Hallucination in Seattle

Frank O. Gehry and Associates’ Experience Music Project

Pasajes de Arquitectura y Critica, June 2001

Kazys Varnelis

This article is the first in a series for the journal Pasajes de Arquitectura y Critica [Madrid] that examines the relationship of a spectacularized contemporary architecture, the city, and capital. The other two are: "Cathedrals of the Culture Industry," August/September 2002 and "A Brief History of Horizontality: 1968/1969 to 2001/2002," March 2003.

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"Let the experience begin!" shouted Paul Allen, billionaire co-founder of the Microsoft Corporation, as he opened the Experience Music Project to the public last June in Seattle. Confetti flew as, like a true rock star from the sixties, Allen smashed a glass guitar made by artist Dale Chihuly to christen the project, a $100 million temple to rock music designed by Frank O. Gehry and Associates.  After the global attention that Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum brought the city of Bilbao, the idea of recapturing or even exceeding the “Bilbao effect” has animated many civic boosters. Constructing a highly designed, distinctive, cultural center is now seen as a catalyst by which an urban entity can reposition itself as a “creative city.” [1]

 

Gehry’s architecture seems ideally suited to this: uniquely singular and unmistakable, it testifies to not only the architect’s creative spirit but also to the bold vision of those who commissioned it and their faith in imagination. In this spirit, the official history of the Experience Music Project [EMP] calls us to recognize not only the creativity of Gehry but also the key creative roles of Paul Allen, whose passion and wealth created the project, and of Jimi Hendrix, the deceased rock guitarist whose music provided inspiration for Allen. The co-founder of Microsoft credits Hendrix’s music for allowing him to understand his own creativity. And, if Microsoft can be seen as a creative corporation, producing not industrial goods or even services but rather products for creating, then by those criteria, Allen has been staggeringly successful. With the riches he accumulated, Allen put together the world's largest collection of Hendrix memorabilia. Over time, he realized that this collection should not remain merely a private indulgence but rather, like the music of the neo-70s rock band that Allen formed, The Grown Men, should be shared with the public. With the assistance of his sister Jody Patton, Allen decided to create a center for learning and experiencing popular music in Seattle, hometown to both Allen and Hendrix.

 

Just as Allen’s drive to create the EMP is inspired by Jimi Hendrix, the museum addresses its audience through a sensory overdrive clearly derived from rock and roll. Allen charged Gehry with the creation of an “experience,” a reference to both Hendrix’s band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, to one of his most famous songs “Are You Experienced?” and also to a total environment. The Experience Music Project is meant to be not a static mausoleum for artifacts but rather an experience that envelops you, bombarding your senses with a visceral experience of the culture of rock music, encouraging you to feel a part of it. After all, during the ecstatic high of the rock concert you achieve an oceanic state, feeling one with the music, whole with it and the world. But if the multimedia experiments of the late 60s acid rock concert amplified the oceanic “experience” to a new level, they also were key R+D moments in the development of a Post-Fordist “experience economy.” Increasingly, businesses see the experience of a corporation or a product as a way of bridging distance between customer and product and replacing alienation with identification and desire in order to extract ever greater margins of profit from the product.[2] Microsoft has used this idea of experience to great success with the creation of the Windows operating system, the slogan of which was, for a time, “Where do you want go today?” Inadvertently or not, the EMP, serves as something of a monument to the role of rock in the advancement of post-Fordist capitalism. The interplay between capital and culture forms something of an unconscious or at least subliminal theme in the EMP and we will return to it again, later in this essay.

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The architecture of the EMP underwrites the spirit the museum conveys, trumping the Guggenheim at Bilbao with forms that are, according to Gehry’s office, the most complex ever constructed. This is meant to be important work, and the ever-changing curves of the structure are intended to initiate a radical break with the past, recapitulating the split that rock itself made and the tradition of rupture that today’s rock musicians continue to claim. Gehry, is, oddly not a fan of rock music, preferring Haydn to Hendrix and, similarly, his inspiration for the museum began in good, old fashioned, High Art: the fluid fabrics found in sculptures made by Burgundian artist Claus Sluter in the fourteenth century. Gehry had long been impressed by Sluter’s ability to convey the pliant forms of cloth in stone, as in the hoods of monks crying over the sarcophagus of Philip the Bold in Dijon. With the ever increasing technological capacity of computer software and robotics, Gehry was able to emulate that folded fluidity within the walls of the EMP. As the project evolved and Gehry began to think about an overall scheme, he turned to the artifacts that would eventually be found within the EMP, exploring the shapes of classic guitars by Leo Fender and Les Paul. In this sense, Allen’s inaugural smashing of the glass guitar is prefigured in the structure itself, in part derived from a shattered Fender Stratocaster Guitar.

 

Unlike Bilbao, which has a strong centralized focal point, the EMP takes the form of what Gehry calls a “three dimensional floating puzzle” composed of six distinct elements. These are the Sky Church, a central public area, inspired directly by Jimi Hendrix, marking the coming together of diverse peoples through the shared gift of music; the Crossroads, a series of exhibit areas that demonstrate the multiple perspectives inherent in American music; the Sound Lab, in which visitors become musicians themselves, learning how to play simple songs on electric guitars linked to computer instruction devices; the Artist’s Journey, which provides a history of individual artists by focusing on the “unexpected formative experiences” that sparked their creativity; the Electric Library, a multimedia archive that exists both on-site and on the web; and the Education House, in which programs to learn more about popular music are held.

 

The forms of the EMP demonstrate the change in Gehry’s thinking over his career. Gehry started out working for Victor Gruen, a Viennese immigrant to Los Angeles who taught him the gospel of Adolf Loos, and Gehry’s early works, such as the Danziger House and Studio, counter the visual cacophony of 60s L. A. with an architecture that does not speak. By now, however, it is clear that Gehry has thoroughly rejected the teachings of Loos as well as any strain of modernism that calls for rationalization or for universal, replicable form. Having established that Gehry was inspired as much by medieval sculpture as by electric guitars, we can also conclude that his approach to making blends a response to the contemporary with a desire to reconnect with medieval forms of practice. If his motivation is, on the one hand, to create the ultra-gestural forms of a postmodern, hyper-legible, informational city, it is also, as he puts it, “to see the architect become the master builder again.” If businesses use experience to overcome alienation and distance, Gehry hopes to do so by turning back the clock to a condition in which the architect is not merely the highly specialized designer of plans but is once again the nonalienated producer of the artifact.

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To bridge the gap between design and building, Gehry has turned to the most advanced technology of the day. Key to the construction of the EMP was the computer software package CATIA, a program used in the design of airplanes as well as high tech robotic devices. Even if CATIA isn’t published by Microsoft, it is fitting that in a building funded by a computer software tycoon, a program would play such a crucial role.  Nevertheless, Gehry states that he doesn’t even know how to turn on a computer. Perhaps he is being disingenuous, but in Gehry’s design method, this rings true. His contribution is in the form of a series of freehand sketches that are then turned into rough, hand-made models. Only at this stage does the computer come into play. A digital arm connected to a computer extends out to touch the model, thereby reading in the x, y, and z coordinates that create a second, virtual model in digital form.

 

CATIA allowed the curtain wall producer, the A. Zahner Company of Kansas City, Missouri, to produce more than 3,050 unique metal panels, each roughly one meter square and individually fabricated to cover the over 16,000 square meter surface. Like the curtain wall panels, the ribbed elements for the EMP were also individually manufactured using robotic technology following the curves laid out in CATIA. The process was far more daunting than at Bilbao where both surface panels and members had been framed conventionally and elements were repeated frequently. Between each structural rib, workers stretched a heavy wire mesh, which then supported a finer, stainless steel mesh. Upon this surface, five inches of shotcrete shell were applied, followed by water-proofing membrane, foam insulation, and a final acrylic coating. Because the surface contours were only finished after the structural ribs of the frame had been fabricated, the metal skin had to be displaced from the shotcrete shell on both the exterior and interior via aluminum mounting brackets. Using a variety of processes, the surfaces, some made of aluminum, others of stainless steel, were given color that had symbolic meaning: light blue represented Fender guitars, gold Les Paul guitars, red for others, the purple of the Sky Dome referred to Hendrix’s song “Purple Haze,” and silver is meant to remind us of strings and other guitar accessories.

 

Whether Gehry has been successful in his quest for the master builder’s non-alienated relationship to his artifacts is open to debate. After the construction of Bilbao, Greg Lynn, a younger architect who designs his own buildings on the computer, criticized the schism in Gehry’s design approach. To be true to his goals, Lynn has argued, Gehry needs to actually design on the computer. Indeed Lynn goes further, insisting that form should be generated not through some neo-expressionist gesture, even if it performed on a computer, but rather through the creation of algorithms that respond to given data from the program and site.

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Considered in terms of tectonics, the split between the thin metal skin and the shotcrete load-bearing structure is hard to defend, recalling the postmodern appliqué of form onto unrelated surfaces. Moreover, if the EMP tries to display the architect’s creative impulse without mediation, the need to fix the hand-made models into a computer model undoes that. For no matter how much the EMP tries to deliver the immediacy of rock, it can’t. Gehry’s form of creation is more akin to that of a composer scoring an orchestral piece than that of a rock guitarist playing on stage. Like the composer, Gehry is inevitably at a distance from the final product and will not truly be able to sense it until its completion. As Robin Evans has pointed out, architects are separated from their objects by the projective methods of drawing and by the specialization inherent to modern culture. Creating an expressionist gesture or a deconstructivist fragment, Evans concludes, is a false move, for to build such a work requires the concretization of either desire or shattering in the working drawing stage – here through CATIA – a process that requires far greater rationalization and much more control than a simpler, orthogonal form would necessitate.[3] Further removing Gehry from the position of the rock musician is the performer’s fundamentally reflexive role, measuring the pulse of the crowd, testing the moment. In the case of the EMP, however, the complexity of fabrication ensured that once it began construction, any radical changes were impossible to make. Moreover, Gehry’s desire seems to be not so much greater contact with the audience and the processes of production as greater control. The master builder directs from on high. In this, the EMP veers away from the spontaneous jams of Hendrix and perilously close to the bombastic excesses of 1970s art rock.

 

While both Gehry’s success at, and motives behind, recovering the status of master builder may be debatable, what of the statements the building makes as built? The EMP is a building for culture, but unlike the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which stands as a sort of last monument to High Art - even as High Art turns into marketed experience - the EMP addresses a world in which the distinction between High and Low and between capital and culture has collapsed. For, no matter how much we may enjoy Hendrix or Nirvana or the Chemical Brothers, rock music and its descendents have played a unique role in the development of what theorist Fredric Jameson calls the postmodern cultural logic of late capitalism. As Jameson sees it, since World War II, capitalism has entered a new, purer stage in which capital now permeates all forms of human existence. With no place left uncapitalized, no place of resistance, Jameson concludes that an unprecedented cultural condition obtains. Popular music has a key function in this model, extending capital into a formerly resistant enclave of everyday life. After all, if the organizers of Woodstock – at which Hendrix starred – opened the gates of the festival for free to a generation, it was only because they knew that the resultant publicity would gain them limitless profits through movie and record deals. The hippies seeking authenticity in rock music were finding it, above all, in the products of the record industry.

 

The thorough permeation of both culture and the collective unconscious by capital means that for Jameson, there is no more safe harbor, no more separation between interior and exterior, even in the subject itself. Without any separation across which to express meaning, with the doing away of the metaphysics of inside and outside, the hallmark of postmodernism becomes a new depthlessness, an utter evacuation of hermeneutics. If meaning can still be said to exist, Jameson points out, it takes place not at depth but at the surface. The result can take the form of a flash of euphoria across the surface with the vivid hallucinatory quality of an LSD experience. [4] Clearly, the EMP is meant to evoke this mood of an acid trip. Allen even spoke of being on a “natural high” as he opened the museum.

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Gehry is no doubt aware of Jameson, as Jameson has made the architect’s own house a center piece of his writing on postmodernism, but it seems unlikely, given his desire to nostalgically recover the role of the master builder, that Gehry consciously intends to illustrate Jameson’s points at the EMP. But, if inadvertent, then the LSD-like vividness of the EMP, together with its reliance on shallow, atectonic surface only more convincingly confirms the condition that Jameson diagnoses.

 

To conclude, one must ask what the EMP says both about Gehry’s practice and about the role of architecture. Since the Guggenheim at Bilbao, Gehry’s practice has consisted of trumping previous excesses. Such a practice seems fundamentally unsustainable, for, even if Gehry were to succeed on his own terms – and can both the well of inspiration together with the continued march of technology really be limitless? – it would eventually undermine his capacity to win commissions. Recall that high-design public architecture of the late 1980s and early 1990s was, in Rem Koolhaas’s apt phrase “Richard Meier everywhere.” With multiple commissions under way in the Gehry office, the threat of “Frank O. Gehry everywhere”seems likely to be realized. Yet, Meier’s practice was a sort of bureaucratic avant-garde, a solid conservative high modernism that would appeal to businessmen who read Habermas. Unlike Gehry’s ceaseless drive to out-trump his own previous projects, Meier’s projects were intended to stand outside any such valuation. Even the Getty was Meier’s “commission of a lifetime” because of budget, not because of form. Indeed, projects like the High Museum of Art in Atlanta or the Museum für Kunsthandwerk in Frankfurt am Main are far superior to the Getty’s rather visionless masses. But if every Gehry project is better than the last, doesn’t the ceaseless appearance of the new fundamentally condemn the previous work to the ash-heap of the passé? Who but architecture historians will go to see the Guggenheim in Bilbao if the new and much larger one, proposed by Thomas Krens and Gehry, is built in lower Manhattan? Will the radical architecture of the EMP still be radical if Gehry’s ceaseless appearance of the new continues for another ten or fifteen years?

 

And, finally, what of the urban? Bilbao made gestures toward the city at the same time as it radically broke with it, but the EMP is different. Even if composed of six pavilions, the building is far more of a singularity, an object in a field, its only link to its context a monorail that it absorbs into its folds. Sure, the EMP is a pavilion building, sitting next to an amusement park, in the shadow of that now dated monument to the future, Seattle’s Space Needle, but through the EMP’s six pavilions, a comment on urbanism can nevertheless be read. This is an urbanism based on a shallow reading of the creative city as a theater in which one asserts one’s identity boldly against the face of the perpetual flux and endless homogeneity of the postmodern world. Gehry has stated “Democracy creates chaos. It creates collisions of thought, and it’s exciting.” That is doubtless true, yet ceaseless assertions of one’s identity lead to a new, perhaps even more relentless form of sameness. For democracy also presupposes the individual’s submission to a larger collective. As the greatest works of high modernism, such as Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram’s Building, Kevin Roche’s Ford Foundation Building, or Candilis, Josic, and Woods’s Berlin Free University demonstrate, there is a certain liberation to be found in the individual’s demonstration of humility within a greater whole. Without conformity, the gesture is meaningless and what can be more leveling than a world in which every gesture is a radical one? If today’s collective may be a postmodern one, radically atomized into minority constituent groups and thoroughly permeated by capital, and even if the public realm may be nearly evacuated by the forces of media culture, we still do not all chose to turn up our stereos louder than those of our neighbors. Under the pressure to ceaselessly “Be yourself” as espoused by post-Fordist flexible consumption, we have to recognize that a background condition is often preferable, even enjoyable. After all, following the Art Rock of the seventies came the useful distance of New Wave, the bombast of Emerson Lake and Palmer replaced by Soft Cell or more recently, after Nirvana’s emotion, the remove of Underworld. No matter how radical an accomplishment the EMP may be, it’s hard not to feel a longing for the background buildings that Gehry’s mentor Gruen taught him to make. If Gehry has abandoned those, who will make them? It is late in his career, but one hopes that somehow, as Corbusier did with the non-hierarchical field of his Venice hospital project, Gehry may point the way again. 

 

[1] On the creative city, see Jan Verwijnen and Panu Lehtovuori, eds, Creative Cities. Cultural Industries, Urban Development and the Information Society, (Helsinki: UIAH Publications, 1999). It should be pointed out that this intriguing anthology goes far beyond any simple notions of design as a spark for the creative city.

[2] B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore, The Experience Economy. Work is Theatre & Every Business a Stage (Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press, 1999).

[3] Robin Evans, The Projective Cast. Architecture and Its Three Geometries (Cambridge: The MIT Press), 1995.

[4] Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,”New Left Review 146 (July/August 1984): 53-92.