BUILD IT AND THEY WILL PAY

A PRIMER ON GUGGENOMICS
by <.Andrew 'Friedman

I

N 1997, the

Basque city of Bilbao ceased sim-

ply to be a depressed industrial town with a terrorism problem and became synonymous with a miraculous new building, architect Frank Gehry's Spanish outpost of the Guggenheim Museum. This glittering edifice, clad in titanium scales, promised not only that the Basques had embraced tourism as a way out of their political and economic troubles, but also that a new day was dawning for architecture and urbanism. Bilbao was to be the White City of the twenty-first century, a bright beacon of what a New York Times headline called "Gehry's Vision of Renovating Democracy." No sooner was the thing built, however, than the Basques started to learn what Gehry's vision was costing them. In his book Chronicle of a Seduflion: The Guggenheim Bilbao, Joseba Zulaika dissects the deal under which the museum was built. It's a story of uneven power relations, mortgaged urban futures, and fiscal chicanery, most of which cannot be told by official sources because their agreement contains a clause forbidding public disclosure. But it seems that after a year of secret negotiations, the Guggenheim stuck the city-which lost 40,000 jobs with the demise of its largest steel plant, and which still struggles with 25 percent unemployment-with a stiff bill. By 2000, Zulaika writes, the Basques were in for $250 million-that's $700 for each Bilbao resident. On top of that, the local government is committed to a perpetual public subsidy of $7 to $14 million a year. "Meanwhile," Zulaika notes, "the funds going to the Guggenheim were immediately slashed from [public) subsidies for Basque culture, which pays for libraries, cinema, theater, art, literature, popular crafts, and publications." The Bilbao museum has no local artistic director and no permanent collection of its own. It comes off like the New York

as if you were on a tour of college freshman dorm rooms. a motorcycle- 51 52 THE BAFFLER riding. It sits on the banks of the fetid Nervion River where an abandoned lumber mill used to be. Once they have taken in the grandeur of Gehry's achievement. staged exhibitions devoted to major corporate donors such as Armani. Yale-trained media-hound who for a decade has zoomed willfully over the most sacred tenets of museum culture. and Bilbao. Since taking command in I988. Why all these partnerships with Deutsche Bank. Krens has sold off major paintings from the Guggenheim collection. much less new Spanish art.Guggenheim's garage. But the city does have a remarkable and shiny building. to finance his network of satellites in Venice. visitors may reflect on what a rum thing it is that you can travel the world over and see the same packaged art shows. filled with outtakes from its vaults and sporadically supplemented with exhibits on such subjects as motorcycles and Gehry himself (designed by the architect) months after they've been shown in New York. Berlin. Critical observers might even be led to wonder why international museum culture reminds them so much of international finance. Like other financiers. The museum showcases a conventional American interpretation of the modern art canon. What you won't see at Bilbao is much in the way of local Basque art. New York. and Samsung? The man to know in this connection is Thomas Krens. He is director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. next to an elevated highway-a nice confluence of its architect's fascination with urban misery and with movement. and it attracts a lot of international tourists who would otherwise have passed Bilbao by. Krens has been over- . and floated massive bond issues. using parts of the collection as collateral. Hugo Boss.

Surprised by the blow to tourism dealt by September II and the wider recession. and punish workforces in the isolated cultural fiefdoms as needed. Upcoming exhibits were shelved.reached himself a little bit of late. In the hagiographic hysteria of the bubble decade. The Guggenheim had inked the deal with Rio officials the previous November. dump assets when necessary." He fired 80 employees (a fifth of his staff). and an exhibit called "Brazil: Body & Soul" extended. The people of Rio had kindly offered to pay $2 million for a "viability" study and already generously set aside $I20 million to build the museum. the museum's expansion and relentless branding filtered down to us mortals as brave new architecture wrapped in the noble rhetoric of urban renewal and art for the people. As it turns out. the "mira- . to be designed by French auteur Jean Nouvel in the city's rundown port district. The contrast offers a wonderful illustration of the harsh machinations at the heart of Guggenheim economics-secure public financing for capital-generating museums in a decentralized network of deindustrialized cities. centrally managed global museum chain seemed finally to have foundered on the shoals of market austerity. But in January 2002. Krens solemnly proclaimed late last year that his new goal was to "go into 2002 with a balanced budget. Krens cheerfully jetted down to sunny Rio de Janeiro and. and promised more layoffs to come. immediately shuttered the SoHo Guggenheim. announced the coming of a new Guggenheim Brazil. due to be built on the formerly industrial piers of the East River in Lower Manhattan. Finance experts at other museums nodded their heads approvingly as the Krens model of the debtburdened. at about the time Krens was axing his employees and murmuring somberly to the press about the grim realities of austerity." faced mortal danger. a project the Guggenheim had boasted about for two years in a series of Frank Gehry "exhibits. with the Brazil exhibit still hanging in gloomy New York. with that city's mayor at his side. Even the new Frank Gehry museum. and just after he'd opened two new Guggenheims in a casino in Las Vegas.

You could stretch the museum's current collection to keep the branches filled. their innovations are better thought of as extensions of the logic of capitalism into the deregulated plastic economy of the Nineties. Krens's global strategy rested on a simple innovation: taking high culture down market by making art accessible to the masses. flexible architecture. It is the shared sense of challenge that we admire most in Frank Gehry. It was about flexible accumulation. that Enron. Krens and Gehry have perhaps had the largest single impact on the modern museum in fifty years. Gehry's ongoing search for the momenr of (ruth. he realized that the scenography of broken cities could be the art. Curators at big museums of modern art in the late Eighties could not figure out how to keep 20th- Build It and They Will Pay 53 century greatest hits on constant display while also making some gesture toward showing new art. that paragon of the bubble years. Krens solved the problem by ignoring the art altogether. The moment of truth has arrived. No surprise. But his shrewdest insight was to recognize the profit potential afforded by the drama of deindustrialization in struggling first-world cities. This is the search Enron embarks on every day by questioning the convenrional ro change business paradigms and create new markets that will shape the New Economy. Paired together. then.cle of Bilbao" wasn't so much about a new. loved and paid them both. By expanding the curatorial style outside the museum walls. As onetime CEO Jeffrey Skilling wrote for the catalog that accompanied a recent Enron-financed Gehry retrospective: Enron shares Mr. While both are cast as breaking totally with a past defined by fixed notions of a museum's relationship to the state and even to form itself. the momenr when the functional approach to a problem becomes infused with the artistry that produces a truly innovative solution. make up the difference with high-concept traveling displays . stage sets for disseminating the thrill of gentrification to the masses.

But there were plenty of smaller cities ravaged by capital flight eager to play along. Gehry had won over the postmodernist faithful in 1978 by wrapping his house in chain-link fence and. from the day the first lucky "insiders" were spirited over to the construction site to shudder at the majesty of the museum's unfinished skeleton. Yet. the cute emphasis on the mass-produced materials of cheap-andquick construction-had been conjured into a heretofore unseen "sculptural" and "improvisational" style. Gehry and Krens beamed themselves into a ceaseless feedback loop of mutual stroking that shows no signs of slowing. Consider what Bilbao did for Gehry's image. Krens's new concept was irresistible. only so many world cities care to have their highbrow aspirations hijacked by a cash-hungry American interloper. The main visual innovation at Bilbao-the curve-was an extension of these fish forms. From the architect's point of view. breaking the modernist box. Gehry's bag of tricks -the paint-by-numbers box breaking." He was . and win cover charges from tourists on the global circuit two. three. Suddenly he held "the power to communicate with everyman. he was solidly situated as the pet architect of the Los Angeles elite. gasp. True. the harsh unfinished forms.of borrowed art and consumer gadgets. his clients seemed to love him as much for his up-by-the-bootstraps life narrative of ethnic progress as for his often menacing. By the late Eighties. Before we knew it. keep operating costs low by running the show from New York. frequently ironic buildings. influencing Gehry's weirdly obsessive love of fish forms later in life. and four times. Once a middling practitioner of mildly interesting office parks and shopping malls best viewed from the freeway. Like many in the art world. in a tale repeated ad nauseum. The catalog for his first retrospective at the Walker Art Center in 1986 told how his grandmother had worked as a "foreman" in her father's iron foundry in Poland and. kept carp for gefilte fish in the bathtub.

Gehry's . Bilbao takes the art of the lure as its prime imperative. as critic Hal Foster wrote in the Los Angeles Times. By slapping down a snappy visual image but then taking the extra step of unraveling it." as Mike Davis writes in City of Quartz. Gehry was such a good choice for the project precisely because he is par excellence the architect of surface. He lived by the playful ad-world notion that blasting big images into a city's visual terrain is far-out fantasy. a heavy thrust in his architecture stressed outsized. Gehry had been recycling "the elements of a decayed and polarized urban landscape . into a light and airy expression of a happy lifestyle. With its sheath of shimmering titanium that ripples in a strong wind. what abour making the building into a giant fish? An aerospace museum-let's snap a Lockheed F104 on the fas:ade! Gehry boosters prattle on about the supposed sensitivity to context of the gigantic museum with the long dinosaur tail at Bilbao. eye-catching Disney-scaled set pieces. scribbling incomprehensible expressionistic sketches on airplanes in fits of inspired American individuality and freedom. But his most anti-urban gestures-a 1981 plan to slam a suspension bridge through the upper floors of the World Trade Center comes to mind-derived from his shallow sense of the city."the Michael Jordan of bricks and mortar. the Bilbao museum was a perfect surface upon which Krens could project his wider global ambitions. not visual pollution. disgorging its fantastic waves and sheets onto the street. even freedom! But.. the intense "sense of place." But the museum only raises the bar on the basic look-atme theatricality that has always distinguished Gehry's work. Designing a fish restaurant-hey. the edifice could be more than entertainment-it could be art. Even before he started working regularly for Disney." yet also somehow the Jackson Pollock. 54 THE BAFFLER For years.. madly crunching up cut paper to feel out his forms.

gigantic fish." In other words. Many in the architecture world these days consider it bad form to let something as coarse and lowbrow as industrial process intrude on their hallowed and untouchable surfaces. who also dabbles in smaller consumer goods. it is in an unnervingly cynical way. gigantic severed horse heads. which towers over the city. A few dutiful rhetorical nods to a "sense of place" are tolerated. is contextual in any sense. in fact. They wouldn't want to linger too long inside. and gigantic silver ribbons on top of our collective heads. If the Guggenheim Bilbao. Bilbao piques tourists with its curious modern ruins. they seem. gluing us slack-jawed to our seats. he dealt a blow to the building . confirms how little they matter. designed the chairs). which alternate with fairly traditional. and crumpled forms not only pun on the nearby smokestacks and cranes. gallery spaces to create an anxiety-inspiring place. Gehry's most conspicuous triumph at Bilbao was. collided. For its cataclysmically stacked. to pull the concerns of architecture back to the spectacular surface and foster a profession-wide obsession with the "skin" of buildings. incredibly. amid the pointless scaffolding and fractured sight lines. this is movie democracy at its best. though. to be Gehry's whimsical idea of visually rendering the tumultuous and violent process by which a once-working industrial waterfront is brought to heel-an actual enactment of the grim process that the Guggenheim makes a point of capitalizing upon. But he also accomplished a second feat. if it carries the life of its site into its form. but the building of buildings is to convey the breezy grace of symbolic gesture. They can browse the funky decay along the industrially polluted river or pop in for a snack at the high-priced restaurant (much was made of the fact that Gehry. as Gehry expresses himself by crushing a parade of gigantic snakes. once and for all. little noted but surely as significant a repudiation of the industrial: By means of digital technology."freedom is mostly a franchise in which he represents freedom more than enacts it. The basic ugliness of the interiors. if large.

vastly shortening the length of time it would otherwise have taken to build the thing.000square-foot mall for the 1992 Olympic village in Barcelona. robots. For Bilbao. The program ushers in a Tron-like world of numerically controlled laser-cutters. multi-axis milling machines. As the financial press likes to say. by simply plugging a series of coordinates into a computer. Many critics of CATIA dwell on the coldness of the concept of digitalized design. The computer then figured out all matters of structural stresses once determined by the building trades. thanks to the publicity it received at Bilbao. laser-positioning devices. once modeled and worked out by hand.trades in their long-running turf war with architects. which. water-jet slicers and routers. This is the major benefit of the program for architects-CATIA is a means of des killing the ornery building trades and slicing labor hours in favor of the pure vision and billable hours of the architect. But he realized its full potential Build It and They Will Pay 55 at Bilbao. then transmitted the specs to subcontractors in Spain who had to go to one of IBM's "CATIA competency centers" to learn how . it "reduced capital costs. and 3D modeling that permits architects to circumvent the normal rounds of competitive construction procurement by predesigning pieces for preselected vendors who agree to their terms. but to do so is to miss the most critical reason the computer made Bilbao possible. Gehry first used CATIA to design a chainmesh fish sculpture on top of a 150. Gehry modeled his designs on CATIA in his Santa Monica studio. is already changing the way buildings are built and who builds them. He accomplished this with his extensive use of CATIA." CATIA allowed Gehry to design complex structural pieces. a computer-assisted design program manufactured for the aerospace and automotive industries by Dassault Systemes and marketed by IBM.

and themselves as his helpmate. love Frank Gehry. general manager. In his conversations about CAT lA.to decode and use the program. No wonder IBM and Dassault." Will these Howard Roark fantasies save Gehry from being the bitch of the construc- . from a technology standpoint. "There is such a degree of accuracy that contractors are not at a great risk if they just follow the instructions." Ed Petrozelli. Gehry typically sticks to how it liberates his craft. "The miracle of the computer turns that around. while CATIA reduces labor costs. IBM Product Lifecycle Management observed. "Our function. Thus. it also brings heretofore independent contractors under the aegis of technical know-how controlled by big multinationals like IBM. As financial backers of the Guggenheim's Gehry retrospective. "True artists experience great personal pain in their undaunted persuit [sic] of excellence. the companies released a joint press release filled with fanciful evocations of the master from Santa Monica." he said. made his intentions plain." How those who make their living by such fusty "mechanical concerns" will fare under this new rationalization is another matter. If there was any doubt that Taylorist impulses lurked behind Gehry's technophilia. We are working with lawyers and insurers in America to reach a position where the architect becomes the responsible party in the equation. is to increase the ability of artists to focus on their designs. There is a great opportunity for our profession to become the master builder again. as reported in The ArchiteCfs' Journal. a speech he made upon receiving the Royal Gold Medal in London in 2000. and to liberate them to experiment more freely by removing mechanical concerns from the creative process. But in this speech. he lost his cool. like Enron. He proclaimed that CATIA had given architects the chance to wrestle the title of "master builder" from their enemies in the building trades. and then went on snippishly about how architects have been "infantilized" by contractors and made "the little woman" of the construction process.

Governments are wanting to get out of the cultural support business. Krens's geocultural strategy is a wonder to behold. One possible consequence of the Guggenheim's big money tactics. As he explained to Art News in 1998: We live in a complex cultural environment. the Guggenheim model offers more of the same. hard choices. and balanced budgets is remarkably similar to arguments made by Enron and all manner of other corporate hijackers to redistribute massive public subsidies. You have more government support for culture in Europe. And what hap- . far from salving the wounds inflicted by capital. but this kind of talk should dispel any notion that Krens and Gehry simply provide local jobs and help local governments turn hard luck of the industrial sort THE BAFFLER into a chance for service-sector rebirth. market austerity. because the constituency for culture tends to be relatively small. In reality. opening as a result more opportunities for privatization orchestrated by Krens. as the director of the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City never tires of pointing out. he has a palpable "creative" effect. is that museums' tax-free nonprofit status may be jeopardized over the long term. Like capital.tion industry? It's unclear. he expects governments to wise up and slash their social contracts. he went to an old manufacturing loft in SoHo. after Bilbao to an old bank building in Berlin. Sound familiar? This appeal to sensible economics. As he exports the American model of culture as lucrative private deal.S. after SoHo to an old lumber mill in Bilbao. and control of whole swaths of the economy into more profitable private hands. culture is one of the first things you cut out.: If you're trying to make a budget balance with a IO percent or 15 percent unemployment rate. but proportionately it's coming to the same conclusions as in the U. In Bilbao we may observe the ethnic Krensing reserved for 21st century urbanism. after Berlin to a casino in Vegas. That would drag even lofty holdouts into Krens's shark pit. as liquid and mobile and protean as capital itself After Venice. asset ownership.

fellowships. As it happens. gutted social services. But he's pretty good at the subsidy racket at home. as is evident in the recent deal for the new Guggenheim New York City. What separates Thomas Krens from major league sports franchises that extort new stadiums from nervous hometowns? He's taking it worldwide. and in any case it's hard to imagine that his clever idea-planting the destroyed remnant of a skyscraper on top of a pile of twisted steel-will get off the ground any time soon. more than a hundred had put in a bid to get a Guggenheim of their very own. a lot of cities around the world believe they can't do without it. even by his standards. like the Coney Island rides of yesteryear that charged impoverished tenement dwellers to watch the reenactment of a burning tenement-who needs it? Sadly. At last count. . which was to be the grand showcase of his and Gehry's brand of new urbanism. In 2001. rising homeless ness. New York officials magnanimously dedicated $700 million for the project. his cynical predilection for replaying a city's trauma on its own landscape. and cultural institutions.pens if the Guggenheim pulls out of a satellite museum that is not building up its own collection and talent to secure its future? What will the Basques have to show for their money then? The danger in pointing the finger at Krens. the city no longer has the money. It would be nice to think that the Gehry moment will pass. of course. is giving a pass to other museums that make similarly sly corporate moves-not to mention the raw exploits that gathered the hoards that fund all our philanthropic foundations. His aestheticization of damage. poorly funded parks. Gehry returned the favor by phoning in a design that was contemptuous. arid underpaid teachers instructing crowded classes in crumbling schools. too. amid a crisis in affordable housing.

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