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  Goodbye to Frank Gehry’s Bad Joke
Robert W Tracinski (2003.01.01 ) Politics

After Sept. 11, a few intellectuals optimistically predicted the “end of irony” — that is, the end of the pseudo-intellectual pose of cynicism and skepticism endemic in our turn-of-the-century culture. The end of irony is not quite upon us, but at least one recent manifestation of modern nihilism has been stopped. The Guggenheim Foundation just announced that it has canceled plans for a prominent new museum in New York City designed by “deconstructivist” architect Frank Gehry.

For a man feted as the greatest living architect, Gehry’s style is surprisingly one-note. Almost all of his buildings look like giant piles of crumpled tin foil. Their most interesting feature — the interior spaces tend to be giant blank boxes — is an exterior cladding of titanium sheets folded into wild, discombobulated shapes. These are supposedly works of “abstract sculpture,” but in fact they are carefully designed to achieve a specific effect: not to look elegant or graceful, but to look jumbled, chaotic, nonsensical.

Gehry’s proposed design looked very much like a fake wrecked building — which the Guggenheim Foundation was proposing to build in a city so recently home to the real thing. This effect was highlighted by the fact that Gehry’s New York Guggenheim was to be much taller than his other piles of twisted metal, looming 400 feet above the East River and looking like a crumpled skyscraper.

It is no excuse that Gehry’s design was proposed and accepted prior to Sept. 11. After all, the Guggenheim Foundation did not cancel the project because they suddenly realized that it was in appallingly bad taste. They canceled it only because the economy is still sluggish and they cannot raise enough money. So the new museum may be dead, but the ideas behind it are alive and well.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, individual events do not, by themselves, cause people to abandon their cherished ideas and attitudes. If that were true, Sept. 11 would have seen the immediate end of pacifism and the “anti-war” movement. But people who are committed to irrational ideas tend to, well, irrationally cling to those ideas no matter how high the evidence mounts. The same goes for the philosophy of “deconstruction” and all of its intellectual roots and branches.

Deconstruction is the profoundly anti-intellectual notion — promulgated, of course, by the intellectuals — that every idea is just a smokescreen for some hidden agenda, that ideas must be “deconstructed,” distorted and quarantined within an attitude of snide irony. Deconstruction is the philosophy of undermining every truth, every moral ideal, every intellectual or artistic standard, by turning it into a mean-spirited joke.

These intellectual jokes include, in architecture, houses with staircases that go nowhere, columns that seem to support a building but don’t actually touch the ground, and a building named “Earthquake,” whose floor slabs seem to be tilting precipitously and falling down on top of one another. This must have seemed quite a funny joke to architecture professors — though not, one presumes, to those caught under the collapsed floor slabs of buildings destroyed in real earthquakes.

This new architectural fad produced structures that look crumpled, smashed, twisted, torn apart. “Deconstruction” is barely disguised art-world jargon for “destruction.”

The architecture of destruction is part of a culture of nihilism that is the climax and end-product of the past century’s trends in art — from 1917, when Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal upside down and hung it on the wall of an art gallery — to 1952, when John Cage passed off four minutes and 33 seconds of silence as a work of music — to the end of 2001, when London’s Tate Gallery awarded its prestigious Turner Prize to a room containing only a single light bulb that turned on and off at random intervals, a disconcerting effect used previously only in the torture chambers of Third World dictatorships.

This trend is wider than any particular school of art or any particular political ideology. It is about whether we take art, ideas and life seriously in the first place. What today’s intellectual and artistic avant-garde wants is to break down any belief in ideas, morality and standards. In recent years, most Americans have begun to sense, more keenly than ever, that this is a prescription for suicide.

New York has narrowly escaped the creation of a new national symbol for modern nihilism. Now the city should focus on acquiring a symbol of an opposite outlook: a serious, tall, soaring skyscraper to replace the towers that America lost on Sept. 11.