Snap Judgment: Getting the right Gehry

What's the connection between the controversy over a proposed museum in J'lem and another in Abu Dhabi?

Gaza kids (photo credit: )
Gaza kids
(photo credit: )
There's a big hole in downtown Jerusalem, on the site of a former parking garage adjacent to Independence Park, slated to serve as the future location of a "Museum of Tolerance" built by the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center. After human bones were uncovered during excavations there last year, Israeli Arab groups and the Wakf (the Muslim religious council) petitioned the High Court of Justice to halt construction, claiming the remains indicate the property is part an adjacent Islamic cemetery. So far, all compromise efforts between the Arab complainants and the Wiesenthal Center have failed. Whatever the outcome, these are clearly inauspicious beginnings for an edifice supposedly dedicated to the theme of tolerance. The project got off to a far more promising start at a press conference five years ago, at which I was in attendance. My interest wasn't so much the content of the museum per se, but its designer: Frank Gehry, arguably the world's most celebrated living architect. Following the story over the next few months gave me the chance to see up close two of the works - the Bilbao (Spain) Guggenheim Museum and Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall - whose bold forms have rightly made Gehry both a popular favorite and the darling of the architectural avant-garde. The Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance was no ordinary project for Gehry. Born Frank Goldberg, Gehry said he had only changed his name to avoid the anti-Semitism still found in some top architectural firms back when he entered the profession. "If you're raised a Jewish kid, Israel's the most important place in the world where there's some sense of belonging when all else fails," Gehry told reporters that day. FIVE YEARS on, though, Jerusalem is still waiting for its first Gehry building. In the meantime, another project by the architect in this region has been announced - but that too has already become mired in controversy, even before any ground has been broken. This is the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim, a far-flung franchise of the famed New York City modern art museum to be constructed in the oil-rich capital of the United Arab Emirates, as part of a new multi-billion "cultural district" project on Saadiyat Island, that will also include a branch of the Louvre. Although Abu Dhabi is considered one of the more "liberal" Gulf states, it is still, by any standards outside the Islamic world, a reactionary society run by a dictatorial regime. The irony of the Guggenheim setting up shop there in a Gehry-designed building has not been lost on the art world. A harshly critical article on the project in New York magazine recently noted: "Abu Dhabi harbors 9 percent of the world's known oil reserves and 4 percent of its gas. However, it also harbors something else: a stringent anti-Israel policy. Numerous government sites warn that Israeli passport holders and travelers whose passports contain Israeli stamps will be denied entry visas to the Emirates. Thus, the Guggenheim - founded by a Jewish family, an institution with Jewish curators and scores of works by Jewish artists, designed by the Jewish Gehry - isn't really welcome either." THAT'S NOT quite accurate. The rulers of Abu Dhabi, anxious to spend their petrodollars on tourism investment, seem all too eager to pay for a Gehry Guggenheim that, at 30,000 square meters, will be larger than even the famed original landmark NYC museum building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Importing Western culture, rather than Western social or political views, seems a safer bet for the sheikhs in attracting Western visitors who today are more prone to drop in on neighboring Dubai. Nobody knows what the assimilated Guggenheim family members who set up the original museum over 50 years ago would really have to say today about having their name emblazoned on an institution designed principally to serve the interests of an Islamic state. But surely such patrons of progressive culture as Solomon and Peggy Guggenheim would not be comfortable with the agreement that grants the government of Abu Dhabi the right to ban any art they deem too "controversial"- including the nudes that are a foundation of Western painting and sculpture - from being displayed in a museum that bears their name. Nor can I imagine they would be pleased that just last month, the NGO Human Rights Watch publicly complained that the Guggenheim had not responded to its requests to discuss how the rights of migrant workers, routinely exploited in the Gulf states, will be protected as they labor to fulfill Gehry's architectural vision. Not that I would want to begrudge anyone a Frank Goldberg - ummm, Gehry - building. Visiting Bilbao a few years ago to see the truly breathtaking structure he designed for the Guggenheim branch there, I saw firsthand the impact a brilliant piece of architecture can have on what was once a backwater Spanish industrial town. Gehry's billowing, free-form metal-clad shapes are not to everyone's taste (they've been compared to alien spaceships), and some local architectural critics have already expressed disfavor with the plans submitted for the Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance. Others have objected more to the proposed content of the Simon Wiesenthal Center project, arguing the money would be better spent on coexistence projects than another costly edifice, especially after the controversy over the Arab graves emerged. For this architecture buff, the presence of beautiful buildings makes this world a more bearable place to live, even if sometimes it's disturbing to dwell on their dubious origins (such as just how many slaves died to build the pyramids). I'd like to see a Gehry in Jerusalem, and certainly prefer Abu Dhabi spending its money on a Gehry of its own, rather than use it building more mosques and madrassas to spread the word of fundamentalist Islam. But I can't help thinking it would serve both of us better if at this stage we just switch projects. Israel would certainly benefit by having its own Guggenheim. And it's clear that Abu Dhabi desperately needs a museum dedicated to tolerance - with or without nudes. [email protected]