Monday, April 25, 2011

Is $300 Million Enough to Get Over Gehry Envy?

The Wall Street Journal has a great story about a rich Iowan who is willing to give $300 million to any city that will 1) build a new art museum, and 2) hire anybody except Frank Gehry to design it. From the story:
An Iowa-based philanthropist and architecture aficionado has offered a $300 million reward to any city anywhere in the world that dares to hire someone other than Frank Gehry to design its gleaming new art museum.

"Don't get me wrong, I like iconoclastic, swoopy structures that look like bashed-in sardine cans as much as the next guy," says the philanthropist, who wishes to remain nameless for fear of enraging close friends in the art world. "I like Czech dance halls that look like a 747 plowed right into the façade as much as anybody. I bow to no man in my admiration for an architect who can design an art museum that looks like a intergalactic recycling center. I just thought it would be nice to give the second-most-famous architect in the world a shot at a payday. Whoever he is. I know I've got his name here somewhere."

Here is what an anonymous city planner has to say about Gehry Envy:
A city planner who wishes to remain nameless for fear that he will be branded an enemy of iconoclastic swoopiness says that municipalities dread not having a Frank Gehry building somewhere within the city limits, even if it's only a postmodern nursing home or a puckish, irreverent library.

"Elciego, Spain, has a Frank Gehry building," he notes. "Herford, Germany, has a Frank Gehry building. Dundee, Scotland, has a Frank Gehry building. I'm going to level with you: I don't even know where those places are. Nobody does. I think they might be in Europe. But I'll tell you one thing: I know where Biloxi, Miss., is. Well, if Biloxi, Miss., has a playful Frank Gehry building, we just can't afford not to. Even though I can't tell you who we are."

Maybe $300 million isn't enough for an art museum no matter who designs it. Maybe the $300 million is offered as a lark. But this highlights a problem that is all too real for cities, which is they copy each other in weird ways in the name of competition. Whether it's architecture, rail systems, sports stadia, or, as it was in the 80s, Hard Rock Cafes, cities pursue very expensive and economically questionable investment strategies based in large part on what other cities have done, and without evaluating whether the copied cities' strategies were useful or economically viable. The last word comes from the philanthropist:
"Cities are afraid to seem backward and square," he concedes. "There's nothing a local tourism board or chamber of commerce fears more than acquiring a reputation for being un-cool. So there's a strong possibility that my $300 million might just sit there, unclaimed, forever. Though frankly, I still think the great city of Scranton might step up to the plate."
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