The first thing that strikes you about a design by Frank Gehry is how thoroughly outside of the box it is. One strains very hard to imagine the box. It rebels and revolts against the box. It’s the epitome of curvaceous. It’s also something completely different from every angle.
Angles and curves, shapes and contours fascinate young minds. They are the building blocks of much of our perception, the structure that remains when the content is stripped out. An Oldsmobile contains rich levels of meaning-transportation, a sticker price, a status symbol, even a personality (many people are wistful when their car changes hands or goes to the scrap heap)-but when the colors and the logos and the associations are taken out, it’s merely a collection of angles and curves.
I was always looking for someone who could teach me something about these angles and curves, although I never knew what that was. So I leafed through my older siblings’ textbooks with thin pages illustrating angles and shapes, denoted with thin broken lines and small letters, and looked forward to the day when I could study this great esoterica and find the shape of things that lies at the bottom of it all.
So, with great anticipation I entered my first geometry class, but the emphasis was on the calculations (a2 + b2 = c2) and the names (equilateral, isosceles, right, oblique, and so on). I delved further, into the realm of trigonometry, where the names and the calculations became more esoteric, but still any deeper meaning eluded me.
I heard that the infinitesimal calculus was one of the great human discoveries, so I thought perhaps, now in college, I would find the truth about angles and shapes in there someplace. I barely passed differential calculus. I did differential equation after differential equation and was never sure what was being differentiated, and I am still not quite sure why Liebniz and Newton’s simultaneous discovery of the calculus was so earth-shattering, but I decided to forge ahead and enroll in integral calculus, with the faint notion that the word “integral” indicated that the whole thing would come together.
On the first day, the room was abuzz with the ambitions of over a hundred would-be engineers and pre-med students, seeking another notch on the slide rule. I felt the oxygen being sucked out of the lungs of my philosophical ruminations about why the world was shaped as it was and why we could abstract shapes from the chaos that presented itself to our senses. I learned that I was in a “gut course” when the instructor, taking a page from the Marine Corps manual, marched in and announced that we would memorize 66 integrals by the next class. My search was at a dead end.
I closed the book, sold it back, and dropped the course. I learned that I had been a sophomore, in more ways than one, a wise (Gk sophos) fool (more), ruminating and fulminating about deeper meanings that probably weren’t there while stumbling on my shoelaces. Angle, shmangle. Shape, schmape.
Something stirred anew, though, last winter when I attended a meeting at the Getty Center, a Richard Meier-designed travertine palace perched above Los Angeles. As I walked about the place, an almost jumbled gathering of angles and curves, I was struck that in the space of a few feet, your perspectives utterly changes. You are in a brand new place over and over again. I took particular pleasure in the oblique angles. It’s wonderful how often a sidelong look presents a more refreshing view than facing something head-on.
In the spring, I took in an exhibit of Frank Gehry models and drawings arrayed along the spiral ramp within the Guggenheim Museum in New York. I can’t say that I liked all of the work, but his fearless playfulness in shaping materials, his willingness to play in a very big sandbox with such massive shapes, captivated me, just as I had been when I leafed through those books as a child. So, I leafed through a book on his work and came upon his first wild scribblings of nascent forms that formed themselves eventually into buildings (presumably after a great deal of geometry, trigonometry and calculus).
I knew then what I knew as a child but which was never confirmed in math class. There is a world of form that lives quite happily, oblivious of the content-table, chair, desk, building, hill, whatever-draped over it. Our mind is at its youngest when it can simply take pleasure in shape, angle, curve and line. Because when the content has long since disappointed us-deteriorating, departing, being sold off-the angles and the curves will remain. In that realm, we are all architects.