Architectural drawings and models do not easily inhabit gallery spaces. The reach of three dimensions and the impact of size seem so crucial to creating the drama of architecture that buildings in miniature or on paper tend to fall flat. Further, architecture is about interaction: between people and space, people and edifices, and also, in the design process, which demands collaboration between architects and patrons, between people and other people. No such intercourse occurs in the gallery.
The work of Frank Gehry, however, appears to be an exception. Perhaps because his buildings are not just dramatic but operatic, perhaps because they so unabashedly flirt with sculpture, his work translates fairly easily into the viewing room. One can decide for oneself just how well it translates by going to Leslie Feely Fine Art, which is exhibiting a host of process models and drawings until January 12.
While extensive, the show treats only three Mr. Gehry's buildings, and only one of them, the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, has been constructed. The other two, the Samsung Museum of Modern Art in Seoul, South Korea, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art addition in Washington, D.C., remain unrealized commissions. But in addition to the models, one finds here two design prototypes for a chair and some 22 drawings.
In interviews, Mr. Gehry has likened his design process to play, and has explicitly linked his approach to memories of playing with blocks with his grandmother. Indeed, both the drawings and the models have a sort of romping, ludic ease. And Mr. Gehry has apparently never given up his blocks. The earliest design process model for the Samsung Museum, for example, takes the form of irregularly shaped wooden blocks spiraling up around an empty central atrium.
One can follow the evolution of the building's design through a series of succeeding models. In its next iteration, the spiral ascends higher, and in the central atrium the architect has placed a tower of blocks surmounted by a large sphere. Of course, these early models establish little more than the basic structure of the building, its upward sweep. Later versions add other materials, such as silver foil and acrylic, to define the look of the building. Eventually, the highest end of the spiral is transformed into a rectangular tower partially encased in a transparent material, allowing a view of the floors within, and partially covered by swaths of silver foil. From the tower, an avalanche of silver and white planes and whipped crests, representing the lower part of the spiral structure, spills down around the central axis. The sphere, meanwhile, has been eliminated, while the architect has added several eccentrically shaped, curve-edged monoliths made from a translucent acrylic, as well as trees and a car to provide a sense of scale.
The models and drawings invariably highlight the whimsical nature of Mr. Gehry's process. A large binder clip occupies a niche in one of the Samsung models, although I have no idea what its function might be; on the side of yet another of the Samsung models hangs a small photograph of two women's torsos, holding a television on which an image of a woman's head appears. One of the final designs for the Corcoran Museum addition includes a sizable underground space filled, in the model, with huge rectangular and triangular blocks ó again, fascinating to look at but largely inscrutable as architecture. Similarly, it would be hard to imagine a more playful shape for the chair prototypes on view, which resemble the serpentine line of folded fabric, except that here Mr. Gehry's fancy has seized on a more surprising material, compressed cardboard.
Instead of architectural elevations, the drawings on view, studies in ink on paper, are exploratory doodlings. Mr. Gehry remarked on them in a BBC radio interview: "I draw without taking my pen off the page. I just keep going, and ... I think of them as scribbles. I don't think they mean anything to anybody except to me, and then at ... the end of the project they wheel out these little drawings and they're damn close to what the finished building is." Although they are not especially interesting as art, Mr. Gehry's scribbles do offer a compelling glimpse into the architect's daydreaming mind. For example, in the "Sketch for Sagrera, Barcelona, 'The Bride,'" one can see how a woman and her wedding-dress train might serve as a pattern for the form of a building, or how, in the various sketches on one sheet from 2005, Mr. Gehry eventually discovered the shape of his cardboard chair.
The roving quality of the sketches and the childlike play in the models point to the similarities between Mr. Gehry's process and that of a sculptor. It's a resemblance made explicit in the design process model called "Sculpture Study" (2001), an erect yet collapsing column of felt, partially covered in silver paper and mesh fabric, which has the undulant planes and crumbled-paper effect with which Mr. Gehry's architecture is commonly identified.
Though the fad for his buildings ó which had so much to do with how far they swerved from boxy Modernism ó has cooled in recent years, his innovations are still rightfully appreciated. This show productively deepens our sense of why Mr. Gehry is thought of as among the most sculptural of contemporary architects.
Until January 12 (33 E. 68th St. at Madison Avenue, 212-988-0040).