In 1963, when the Opera House was just a pedestal and a possibility, Norman Juster wrote The Dot and the Line; a romance in lower mathematics. Though easily mistaken for a children’s book, it should be required reading for all students of design.
The Dot and the Line is a love story and a parable, the tale of a flirtatious dot who must choose between a sensible line and an audacious squiggle. At first enchanted by the freedom-loving squiggle, the dot learns that “what she had thought was freedom and joy was nothing but anarchy and sloth.” The moral of the story? “To the vector belong the spoils.”
This is not a style thing, straight versus curved. It is a disquisition on entropy (the measure of disorder in a system) and whether design should oppose, embrace or ape it.
I was reminded of this recently during a minor Facebook stoush over the half-built Gehry building in Ultimo. Within days of the “crazy left-wing frightbat” episode I stood accused once more, this time of being reactionary, superficial and patronising, a tiresome pseudo-critic, “the Christopher Pyne of the architecture world”.
I can only guess at how Christopher feels about our surprise hook-up. Me, I’m having a full-on identity crisis. My sin, which drew such calumny, was a seven-worder. “Oh come on,” I’d said of the Gehry, “It’s like bad Gaudi.”
I had no particular wish to comment. It’s always better to wait for building to complete. But being tagged on UTS’ page was an invitation it seemed rude to ignore.
Certainly Gehry is fair game. Even months from completion, the professionals are agog – because it’s a Gehry. Because starchitects traditionally send their B-teams to the colonies. And because of the fabled difficulty of the build.
I loved early Gehry, especially the wacky collage of his pink Santa Monica bungalow. But his global rep rests on later decades of wild rumbustious curves, the voluptuous confections in which he wraps libraries, museums and auditoria. Bilbao, Paris, Los Angeles, Sydney; whatever program, whatever place, a Gehry is above all a Gehry.
This instant-recognition is a big factor in Gehry’s fame. It’s an old formula. Repeat an idea often enough and it becomes a meme, regardless. But this very disconnect, enhancing Gehry’s celebrity, weakens the work.
'‘Our'’ Gehry (aka UTS business school or Dr Chau Chak Wing building) is a karate-chopped paper bag of undulating brickwork. Already, some liken it to the Opera House, not least because of the bricklaying conniptions it has provoked. (That each of its 380,000 bricks is now bolted back to a steel frame has brought the building’s cost to a breathtaking $180 million.)
This is cited as evidence. “It’s that iconic,” breathed one UTS spokesperson – clearly forgetting that technical difficulty alone did not make the Opera House great.
But is iconic even the point, actually? Is that all we expect of our architecture, the hero-shot? Is that it?
I thought ‘'bad Gaudi'’ pretty tame, as criticism; barely even a negative. After all, a building could be an excruciating Gaudi and still qualify as a fine piece of architecture. Gaudi was that extraordinary. To deploy nature’s own first principles - gravity, entropy, hierarchy of scale - in order to rethink structure in a way that reconceives what it means to be Catalan: there’s no word for it other than genius.
Gehry is a much lesser deity. His signature undulations only superficially recall Gaudi. Where Gaudi re-explores nature in order to reinvent culture, Gehry pointedly overrides both.
A Gehry is now a positional good; the latest must-have urban symbol, beloved of city-marketing types. Strewn globally, it has become a new international style, apparently progressive but in attitude terms – formalist, arrogant, self-absorbed – down-the-line modern.
So how will we know, then, when the wraps are removed in the spring, whether our Gehry is actually any good? Is there any test more reliable than the vox pop?
My suggestion is this. We still talk as though architecture is about objects. We get all excited about curves and details and skylines and materials. But deep down we know that architecture lives or dies by its quality of space; the being-there.
The object contains and conditions that space, but the space is what we experience.
This is not simple, because the human psyche is not simple. And it’s the strange old psyche that a space must fit, soothe, intrigue, enchant and enrich. And not only within, for a building also creates exterior space – viz, the street – which must be similarly fashioned.
So architecture become a critical living interface between without and within, between private and public, between nature and culture. It must delineate and safeguard both, while providing life-giving connections.
These are architecture’s sacred tasks, unchanged for eons. If this makes me a Pyne-clone, so be it. But architecture matters so much more than some narcissistic soufflé. Narcissism sells. People are drawn to it. But it is the opposite of architecture.
If, when we finally get to experience ''our'' Gehry, it tells us something new about being here, in this place; if it is a delight to be in and near, then we can liken it to Gaudi. I’ll Facebook it myself.