Architects Behaving Badly: Frank Gehry’s F-Bomb and Beyond

Matt Shaw Matt Shaw

Frank Gehry takes a lot of flack for his over-the-top, bombastic architecture. Every time he builds something, the trolls rush from under their digital bridges and accuse him of egomania, fascism, and whatever else they can conjure at the time. It is even professional critics who have taken to disparaging him as he tries his best to deliver what clients and communities ask. Well, he has finally snapped and spoken his mind. At a press conference in Oviedo, Spain, while receiving the Prince of Asturias Awards for the Arts, Gehry responded to a reporter who asked how he responds to accusations that he builds “showy architecture,”

“Let me tell you one thing. In this world we are living in, 98 percent of everything that is built and designed today is pure shit. There’s no sense of design, no respect for humanity or for anything else. They are damn buildings and that’s it.”

“Once in a while, however, there’s a small group of people who does something special. Very few. But good god, leave us alone! We are dedicated to our work. I don’t ask for work. I don’t have a publicist. I’m not waiting for anyone to call me. I work with clients who respect the art of architecture. Therefore, please don’t ask questions as stupid as that one.”

He followed up to the professional troll with the middle finger. The thing is that beyond the sensationalist sound bite of “98 percent of everything that is built and designed today is pure shit,” there is a sincere frustration and a valid complaint being lodged here. Gehry and the other architects he is implicating here are constantly attacked for trying to make good architecture, which is exactly what everyone is demanding.

They design, draw, and most importantly, actually deliver buildings that far exceed what most of us could dream of making a physical, functioning reality. Of course nuanced criticism is welcome, and excusing anything based on “giving clients what they want” is problematic, but Gehry is right. The broad, unfounded amateur criticism of he and his colleagues borders on insanity, especially coming from those who are not doing anything better. “Pure shit,” he says.

© Gehry Partners

© Gehry Partners

He is not the first architect to lash out like this. In fact, Enzo Mari used the same phrase, albeit in Italian. The 70-something designer called Ron Arad’s work “Merda Pura,” while contemplating on the more general problems he sees in a design culture that is not radical like it used to be. He laments the influence of fashion, describing design today as “pornography” made “by the Italian mafia for the Russian mafia”. Stanley Tigerman was at odds with Miew van der Rohe for his whole career. Her dropped the s-bomb when describing the IBM Tower by the modernist master. Interrupting an interviewer Tigerman said of the building, “Hate it. It’s shit.”

When the Farnsworth house was first completed, overtones of McCarthyism came through and it was called a “threat to the new America,” built by “a sinister group of International Stylists,” out “to force Americans to accept an architecture that was barren, grim, impoverished, impractical, uninhabitable, and destructive of individual possessions, as well as of individuals themselves.” 60 years later the jury is still out, but we can just hear someone screaming “We know that less is not more. It is simply less!” When the Eiffel Tower was built, it was not immediately an icon. It was debuted at the 1889 World’s Fair with relatively poor reception. One person even called it a “truly tragic street lamp.” Try telling that to the millions of visitors that climb it every year.