It is easy to be cynical about Frank Gehry and similar ‘brand architects’. Gehry did not found the genre, but there is no doubt that his Bilbao Guggenheim Museum took it to a new level, especially in the matching of museums with celebrity architects. Gehry’s major current project is another Guggenheim outpost, this time in Abu Dhabi. His peer ‘starchitect’, Jean Nouvel, is designing a Louvre Museum for Abu Dhabi, and coincidentally he is also working on the Central Park project on Sydney’s Broadway, just up the road from the Gehry site.
There is an element of ‘follow the money’ about these projects. But I suspect that there is a little more behind Gehry’s decision to design for a small site at the back end of Chinatown. Perhaps Gehry was reminded of his first celebrated building, his own house at Santa Monica, where he used common industrial materials to recreate a residence which both reflected and reinterpreted its prosaic locality. Gehry’s progress beyond the retro fetish of postmodernism to sculptural exposition of a building’s elements formed the perfect vehicle for a personal style in tune with its era.
There was never a chance that Gehry would unveil anything resembling a generic office or campus building. And it is this expectation of individual concept and grand statement which generates the heat around Gehry. Even before today’s unveiling, the Melbourne architecture mag Monument had devoted the lead story of its current number to controversy around ‘Australia’s first Gehry’, with a variety of local commentators arguing that a design competition would have worked better, that Gehry would refocus Sydney on great design and that Melbourne was more deserving of Gehry etc.
Gehry himself disarmed by focussing on the practicalities rather than potential controversy. He explained that his design is formed as a cluster of ‘tree houses’ intended to create relatively unstructured spaces for creative play. The concept is perhaps less satisfactorily described in his architect’s statement: “Working groups would feel an intimacy with others working in their own tree house while looking across the cracks to other tree houses”. But Gehry seemed most pleased by the urban setting of UTS, stating his preference for a city campus over a self-contained institution. The business school’s glass western facade will “fracture and mirror the image of the surrounding buildings”, while the predominantly brick exterior will reference “the dignity of Sydney’s urban brick heritage”. Like the red terracotta of Renzo Piano’s Macquarie apartments, this referencing of mundane Sydney is a pleasing upside of Gehry’s design, perhaps more likely from a visitor. At a more practical level the Ultimo Pedestrian Network will be extended to link the old and new UTS buildings, the ABC, Powerhouse Museum and Darling Harbour, all good for our ratty neighbourhood – now the architectural hot spot of Sydney.
For all that, there’s no denying that something cryptic and arcane is about to grow across the road. Gehry’s design and his presence in Sydney will draw plenty of flack. There will be less debating Barangaroo and more arguing about Ultimo. When Gehry has finished in Sydney, his building will still be a celebrity. It will be attracting people down here for all sorts of good and bad reasons. I’m happy to have a front row seat.