Experience This!

As Paul Allen and Jody Patton's mulitimedia museum at Seattle Center takes shape, a design is emerging that may define the architecture of the next millenium.

Seattle is a fine city in many ways; but nobody ever made a special trip here for our climate or our architecture. Until recently, much the same was true of Bilbao, the roughly Seattle-sized seaport on Spain's stormy North Atlantic coast. But all that changed as architect Frank O. Gehry's eye-dazzling, brain-warping Guggenheim Museum Bilbao began to rise along the town's shabby, workaday waterfront.

Could something similar happen in Seattle? Already ground has been broken for another design by the Canadian-born, California-bred architect whom critic Charles Jencks calls "probably the number-two architect in the world (the first place being permanently unoccupied)." Sometime in the summer of 1999, a $60 million multimedia museum of rock 'n' roll financed entirely by former Microsoft mogul Paul Allen is due to open along Fifth Avenue between Broad and Mercer, on a streetscape distinguished for the last 30-odd years by Metro bus barns and the Wild Mouse ride.

Thanks in equal measure to Frank Lloyd Wright's genius for self-promotion and to Ayn Rand's paean to individual creativity in The Fountainhead, we tend to think of architects as lonely visionaries, locked in constant battle on any project bigger than a beachhouse with the pigheaded conservatism of clients. This pretty fantasy ignores the fact that the client provides the architect with more than money.

Without the client's needs, desires, and personality, there's nothing to suggest what direction to take with a design, nothing to spark the architect's imagination and ingenuity. It's not too much to say that every great design is a hybrid: a creative, sometimes conflicted collaboration between two psyches, those of architect and client. The Experience Music Project, as it's now called, is a good, even extreme, example of that rule, because in designing it the architect had not one but two clients to satisfy.

The client who's attracted most attention to date, naturally, is Allen himself, with a net worth of around $8 billion the third-richest individual in America, according to BusinessWeek. But the individual calling most of the shots on the EMP is Allen's sister Jody Patton, director of the family charitable foundation. It was Paul Allen's interest in rock 'n' roll collectibles that sowed the seeds for EMP, but it was Patton who developed the idea from modest-storefront to megamuseum scale, she who developed the program for its exhibits, she who chose the designer to provide her concepts with a material frame.

There's a certain justice in the fact that the EMP may well go down in history as the first major structure ever designed almost from its conception to final parts fabrication entirely with a computer—though far from one of the modest microcomputers that made Allen's fortune. There's a certain irony, too; because the architect who created the free-form computer-graphic bulges and furrows of the EMP is also the architect who was and remains so computer-shy that until recently he would not allow so much as a word processor into his office.

You'd never know it to look at the EMP, or any of Gehry's other recent designs. A member of no school, paying tribute to no tradition, Gehry, who turned 69 last week, may have grown up in the modernist era with its devotion to values like simplicity, practicality, economy, and context, but he tosses one shibboleth of 20th-century design—"Form follows function"—right out the window. His Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is a showcase of contemporary art, but it looks like a luxury liner from an art deco tourist poster, docked beside an oil refinery that's died and gone to heaven. His Disney Hall, soon to be a building in Los Angeles, is the new home of the LA Philharmonic: It looks, somehow, like a swirling stone Valentine bouquet to the city.

Both of those designs seem conventional compared to the Experience Music Project for Seattle. Its forms—five billowing multicolored techo-morphs clustering around a bulging asymmetrical breadbox core—are literally hard to see in photographs, and even in three-dimensional models, where the eye slides right off their complex, recurved surfaces, and the brain has a hard time interpreting their scale, in spite of toy cars and stick figures dotted round the base. Until EMP's exterior is finished next spring, its curved aluminum, copper, and steel fish scales reflecting Seattle's ever-changing, filtered oyster light, we won't really be able to experience its soaring, swooping outline to the full—or be certain whether we possess the first great public structure of the 21st century or a gigantic successor to the Queen Anne Blob.

In the meantime we can get familiar with where the piece comes from, spiritually and historically. Unlike many architects, Frank Gehry is both articulate and down to earth, never unwilling to explain to anyone who asks exactly what he's up to. But the best explanations of Gehry's vision are his buildings themselves, buildings as various as a simple storefront, a college campus, and a millionaire's hideaway. And to see them in all their astonishing variety and mysterious unity, all one needs is a free day, a rental car, and a plane ticket to Los Angeles.

Even under chilly January dawn light, Santa Monica, California, is the kind of place where one tends to take for granted that life is good. The night breeze off the Pacific has rolled back LA's pillar of smog. People walk their dogs along broad tree-colonnaded avenues. The air smells like cool earth and fresh croissants.

Frank Gehry has spent much of his working life here. Most of the buildings that led to his worldwide celebrity are less than an hour by car from his offices on the industrial south side of town. His home, probably the most renowned and reviled owner-fixer-upper in history, is just a 10-minute bike ride away.

Without looking at the man's work in sequence, you'd never see the connection between Gehry's modest early work and the curvilinear fantasias in metal and stone currently emerging from his studio. One of the very earliest, a 1964 combination studio/living space, looks superordinary at first sight, positively hard to see amid the exuberant visual clatter of Hollywood's design ghetto on West Melrose Avenue. Only the eye of hindsight, aided by a low-angle westering sun, could notice in its quirky wall and window layout the influence of classic Southern California modernist architects like Neutra, the subtle Mondrian music of offset squares and rectangles.

Gehry came to manhood in 1950s California, but he was born and bred in gray, stodgy Toronto, Canada, scion of second-generation Jewish working-class immigrants, and no amount of subsequent Christmas caroling in Beverly Hills and hanging out with artist-surfers in Venice could eradicate his inbred conviction that architecture entails responsibility: to serve the client who's paying the bill, if possible the society one lives in as well.

A lot of early Gehry projects were so down to earth that it was easy to overlook their ambition and imagination. An early-'70s headquarters for the Rouse development company (an early and frequent client) today looks like a template for suburban office-park interiors and exteriors everywhere. His late-'70s Santa Monica Place pioneered the concept of a shopping mall as something experientially more enlivening than a roofed-over Main Street. To a lay eye, his 1982 "Temporary Contemporary" annex to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art still looks so much like the downtown warehouse space it began as that it's hard to say just what makes the place such a glorious place to look at art in.

But by 1982, Gehry had already decisively cut loose from convention, in a project designed for the perfect client: himself. Newly married in 1975 to his second wife, Berta, herself a designer, Gehry purchased a substantial, comfortable two-story house on a quiet corner lot in northeast Santa Monica. Something about the house and its site—its smug vernacular ugliness, the priggish pink of its asbestos-shingle siding—brought out the latent rebel simmering beneath the workmanly surface in Gehry.

He'd experimented cautiously in the past with unconventional materials and treatments: with chain-link fencing in an outdoor arena in Concord, with unfinished plywood and exposed studs in the Melrose office of the art-print firm Gemini, with giant cardboard tubes intended for pouring freeway-support pillars as sound-reflecting devices for the stage of the Hollywood Bowl. Now, in his own house, he used the same humble materials to both mock and glorify the all-American notion of a suburban dream house. Around his pink bungalow Gehry spun a fractured transparent frame of glass, bare wood, and chain-link, confusing vertical and horizontal, indoor and outdoor, house and garden, old and new. The former asphalt driveway became the floor of the new kitchen; a lamppost across the street seen through a window became, like a painting in a conventional house, the visual focus of the living room. Of every element of a design modernism asks, severely, "Why?" Gehry's house innocently responds, "Hey, why not?"

Predictably, Gehry's Santa Monica neighbors loathed it. "Don't like it," a man walking two corgis said to me as I stood before the now-overgrown house in reverent wonder last month. "Lived here 30 years. Didn't like it then, don't like it now. Who the hell would want to live in something like that?" Less predictably, and very much to the builder's own bemused surprise, it made him world-famous overnight. It also nearly destroyed his career. "[The house] freaked out my developer clients.... They said, 'If you like that, you don't want to deal with this stuff.' In a way they were right. I had to start over again—literally start over again."

A lot of architects so challenged would have buckled down to exploit the new aesthetic legitimacy of industrial materials. Gehry left such exploitation to imitators. His next major building struck out in a totally new direction. Loyola University wanted a new law-school complex built near the Los Angeles Archdiocese's downtown headquarters—unfortunately, from an architect planner's point of view, one of the most blighted stretches of urban turf on the West Coast.

Gehry's solution was to turn the "campus" into a courtyard, turning its back on the crime-ridden streets outside. Not unaware of the irony involved, he made said courtyard into a miniature temple to the Law, complete with a plaza dotted with pseudo-Greek Roman Forum­like columns, truncated and supporting nothing, for punctuation. Gehry's fortress-academy acknowledges the nobility of aspiration that underlies the dream of Justice; it also subliminally reminds us that the Law, noble or not, is something man-made, as artificial as AstroTurf.

The "new" Gehry aesthetic as it emerged in the 1980s could in its turn be called deconstructionism: each project, large or small, subjected to relentless analysis, its various subobjectives defined in order to discover the simplest and most effective way to accomplish each. Architects always do something like this in the course of their design process. What sets Gehry's apart is that, having broken his future building down into its smallest functional modules, he doesn't put the pieces back together again.

In an inexpensive suite of studios for artist friends, a public library for the city of Beverly Hills, top-dollar private homes in the Hollywood Hills, Gehry and his design team turned what normally would have ended up freestanding buildings into mini-villages of interconnected single-room parts. Even when designing buildings for climates—like Minnesota's—where it's not practical to make people to go outside on the way from living room to bedroom, Gehry likes to make each room in a building a little project of its own. Whether the design is for an ad agency, a car dealership, a private home, or a museum, he shapes each of its spaces to the tastes, fancies, and personality of the person (or artwork) who's going to inhabit them.

Clearly, the result of this process depends mightily on the client, and Gehry's ability to winkle out of them the dreams that brought them to his office in the first place. "There's a lot of satisfaction in seeing those buildings go up," he recently told the online architecture magazine Volume5. "[At the start of my career] I thought that was going to be the main satisfaction, actually. Now I know that for me, it's different. It's the whole process of getting from the very first day with the client to the end."

Sometimes the client gets even more excited than the architect. Gehry recalls one group who "kept egging me on.... They'd say, 'Wow! Wow!' and then the guy'd say, 'Can you get me one more 'wow?'" These are the clients Gehry loves best, though he acknowledges that in this particular case, client and architect nearly "wowed" themselves into mutual disaster. It's another kind of client Gehry has trouble with: the uninvolved ones, or, just as bad, the ones so committed to a particular vision that they're unable to climb into the sandbox with him and play.

In his Volume5 interview last May he sadly described several projects that turned out fine from the design point of view but which he doesn't care if he ever sees again. "People... have to be willing to play with you. You don't do this by yourself. I would say the best projects happen when the client and the architect and the intentions are in sync. It's difficult—I have a project even now, the people are wealthy, and it's a nice project—a great project. But it's not the same. I've had trouble with that one. It could be a much better project, if the clients would get involved."

It's pretty clear, given the roster of completed and current Gehry projects, that EMP is proving, at the very least "difficult."

On first consideration, Gehry seems an odd choice in the first place to design an exploratorium of rock 'n' roll. Near 70, he's hardly of the rock generation, and though he hung out with Cass Elliott and other performers in the Day-Glo glory days of California pop, he freely admits that rock "is not my kind of music." But then Paul Allen, the computer-nerd-turned-billionaire whose $120 million or so is bankrolling the EMP and its interactive displays, has also always seemed a little out of character as a rock aficionado.

The unlikely seeds of EMP were sown back in 1990 or '91, when Allen began collecting memorabilia of the career and art of Seattle rock legend Jimi Hendrix. With a net worth measured in billions, Allen was in a position to indulge his habit big-time. Indeed, for a while it appeared Allen would be taking over the handling of the entire Hendrix legacy, recordings and all, in trust for and cooperation with Hendrix's heirs.

Back in 1995 that plan fell apart in a tangle of lawsuits that left the Hendrix family, their lawyers, and Allen all feeling burned. But by that time execution of Allen's vision had been placed in the hands of his sister Jody Allen Patton, and expanded from a modest facility devoted to Jimiana into a multithemed multi-media celebration of contemporary pop.

"Paul's theory had been, 'I really like this stuff, I get a kick out of looking at this stuff, I think other people will too,'" Patton said last week. "But when I started talking to museum professionals I very quickly found out that artifacts don't mean very much by themselves; they need to have interpretation and context to have meaningful contact with visitors."

Patton roughed out a multipart scheme that "could have the widest possible visitor experience. There would be what we called 'Crossroads,' which was your traditional museum-browsing experience, and the 'Sound Lab,' which played into Paul's interest in providing hands-on experience and showing people that the threshold hurdle of musicmaking wasn't that high, and then I started developing the 'Artist's Journey,' a ridelike experience to take the audience on an exploration of artists' lives."

By the time Patton and associates began interviewing the eight or so architectural firms invited to make presentations, the "concept" for the building was already more or less defined. Patton says she immediately took to Gehry's genuineness and desire to communicate. "I think he was interested for a number of reasons; he didn't have a building in this area, for one thing; and of course he knew who the founder was, that this building [unlike a number of Gehry's more visionary projects over the years] had a great likelihood of actually being built. And I think he really was genuinely intrigued by the chance to make a really swoopy building."

"Swoopy" was one of Allen's code words in communicating with Gehry. Another injunction was that "music is like water, so we want the building to move, to capture that essence of music. So then he went and tried to research what the essences of music were. At our very first design meeting he presented several models, just rough shapes, to take all the things we'd talked about and make them a tangible thing, to capture the overriding imagery and visceral qualities of the program."

Things moved fast from Gehry's selection, announced June 10, 1996, to the first public showing of a conceptual model, which was unveiled at a meeting of the Seattle Design Commission four months later. It met with considerable if measured acclaim from professional observers and near total bafflement from the press and general public.

The bafflement was wholly understandable. The model on view October 24 was no first draft, but it wasn't intended by its creator to be anything like the last word, either. More than most designers, too, Gehry depends on 3-D modeling to explore and clarify his ideas: His studio is a veritable elephants' graveyard of maquettes of all descriptions, from simple assemblies of glued-together plywood up to refrigerator-sized mockups big enough to explore with a miniature TV camera. Versions of EMP are everywhere, some ramshackle fantasias of buckled cardboard, aluminum foil, piano wire, and tulle stuck together with Scotch tape up to tabletop-sized behemoths sculpted in three dimensions from solid blocks of wood by laser-guided machine tools, then painted in polychrome enamels.

One reason the Gehry atelier probably went through so many versions of EMP is the difficulty Gehry and his associate Craig Webb, co-designer on the project, had getting from "swoopy" and "like music" to something concrete enough to build—and still contain Allen and Patton's museum, exploratorium, ride, shrine to Hendrix, "sky church" (a cross between multipurpose auditorium and temple of the rock muses), not to mention restaurant, gift shop, office space, etc.

Looking for something physical to use as inspiration, Gehry and Webb hit on electric guitars: at once functional standardized objects and loci of free-form fantasy. "Craig plays guitar himself," Gehry told me, "so it was a natural approach. We started collecting pictures of Stratocasters, bringing in guitar bodies, drawing on those shapes in developing our ideas. They were valuable, too, to show to Paul, to get him involved in the process, because he wasn't really that involved."

You'd think, with more than $100 million going into the project (and maybe a lot more, if the facility fails, as projected, to pay its own way), Allen would take at least more than a passing interest in what his money was buying, but Gehry's feeling is confirmed by people who attended the June 13 groundbreaking for the facility at Seattle Center. Allen was there, and took the opportunity of jamming with musicians from Mudhoney, the Presidents, and the Kingsmen. So was Gehry, with the latest model of the EMP on display. But if the two men exchanged a word or glance on that occasion—or if Allen even looked at the model—it was not observed by those in attendance.

Perhaps another reason for the plethora of models is that to a significant extent they were, in Gehry's words, "flying blind," creating a very ambitious building for a collection, and an exhibition style, still very much in flux. Since the Gehry team started work, the modest assemblage of Hendrix gear the collection started out with has grown to an ungainly 70,000 items spanning the whole development of rock 'n' roll, though still with a Northwest emphasis. The collection is expected to double in size again by the time exhibits open in summer '99 and the scale of the building has grown accordingly, first from 30,000 square feet, then from 110,000 to 130,000 square feet. (For comparison, the downtown Seattle Art Museum affords its curators 38,000 square feet to show off their collections.)

What's the "experience" of EMP going to be like? Visitors to the Tacoma Art Museum and Pacific Science Center in fall 1996 got a preview in a show devised by EMP curators Jim Fricke and Pete Blecha called "Strats, Studios, and the Seattle Sound." Along with memorabilia (a Fender guitar smashed by Kurt Cobain, a charred fragment of the actual instrument burned by Jimi at the '67 Monterey Pop Festival), the show's exhibits included electronic drum sets to bang on, an opportunity to synthesize sounds through bodily movement, and a sample of hands-on guitars and the gadgets players use to modify their sounds.

But EMP has higher ambitions yet. An October 1997 press release promises that the (separately ticketed) "Artist's Journey" exhibit will offer "a staged, 'ride-like' experience, immersing 125 music lovers per 'performance' in a powerful visual and auditory experience, following the 'path' taken by many of the music world's greatest artists." If there were any doubt of the direction intended with "The Artist's Journey," it's resolved by the choice of company to develop the show: Digital Domain of Venice, California, creator of "Terminator 2—3-D"for Universal Studios' Florida theme park.

But, in line with Allen's roots in the computer world, even the more down-to-earth "exhibits" at EMP are planned to be "interactive" to a degree that will push the state of that art to its limits. With collections and exhibition plans still evolving, the Gehry firm has essentially been restricted to creating the external shell of the building, bringing a separate team of designers to shape the interior of the building, a team headed by Ann Farrington, who comes to EMP from similar jobs in the Washington, DC, area at the "Newseum" of media and the United States Holocaust Museum.

Given the novelty of the multimedia ambitions at EMP, this you-take-care-of-the-outside-and-let-us-do-the-inside approach may have been inevitable. But it also means that an architect as noted for his museum installations as his museums, a designer used to having his say about everything from the taps on the water fountains to the finish on the roof tiles, has had to content himself with designing a shell for someone else's oyster.

This restraint may have affected the evolution of Gehry's design, for a certain tentative quality in its very extravagance. The most recent 3-D version of the complex revealed to the public, while still idiosyncratic as hell, looks somehow less distinct than earlier renditions. As one acute local architectural eye observes: "It looks like between model no. 1 and no. 2, someone came along with a pin and let the air out."

Despite the awkward look of the models presented so far, it's far too soon to conclude that EMP is going to be just another near-miss on Seattle's comfortably second-rate skyline. Part of the problem with the photos we've seen is the fact that nearly all are of the "back" of the building on Fifth Avenue. The "front," as conceived by Gehry, is actually hardly visible from Fifth; it's the more or less rectangular purple unit facing into the Seattle Center and Fun Forest, around which the other forms flow and clump. Called the "Sky Museum" and housing both an auditorium/concert hall and the core collections of Jimiana, the unit is planned to allow the addition of a wall-to-wall and ground-to-roofline multimedia display to rival those seen on Tokyo's ginza.

Another reason to suspend judgment is that Frank Gehry's success rate is as high as that of any living architect: a remarkable achievement considering his wholly intuitive approach to design and unwillingness to repeat himself. His design for EMP is not only right on the boundary of the doable in contemporary construction technology. It's also right on the verge of the seeable. Until we can look at the finished building, we literally can't know if we're in the presence of an honorably failed experiment or catching a first glimpse of the architecture of the next millennium.

Meantime, it's useful in trying to get one's mind around EMP to forget the often quoted comparison to a smashed electric guitar. Think of it instead not in isolation but in relation to its immediate surroundings, cheek by jowl with the Fun Forest, its lineaments as consciously crafted to be seen from the top of the Space Needle and the Seattle Freeway as well as from prosaic Fifth Avenue, its structure gashed open to afford monorail riders a glimpse of its guts as they arrive at the center.

Amusement parks of long ago invariably featured what the carny trade calls "a dark ride." Usually housed in an ungainly, mysterious, garishly painted structure, the Magic Mountain or Sutter's Mine or Spookhouse promised patrons a journey full of bumps, reverses, and surprises. With any luck, EMP will offer its patrons at least that much, and possibly a great deal more.

Related Links:

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao page


Disney Hall


Experience Music Project


A rival Jimi Hendrix homepage




Paul Allen's home page


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