Frank O. Gehry

DG BANK Pariser Platz 3. Berlin - Development of a Design

Fri 12.12.1997 – Fri 16.01.1998

opening: Thursday, December 11, 1997, 8 p.m.

The exhibition shows the design process of the DG Bank on the Pariser Platz, Berlin which has provoked a head-on collision of two contrary building and planning methodologies. From the pressures of building restrictions and public expectations, prevalent in Berlin, has come a pseudomorphosis that is taught to breaking point.

Opening: Dietmar Steiner
Introduction: Charles Jencks

Zumtobel Staff LICHTFORUM Vienna
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A – 1010 Vienna
open: Mon – Thu : 8 a.m. – 5 p.m., Fri: 8 a.m.- 1 p.m.
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An exhibition in cooperation with
Architekturzentrum Wien
Aedes Architekturforum Berlin

Essay by Michael Mönninger

Pseudomorphosis and Random Sections
Frank O.Gehry’s Design for the DG BANK at Pariser Platz, Berlin

Mineralogy describes crystals with an inner structure that contradicts their outer configuration. They are formed by way of crystals being enclosed by rock strata and then washed out by water. When volcanic mass flows into these cavities and then crystallizes, these new crystals take on the shape and appearance of older,foreign types of rock -in which case mineralogists talks of ‘pseudomorphosis’.

In 1922 the cultural philosopher, Oswald Spengler, applied the term of pseudomorphosis to history to define abrupt historic changes in which ‘an ancient alien culture weighs so heavily on the land that a young one, at home in this region, has no scope to breathe and … does not succeed in shooting into pure forms of expressions of its own.’ In such cases, according to Spengler, the new culture would have to flow ‘into the cavity of the foreign life’ and let its young emotions and sensations temporarily ‘solidify in elderly works’ Spengler used the term to describe radical historic changes, e.g. the rise of the young Arabic above the ancient Babylonian civilization, or the triumphal advance of Christianity, leaving behind Antiquity. He even applied this term to the changing building forms through architectural history and for example saw the Christian basilica as the ‘pseudomorphosis’of the graeco-roman temple, with the church being nothing else but a temple turned inside out: its surrounding rows of columns having been relocated in the interior, in the course of centuries, and its closed inner cella having been pushed out.

When Frank O. Gehry, a little while ago, complained that he was being forced to build in Berlin as boringly as never before in his life, I could not help thinking of Spengler’s mineralogical comparison for civilizations according to which a ‘foreign old culture’ takes away the breathing space of a rising new culture and forces the latter into rigid caverns. Have we not, yet again, observed here, at Pariser Platz and 75 years after Spengler, the grand show of a ‘historic pseudomorphosis’from which – favourable conditions granted – could emerge such splendid mixtures as the temple church or the domed basilica?

Within the fixed framework of the design regulations for Pariser Platz, with specified parameters for proportions, materials and wall openings, Gehry had to pour his design into the cavity of an old perimeter block with a closed building line toward the street. He was thus forced to radically upturn his expressive sculptural vocabulary of architectural gestures and to relocate it in the interior. Nothing of Gehry’s architectural thought penetrates outside, even though he opened the stone facade to the square (with its intelligent conservatory-like balconies and glazed parapets) as generously as possible. On the rear, southern part of the site he added a nine-storey apartment annexe which does not give any hint either as to its inner life.

Three things happen inside the building: First, Gehry continues the exterior facade proportions right around and to the full storey-heights of the rectangular atrium. This structural continuity from exterior to interior is one of the most successful devices of classical architecture, opening building volumes on the fundamental haptic level of formal and material constants. In addition, this penetration revalues previously hierarchic spatial relationships, turning them into sequences of equal value. Paul Wallot, for example, used this motif to give his Reichstag building the opulence so much admired by his contemporaries – here with the sandstone running through from exterior to interior.

Within this inversed facade, Gehry unfolds his concentrated pseudomorphosis, pouring western American building sculpture into a European street pattern, and this directly in a two-fold way. First of all there is the interior convexconcave glass showcase with its underside forming the ground floor, and its ceiling – the roof. This flexible frame structure in the form of an undulating barrel-vaulted roof leaves behind the usual static configuration of support and load and becomes a plane with a three-dimensional body. This turns the conventional relation of figure and area into a third physical state, i.e. the folding which no longer knows any abrupt borders but forms plastic transitions from one spatial dimension to the next.

Gehry’s designs, so far, constituted a complete invertebration of floor plan and elevation. His plans never revealed whether they showed top views of the building, elevations or cross sections. These apparitions of simultaneous perspectives and volume penetrations had first been staged by the cubists, starting with Bracque and Picasso – only, with Gehry, they became spaces to be entered. Gehry’s Berlin pseudomorphosis now continues this approach: instead of spatializing time by means of collage and decomposition, making parallels of sequences instead of adding quick-freezed natures mortes in the form of fragmented building volumes, Gehry’s biomorphous design for the DG BANK goes the opposite way: trying to temporalize space and to liquefy the fixed aggregates of the three dimensions.To say it with an analogy taken from the film industry: the architect does not hard-cut and mount spatial scenes but assembles the propagation of a motion so slow that the eye cannot perceive it (we only have to think of plant growth) bringing it into continual formation by quick-motion technique.

The third event, i.e. the central eye-catcher is the large walk-on sculpture of the conference centre, seating 100. Here Gehry extends his space liquefication even further in bringing the newly added element of the floor plan (the traditional dominating reference point of architecture) into a new equivalence to wall and ceiling through extreme modulations of space-defining enclosures. The silver-lustre skin of the conference hall evokes analogies of burst jet engines, knights’ armours or a human torso.

Biologists, however, will rather think of living organisms whose size and shape is subject to the flows, motions and pressure ratios of life cycles changing with time.The geometric description of such unstable and deformed tissue structures being impossible, researchers resort to random analyses and theories of probabilities. In order to define the flexible planes of tissue sections, e.g. from muscle fibres, so-called ‘random sections of probable geometries’ are calculated which enable researchers to describe states of complete and utter formlessness.

With Gehry, this inexact, formless random contiguration unfolds another quality: it is entirely a’one-off’scanned from a wooden or cardboard model and transferred into digital computer models by way of an electronic plotter. The design handwork thus flows into the building, almost without transfer losses, in a complete mimesis based on a corporeal empathy that can hardly be produced by calculative and engineering abstraction. In our age of technical reproduceabilities, Gehry’s biomorphous designs have once again returned authenticity and uniqueness to architecture, even the glimpse of an’aura’.

With its ‘biologisms’ animal metaphors and love of motion, Gehry’s architecture has said goodbye to the classical anthropometry, but not to an anthropomorphous aesthetics, for he builds in a radically empiric way. His spaces are directly related to the way they are perceived.The abstractions of right angles and axial symmetries (only to be experienced on paper) are not executed in wood, metal sheeting or stone. It is really amazing that this subjectcentred, phenomenological view of the world has not been translated into architecture more often, since the perspective distortions of our own ‘optical apparatus’, the eye, turn each and every ideal geometric space study into an expressionistic scenery. Man sees perspectively, but thinks orthogonally; he thinks in squares, but in reality mostly can see a square only as a distorted trapezium or rhombus.

Well now, how about Gehry’s ‘historic pseudomorphosis’ according to Spengler? Gehry can neither be called young, nor the vanguard of a new early culture. On the contrary, he is an elderly representative of the light-weight building traditions and asymmetric modular aesthetics widespread in the pacific area from the American westcoast to Japan. In addition, his most recent European successes – from Bilbao via Bad Oeynhausen to Prague – really do not convey the impression of Gehry helplessly fighting an oppressive old culture and having to borrow anybody else’s aesthetics.

Nonetheless, in Berlin there has been a head-on collision of two contrary building and planning methodologies of the Californian ‘ad-hocism’ with the European masterplan. This did not result in an inhibited compromise solution – as for the other facades toward the square at the Brandenburg Gate – but in a genuine amalgamation of divergent demands. From the colossal pressures of building restrictions and public expectations, prevalent in Berlin, has come a pseudomorphosis that is taught to breaking point, that does not for a moment deny the difficult process of its creation and therefore possesses an incredible measure of self-identification.

© Michael Mönninger, Aedes Architekturforum Berlin

Links on Frank O. Gehry

A short biography of Frank O.Gehry

Excerpts of an interview with Frank O. Gehry

A list of publications on Frank O. Gehry and some his buildings

Skew Arch
Skew Arch publishers with publications and more links on Frank O. Gehry