Friday, July 10

Fred Kent vs. Frank Gehry

Coming of the heels of Britain's fascinating architectural row between modernist Richard Rogers and traditionalist Prince Charles, a similar American public feud seems to be bubbling to the surface. While there may not be billions of dollars at stake and lingering issues about a hereditary monarchy, the underlying debate is taking the same shape. Essentially, world-famous iconic architects are being insistently asked to defend the proposition that their work has made cities better places to live in.

The Atlantic's James Fallows has been playing the role of the interpreter between two well-known designers, Fred Kent, director of the venerable Project for Public Spaces, and Frank Gehry, one of the most recognized names in modern architecture. It started at the Aspen Ideas Festival last month. Kent had been a speaker in previous years, but he had come to this event to hear Gehry speak. Apparently, Kent criticized Gehry's buildings for not functioning well as attractive public spaces and insisted on an answer to his question. After a few tries, Gehry called him a "pompous man" and waved him away, later accusing Kent of attaching himself to his celebrity status as a publicity stunt. Kent fired back,

"Around the world citizens are defining their future by focusing on their city's civic assets, authentic qualities and compelling destinations...not on blindly following the latest international fads conjured by starchitects. "
What's interesting to me is what makes this different from the British debate. It is actually more about function than about style. It's notable that Kent is not quibbling with the aesthetic properties of Gehry's buildings, nor is he questioning their status as works of art. He is casting doubt on the way these buildings are used by people on a regular basis and how they interact with a surrounding urban environment. It's an empirical question, very American actually. Everyone knows Gehry's buildings, particularly the Guggenheim in Bilboa and the Walt Disney Theater in Los Angeles, have become tourist attractions and sites of pilgrimage for modern architecture buffs. Kent is asking how they are used by people who are there for reasons other than seeing the building itself, what role they play in Jane Jacob's "ballet" of urban life.

William Whyte, the founder of PPS, was known for making meticulous observations about how each little detail of public space either encouraged or discouraged its use. How were the steps oriented to allow for sitting and lingering? Where did the shade fall at different times of the day? He watched and videoed places all around the country, with a particular fondness for small spaces that generated a critical mass of human interaction. Architects have come around lately to recognize the importance Whyte placed on monitoring the actual uses of buildings and places. In my opinion, PPS is in the ideal place to ask the empirical questions. I hope the substance of this debate continues, although maybe without any more accusations over self-importance.

Here are two recent projects, both in New York City, involving each side:

Pedestrian space on Times Square. Photo: Adrimcm

Gehry's InterActiveCorp Building in Chelsea. Photo: Scurzuzu


Benjamin Hemric said...

Thanks for bringing this interesting controversy to my attention.

Perhaps I've missed something though, but how do you know that the questioner was Fred Kent? I don't recall seeing the questioner being identified by name in either the original article or in Gehry's response to the article.

Daniel Nairn said...

Sure. Fallows initially didn't identify the "insistent questioner" but PPS mentioned the event independently over Twitter. Fallows then confirmed it was Kent in a later post.

Benjamin Hemric said...

Part I (original comment was too long)

Daniel, thanks for the info! I wanted to alert someone else about this controversy and wanted to make sure that the questioner was indeed Fred Kent before I did so.

In further researching this controversy, I saw a link to David Sucher's website, "City Comforts," and saw your comments on his website also.

Because I still find this whole non-linear "web thing" rather confusing, I put together a summary / time-line of the various main posts (but not including the comments to these posts), and though you might enjoy seeing it (see further below).

It's embedded in a summary, etc., that I sent to another blogger (with a cc to David Sucher, whom I know), and I thought you might enjoy seeing that also. I didn't have your e-mail address -- I'm at a PC at a library that doesn't allow me to use the website "contact") so I couldn't send you a "cc." (I'm leaving off the name of the other blogger, since he may not want me to mention it.)

Benjamin Hemric said...

Part II

Here's my e-mail:

- - - - - - - - - -

Even though Frank Gehry is no longer the architect of Atlantic Yards, I thought you might be interested in this controversy as it seems to back up what you've been saying all along regarding Gehry.

Brief summary of the controversy:

Apparently Gehry gave a presentation at a conference in Aspen, Colorado, and afterward he was questioned from someone in the audience (who happened to be Fred Kent, of the Project for Public Spaces). Gehry very rudely dismissed Fred Kent's question. (Not having been there, I don't know the exact question and how it was presented. In other words, I don't know if Fred Kent in some way "provoked" Gehry's rudeness with some rudeness of his own.)

This interchange was later written up by James Fallows of the Atlantic, who was at the event -- but who, interestingly, did not mention Fred Kent by name as the questioner (although Fallows apparently knew who he was). (Don't know if Frank Gehry actually knew who Fred Kent was, but I get the impression that he didn't -- which I also find rather strange and telling.)

By the way, I find the fact that Fallows didn't mention Fred Kent by name -- although he apparently knew who he was, and had actually attended an event in the past where Fred Kent was a speaker -- to be very interesting. It seems to me that by not mentioning that the questioner was Fred Kent, it gives the whole controversy, perhaps unintentionally, a very different slant. Without being told that the questioner was Fred Kent, "the" distinguished expert in the field of public spaces (which was the topic of the question being asked), it makes it sound like the questioner was indeed some "crackpot" off the street. Maybe, though, Fallows was trying, in his own way, to be kind to Fred Kent?

Fallows then received and printed a response to his original critical article of Gehry from Gehry himself. This response has been termed, by some, as "gracious" and an "apology" -- but it seems to me to be one of those apologies that are actually an additional insulting, but veiled, transgression!

Benjamin Hemric said...

Time-line / List of internet posts about the controversy

Perhaps, it's because I'm a product of the pre-internet age, but it seems to me that all the posts covering this controversy are annoyingly scattered. (I'm especially annoyed by the Twitter posts -- I guess I just don't "get" Twitter.) So here's a list, that I did for myself, of the relevant posts where the various pieces of information can be found:

Fri., 7/3/09, 11:41 p.m. -- "Atlantic," original post by James Fallows, "Fifty-nine and a half . . . "

Tues., 7/7/09 6:14 a.m. -- "Twitter" post that identifies the questioner as Fred Kent.
Tues., 7/7/09 6:37 a.m. -- another Twitter post
Tues., 7/7/09 7:01 a.m. -- another Twitter post

Tues., 7/7/09 10:16 p.m. -- "Atlantic," post by James Fallows, "An e-mail from Frank Gehry." Somewhere along the line, forget if its this post, Fallows calls this so-called apology, "gracious"!

Wed., 7/8/09 ??? -- "City Comforts," post about the original Fallows article by David Sucher, "Does Fallows accept. . . "

Wed., 7/8/09 ??? -- "City Comforts," follow-up post by David Sucher, "Huge update to post below."

Thurs., 7/9/09 ??? -- "City Comforts," post by David Sucher, "PPS right on point. . . "

Thurs., 7/9/09 6:02 (p.m.?) -- "Atlantic," third (?) post on the controversy by James Fallows, "Cornucopia of Updates #5 . . . ," which identifies Fred Kent as the questioner and mentions that Fallows knew the questioner was Fred Kent but didn't mention him by name -- although he had once heard him speak.

Fri., 7/10/09 7:30 a.m. -- "Atlantic," fourth (?) post on the controversy by James Fallows, "More on Frank Gehry, public spaces." Here is where he "publishes" Fred Kent's side of the story.

Fri., 7/10/09 ???? -- "City Comforts" post by David Sucher, "I'm surprised that he's surprised"

Fri., 7/10/09 ??? -- "Discovering Urbanism," post entitled, Fred Kent vs. Frank Gehry," by Daniel Nairin on his blog, "Discovering Urbanism." (Daniel Nairin is apparently the blogger who apparently came across the PPS "Twitter" post that identified Fred Kent as the questioner, and he was the one, I believe, who brought this to David Sucher's attention.) This post, by the way, is the one that introduced me to the controversy.

Sat., 7/11/09 ???? -- City Comforts, "More on Fred Kent and Frank Gehry."

Here's a link to the City Comforts site, which has links to all the other relevant websites:

# # #

Daniel Nairn said...

Thanks Benjamin. That seems to describe it well. I actually found out it was Kent via Greater, Greater Washington, though.