haven’t bothered me—though they’ve taken the back gate off its hinges to let me know they are there… I heard one guy going by and telling his friends: ‘He’s a crazy man, an OG [old gangster]. You want to live in a prison like that?’” It is not just a corrugated wall that protects people like Hopper from his gangster friends. The Los Angeles Police Department patrols Venice Beach with tenacity. We are supposed to laugh at the notion of this multimillionaire being referred to as a prisoner in his own home. Webb adds, “Behind the wall, the OG is at peace, savoring his cigar beside the pool.” But I don’t find any of this particularly funny.
Hopper’s backdrop combines luxury and a mythology of violence, and is all the more attractive for this fusion of opposites. But if he tires of these so-called gangsters taking his gate off its hinges, Hopper has the resources to create a home somewhere else.
One of Gehry’s earlier designs is the 1984 Frances Howard Goldwyn Regional Branch Library in Hollywood, which utilizes the motif of a fortress—and the building is, in fact, under high security. In City of Quartz, Mike Davis describes the library as having “15-foot security walls of stucco-covered concrete block… anti-graffiti barricades covered in ceramic tile… sunken entrance protected by ten-foot steel stacks… stylized sentry boxes perched precariously on each side.” In one photograph, a man who looks to be homeless sits outside of the building, dwarfed by the jail-like wall behind him, which protects him from the books inside. Or vice versa.
In an article for The Journal of Architectural Education, Gerard Gutenschwager warns that post-modern architectural designs such as these may be “represented as playful—but they are engaged in a dangerous game… resting as they do on the edge of the abiding existential dilemma, they’re always in danger of (unknowingly) leading or accompanying society into fascism on the one side or chaos on the other.” In other words, when people pass by Gehry’s designs and see these structures, which suggest an environment of incessant violence, is he really helping us to eradicate the cause of violence and poverty, or is he encouraging a sense of separation and fear that prevents people from noticing a real city with real problems and actual pain? Gutenschwager continues, “Discovering ambiguity does not excuse one from acting, however tenuously, in relation to those actual problems of repression.”
Essayist Joan Didion once wrote, “The public life of liberal Hollywood comprises a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract in which actual and irreconcilable disagreement is as taboo as failure or bad teeth.”