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RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: These days the Walt Disney concert hall designed by Frank Gehry stands triumphant. At mid-completion, it already claims the sky and taunts its neighbors, the ugly parking lots and mundane office towers of downtown Los Angeles. Because we know its sister- building, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, we can anticipate how these fingers of steel will be clothed. In coming months, the jackhammers will fall silent to Mozart, and millions will come to listen, but also to look at this building that demands to be seen.
When I look at a building like this, I think of architecture with a capital “a”. This is the sort our students study, the sort that wins international fame. Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum is so famous in the world that other cities want one just like it. New York wants its own Frank Gehry Guggenheim plopped down along the east river. Architecture with a capital “a” has been dreamed into being by renaissance popes, by kings, by Thomas Jefferson, by most modernist millionaires, St. Peters, Versailles, Monticello, a Philip Johnson glass house.
Most of us have not lived in such architecture. Most of us live within small “a” architecture. And yet the odd thing, the interesting thing is that American original originality seems to thrive within the mundane architecture we surround ourselves with. For example, some of the most original thinkers in America go to work every day in Silicon Valley office buildings of appallingly unoriginal design.
Or I think of the gay Castro district of my own San Francisco, where sexual freedoms take place behind very proper Victorian facades. It’s almost as though we don’t want or expect the architecture to keep up with our eccentricity and our dreams. Los Angeles, which is one of the great cities of the world, yet much of L.A. is claptrap — small “a” architecture, from the car one sees repetitive strip malls and cheapo apartments. Standard-issue freeways may be L.A.’s truest architecture; they express the singular desire of the citizenry to keep moving. Architecture, capital “a” or small “a,” I think, is not a result of money.
Much of Beverly Hills– the faux-castles of Beverly Hills– amounts to small “a” architecture, whereas one of my favorite houses on the expensive west side of town is this neo- Palladian home designed by Charles Moore. It overlooks and influences not in the least, more conventional houses on surrounding hillsides.
I think there are real dangers to small “a” architecture. Several years ago I remember watching students at Columbine High School running from mayhem. I remember, too, the soulless bulk of their school building. In many parts of America we are sending our sons and daughters to schools that look like factories or office parks. Here in L.A., despite the miles of small “a” architecture, the city seems these days in a monumental mood. One block from the Disney concert hall, the Spanish architect Jose Rafael Moneo has designed a huge cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels that is also in mid-construction. Meant to recall the city’s Spanish origins, the cathedral lords over several freeway interchanges and hillsides of modest houses. It reminds me of the way great medieval cathedrals dwarfed their mundane villages, but thrust some true dream of that village toward the sky.
Here is the paradox: Great architecture, capital “a” architecture, does not reflect our everyday lives. The bland office towers and ugly parking lots reflect our true lives. But great capital “a” architecture, like Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall, also truly reflects the dreams that lie within the every day. These fingers stretching skyward, curving restless, memorialize a great American city normally too busy to be held in steel and stone.
I’m Richard Rodriguez.