(above) Beekman Place apartment tower, September 2010, designed by Frank Gehry—construction nearing completion.

Frank Gehry certainly knows how to breathe new life into an old idea. He also knows how to create dramatic forms that create an impression of being daringly innovative even while he meets the demands of clients for more or less conventional spaces serving entirely conventional purposes. He is the undisputed master in our time of architectural styling. His new seventy-six storey residential tower in Lower Manhattan is stunning confirmation.

The importance of styling should be neither over- nor under-estimated. Changing the appearance of a product without significantly altering the way its works or other aspects of its content is indeed superficial—literally—and yet, today, appearance is an important part of any product’s content. This is increasingly so in a time characterized by continual change and that extensively uses mass-media to present products to potential consumers. A new style signals a new development in the ways people live, or that producers hope people will want to live. Also, a new style alters people’s sensibilities about many important things that cannot be directly experienced or expressed; for example, their community’s priorities and values.

The blocky, gridded facades of tall buildings of the 1950s testifies to the ideal of a rational and predictable social order based on conformity to presumably universal norms. Gehry’s skyscraper, while conforming in its interiors (the living units) to the accepted rational norms, gives the appearance of being idiosyncratic, unique, and transformative rather than stable. Its facades appear to be bent, folded, or wrinkled as though by accident—even though these ‘accidents’ are not accidental at all, but rather the result of careful design and highly controlled and sophisticated construction technology. In our present media-dominated, image-conscious society, it is not the causes that are most important, but the effects.

This is hardly a new phenomenon. Ever since, in the early 20th century, product advertising through all forms of communications media was designed to appeal to the emotions rather than the rational intellect, the image of a product has taken precedence in people’s perceptions, and choices. Below, the crystal set radio—one of the first mass-media products—reflects the straight-forward, ‘functional’ appeal of a new technology in the 1920s. By 1950, the same radio—techincally—is wrapped in a new cover reflecting the streamlined, speeded-up character of modern life and also its increasing concern with appearances and the symbolic impact of form. The crystal set is, in a sense, innocent, while its sleek, stylish descendent is unashamedly self-conscious.


(below, l. to r.) Crystal set radio from the 1920s, and 1950 version of the same product:


(below) Lower Manhattan today, an ensemble of skyscrapers and sensibilities spanning the last century. From a recent article in the New York Times: “What is important to him, Mr. Gehry said, isn’t how the folds look but what they do to the interior, which unfurls in a riot of angled alcoves and bay windows.”


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