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It's been 17 years now since a broadly influential show of Frank Gehry's early work landed at the Whitney Museum of American Art. With his array of cheap foam core models held together with pins and glue, Gehry captured the ethos of a culture that seemed to be tearing apart at the seams. In the process, he seemed to release decades' worth of sublimated emotions.
But for young architects like me, seeking fresh ideas, what was most striking about the show was its ability to challenge some of our most firmly held beliefs about architecture. Crudely patched together, Gehry's models suggested a landscape of unmined possibilities. Ultimately, they helped to reawaken a profession that had hit a creative dead end.
How times change. New York has been awash in architecture shows in recent years, yet few have had the cultural impact or emotional range of that one. Safe and predictable, they reflect a growing conservatism in the city's cultural institutions, a byproduct of a society increasingly dominated by corporate values. (The Gehry show, in fact, originated at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.) Many important shows of the last several years have focused on standard historical fare like the two Mies van der Rohe exhibitions jointly organized in 2001 by the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney, both invaluable works of scholarship. But the Mies aesthetic, sleek and functional, is today about as threatening to the status quo as, say, a show on the Baroque master Borromini and less relevant to current debates.
Recent exhibitions have been mostly forgettable. The Modern's architecture and design department has been grinding out survey shows, from this year's "Groundswell," on trends in landscaping, to last year's "Tall Buildings" at P.S. 1 in Queens a prosaic checklist of skyscrapers by well-known designers.
The museum's next major architecture show, not surprisingly, will center on concert halls and sports stadiums, a topic so widely discussed that any casual observer could probably tick off the major examples without even seeing the show. (The highlight of the Museum of Modern Art's new season, which looks more compelling, is "Safe: Design Takes On Risk," which examines hundreds of objects designed for an increasingly paranoid world.) But the Modern is not alone. It's hard to remember the last time the Whitney, which hired its first full-time architecture curator in 2000, mounted a meaningful show. Its last big effort, on the talented duo Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, gave ample space to their art installations rather than their buildings, highlighting the team's weaknesses while shedding little light on what makes them tick.
The most promising New York show this autumn, a retrospective on sculptures and buildings by Santiago Calatrava, is at the Metropolitan Museum, which hasn't held a show on a living architect since the 1970s. The Met has a well-earned reputation for scholarly shows, and the cross-pollination of art and architecture is a rich theme. Still, Calatrava's luxurious designs, a favorite of superwealthy patrons, are not likely to send shock waves through New York.
The reasons for this conservatism are layered. All successful institutions tend to grow more cautious with age, and indeed, part of a museum's purpose is to protect historical memory. Newcomers to the architectural scene, on the other hand, often seem to seize on the subject simply because it's fashionable, with predictable results.
But the deeper cause for this lack of daring lies in the relentless corporatization of the city's art institutions. In this new world, where money rules, the line that divides a museum's public and commercial mission has become increasingly fuzzy, and the most conventional ideas are passed off as daring.
This downward drift has been hastened by changes in the profession itself. The growing popularity of contemporary architecture has led to bigger and more lucrative commissions; architects who once considered themselves creative outsiders are now being courted by mainstream developers. Many of these developers, meanwhile, sit on the boards of major museums. Gehry himself has become a favorite architect of New York's development community.
Interestingly, the first palpable evidence of this turn may have been the Guggenheim's 2001 Gehry retrospective, a delirious mix of architectural visions. The show evoked a virtuoso, but by the time of its opening Gehry had become a fixture of the establishment. More crucially, the museum, which has a well-earned reputation for shameless self-promotion, was courting the city's support for a new $900 million Guggenheim designed by Gehry.
Overall, the best architecture shows of the past decade or so were masterminded by smaller institutions like the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna or the Center for Contemporary Architecture in Montreal. The director of the Museum of Applied Arts, Peter Noever, in particular, has served up a string of provocative offerings, including a show that explored the importance of Stalinist building at a time when many were still exulting in the end of the Cold War. (The Guggenheim's next architecture show, a Zaha Hadid retrospective, is a bigger version of a show recently organized by Noever.) This kind of maverick vision is absent in New York. More to the point, where are the institutions that would support it? The audience is waiting.
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