A Monument to Self-Importance

by Theodore Dalrymple

When a reader first drew my attention to the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, designed by Frank Gehry and completed in 2010, I felt it necessary before writing about it to ask whether it was real or a photoshopped spoof. Once or twice in my career, I have been taken in by spoofs and made to look foolish; I did not want that to happen again at my advanced age, as if I had learned nothing.

But then another reader also drew my attention to it. No, it was real enough, alas—part shiny bent metal (much of it without any structural function), part rigid white box. The two disparate elements were apparently supposed to represent the right and left hemispheres of the brain. God preserve us from starchitects with ideas of symbol, which bear the same relationship to real ideas as kitsch does to art.

A glance at this structure induces a state of anxiety, or, alternatively, a feeling of sea-sickness. Has there been an earthquake, or perhaps a terrorist attack, to twist the metal in this way and set windows at peculiar angles? Has it been designed by a brain-damaged patient with perceptual difficulties?

Meantime, in the ancient city of Arles, in southern France, with its famous Roman amphitheater, Gehry has designed a building for an arts center that looks like a construction by the graphic artist M.C. Escher, but clad in aluminum, a material guaranteed to make any building look cheap no matter how expensive it was to build.

No two buildings were ever more successful in drawing attention to their architect than these. That, it seems to me, is their principal function: the immortalization of Frank Gehry. Future generations—assuming that the buildings have not by then been improved by the only means possible, demolition, and assuming that their style has not in the meantime become a vernacular, which is most unlikely—will inevitably ask, “Who designed this?” Thus the name of Frank Gehry will live.

But they will have asked the wrong question. The right, or at least more important, questions will be “Who allowed this?” and “Why did they allow it?”

No simple or final answer to these questions will be possible. If, for example, we say that the patrons and those who granted permission to build believed that they would be displaying a lack of comprehension of architecture by objecting to certain architects’ designs, then the question becomes “Why did they have so little confidence in their own judgment as not to be able to resist the gimcrack arguments of the architects?” Or was their taste so debased that they actually liked what the architects offered them? Then a question about the collapse of the elites arises.

In any case, we seem for the time being to be stuck with the gimcrack starchitects and their self-advertising projects.

First published in City Journal.


3 Responses

  1. I just love it when Mr D takes on the architects.
    Gehry is one of a number that I can think of who have inflicted pain on the public by selling their insane ideas to unqualified decision makers. If you look at the original sketch that Gehry made for the Vegas eyesore, you would honestly think that it was the work of someone escaped from the asylum. The guy who gave the go ahead for that project, Lou Ruvo, looks on the surface to be in full control of his faculties, but for him to fall for Gehry’s “pick up sticks” type of fantasy architecture has me believing that every business astute type of brain has a gaping hole of vulnerability in it. Didn’t he take a look at Gehry’s monstrosity in Prague or the Stata Center in Massachusetts? You can’t look at them without getting mal-de-mer.
    Same incongruity with I M Pei’s desecration of the Louvre… who OK’s these projects?
    Apart from the Sacrada Familia, Gaudi’s projects too are manifestations of an unbalanced psyche but people fall at the feet of these so-called visionaries. Don’t even get me started on Frank Lloyd Wright.
    I save my harshest criticism though, for the one trainwreck who turned downtown Vancouver into a giant cement plant, your very own Arthur Erickson. He was let loose on a number of projects in the 60’s and 70’s. The main city square is a concrete barn with no architectural redemption, more suited to a paintball backdrop. He was also allowed to rampage across two universities and a suburban city hall… every project a blight on the landscape.
    For every one of them who dies, a new nutter takes his place. You should take a look at the concept design for the new Art Gallery in Vancouver, if it wasn’t for Covid, people would be out on the streets protesting the very idea.

  2. The geary building is vile. The author is correct to question the judgment and really the sanity of anybody stupid and crass enough to approve such an insult to a community, and then actually pay to have it built.

    I’d like to address Sam’s comment, but it will be simply too hard to beat.

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