There are those who will assure you that the arrival of Frank Gehry's office building, at 18th Street and Eleventh Avenue, signals that New York City has finally come into its own as a center of architecture, if not of culture in general. For such critics, the absence, until now, of a large-scale project by Mr. Gehry (or by Rem Koolhaas, for that matter) has been a standing reproach to Gotham, proof that we lacked the cultural sophistication of Chicago, Paris, and Los Angeles.
But when New Yorkers finally see this work up close the result is likely to be a kind of aesthetic dissonance. After all, your mind keeps telling you that the Sails (as the building is called because of the swelling undulations of its pale façade) is a great and important building, but your eye refuses to co-operate. Once you admit into the realms of possibility, however, that the building might just be a mess, you may find that those mists of perplexity dissipate ever so slightly.
Like most of Mr. Gehry's work, this latest example, the headquarters of Barry Diller's InterActiveCorp (IAC), is in the Deconstructivist style. Surely no one likes the term or would ever dream of applying it to himself, but it serves the purpose of distinguishing its many proponents from the historicists and the neomodernists, practitioners of the two other ruling architectural idioms of the day. It has been the one notable achievement of this style, more than any other, to exploit formal variety and asymmetry. The result has been a wealth of ever changing vantage points that have few parallels in the largely modular and symmetrical architecture of the past.
In the case of the IAC, however, it requires more good will than I can muster to find an angle from which the building truly works. Even the Guggenheim at Bilbao, for all its faults, manages to rise with a surge of grandiose semicoherence along the banks of the city's river, at least when viewed head-on. Its fault lies rather in its details, structural ineptitudes, and the tendency of Mr. Gehry and his architectural contemporaries to favor stunt over function. Invoking an almost obtuse conceptual simplicity, this 10-story building rises as a setback over a five-story base. Five bays ripple across the base along Eleventh Avenue and three across the setback.
Mainly white due to its fritted windows, the building becomes dark, almost black at the points in each window where the frits at the floor and ceiling vanish around the center to stunt form over function.
At the IAC, however, Bilbao's coherence is never achieved. Recently I viewed it under crisp blue skies that served as an ideal backdrop to this bonewhite building. But the clumsiness of the structure's three main sides was apparent, whether seen from uptown, downtown or dead-on at the other side of the West Side Highway. The best I could do for the pile was to acknowledge that, from the north, the billowing bays along Eleventh Avenue stacked up in a moderately interesting way. I have also seen at least one image in which a photographer has skillfully framed his picture so as to tease a hint of grace, even poetry from the roof.
But it must be wondered after all if the building is worth the effort. Doubtless its very clumsiness was in part intentional. There has always been a whiff of ruckus rodeo to Mr. Gehry's architecture, a sort of awe-shucks, all-American populism that proudly rejects the sheer symmetries and austere high-mindedness of European Modernism. An analogy would be the goofy figurative turn that Phillip Guston's paintings famously took around 1970. And yet, here as elsewhere, we must remind ourselves that simply because there is a coincidence of intention and result does not necessarily validate a cultural artifact.
Whoever came up with the moniker, the Sails, surely intended to invoke, not only the maritime associations of the nearby Hudson and the linenlike undulations of the pale façade, but also the purity, the simplicity of a ship at sea. Nevertheless, the name sorts ill with the clearly debased, almost abject and cartoonish quality of the building.
From a practical point of view as well, the building falls short. On my most recent visit to the site, one of the windows of its towering curtain-wall had shattered. I learned from the security detail that a truck-tire had burst a few feet away and this was the result. If a building's façade literally falls to pieces in the face of so miniscule an adversity, one dreads to speculate what the place will look like in 10 years.
And call me old-fashioned, but I have always felt that buildings should have doors. You know: entrance ways or, at the very least, exits. In the present building, these are almost nowhere to be found, and when at last they are discovered loitering along the side streets, they seem so timid and self-effacing that they might as well not be there at all. Surely the suppression of doorways is a sign of Mr. Gehry's striving yet again for the defiant antiheroism evident in the very massing of the building overall. There is an ostentatious refusal to accentuate —as any other architect would have done — the center of the building at its main orientation along Eleventh Avenue.
The best that can be said for the new IAC is that it proves, as do the three Richard Meier buildings half a mile south along the Hudson, that New York generally and the Far West Side specifically, have developed a taste for self-conscious acts of architecture. Whether that makes the Sails any better than the unpretentious contextualism of the buildings at Trump Place, two and a half miles north, I leave my readers to adjudicate.