A model of the proposed performing arts center to be built with other redevelopment around ground zero. (photo via Gehry Partners)

The Joyce Theater is going to be a lonely Lower Manhattan performance tenant, with vacancies in the building if there are any performing arts organizations hunting for posh new downtown neighbors.

In a statement made earlier this week, New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, alongside Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Patterson, announced a federal funding allocation of $100 million for a much-touted and much-delayed performing arts center at Ground Zero designed by Frank Gehry’s firm.

Silver said that “this $100 million commitment clearly paves the way for this long-promised performing arts center,” and that it “will be a cultural jewel for Lower Manhattan.”

Initially, the Signature Theatre Company, an Off-Broadway house, had signed on with the modern dance Joyce Theater to be a tenant in the new Gehry building downtown, but Signature backed out when they got their own Gehry space closer to the Theatre District in Hell’s Kitchen.

Way back in 2004, Gehry spoke with the New York Times about designing for the Ground Zero site.

“I have stayed away from ground zero,” Gehry, who is based in Los Angeles, told the Times by telephone, before the site had become as contentious and symbolic as it sometimes feels these days. “It just felt like, ‘I’m not in New York, it’s so emotional.’”

And even before that, in the early 2000s, Frank Gehry had an itch to build in Lower Manhattan. The idea was to build a billion dollar billowing new building to serve up the Guggenheim’s collection to art-starved downtown with an enormous new museum situated on the East River. But the Guggenheim’s financial troubles especially with the backlash against Gehry’s signature aesthetic as nothing more than the “wreckage of modernism” combined in the wake of 9/11  to kill the project.

An illustration of the now-defunct billion dollar Frank Gehry East River Guggenheim building. Post-9/11 someone sent a letter to the architect saying that the structure looked “like the rubble” of the World Trade Center. (photo via wirednewyork.com)

“I got a nasty letter about my building in New York,” Gehry told Doug Sanders in an interview shortly after September 11, 2001. “They said that I shouldn’t build it because it looks like the rubble.”

The projects sail-like shapes dissolved, resurfacing quietly as a faint echo a few years later in his design for InterActive Corp.’s headquarters.

“I thought they should build a five- to six-acre covered space with gardens,” Gehry said to the Times in 2004 of the ground zero site. “It could be used by the Philharmonic, by theater — a cultural park that had the ability to be quiet and contemplative and to be used for public events.”

The site for the performing arts center — described by Gehry as “a complicated project” with “a small footprint that is vertical” where it will be necessary to “put theater on top of theater” — sounds similar to the challenges addressed by Jean Nouvel’s design for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. The result, though, with stacked and torqued cubes on a smaller footprint with more tenants, will have to be more vertical and more versatile.

An undated watercolor by German expressionist architect Hans Scharoun. German expressionism, when it found its way into architecture around 1920, imagined enormous, crystalline structures as jewels ornamenting cities. (image via http://www.ifg.uni-kiel.de/

Gehry’s no stranger to designing a cultural jewel for a downtown setting. With iconic buildings in cities around the world, including the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago, Gehry has demonstrated a forceful use of  flamboyant design to liven drab, tower-clad downtowns with his own variant of architectural expressionism — a variant that’s not unlike Libeskind’s but with more curves and without the somber memorial career (it’s worth noting that Gehry’s one building in Las Vegas is a clinic for brain health, not a shopping mall…).

The accusations that Gehry’s structures are just modern wreckage with functional plumbing are not baseless, but they do ignore an architectural precedent that emerged alongside the Bauhaus and modernism as a kind of fractal, proto-psychadelic utopian alternative; many of Gehry’s designs call to mind the elaborate crystalline structures envisioned in the interwar years by a group of German expressionist architects that included Hans Scharoun or Bruno Taut.

The German expressionists  dreamed up fantastical crystalline structures of iron and glass that presented too many engineering challenges to be realized. If modernism invented an economical new language using the new materials of iron, glass, and concrete, then the expressionists were already trying to imagine the structures and shapes so complex that they that presented structural challenges to these new buildings materials. And as an alternative to the minimal modernism of Mies van der Rohe or the clear-out-the-old approach of Le Corbusier, the expressionists envisioned a vaguely utopian future where palatial, mineral-like structures created a prismatic reflection of the cities they were situated in — an idea that was far too radical and impractical to be built at the time. The extravagance of their imagination shared more with Constructivism than it did with modernism.

Fast forward to today and it’s probably more accurate to identify Gehry as an American expressionist working in this tradition of the built-utopian fragment than to call him a graveyard modernist. The fact that he’s got such incredibly good engineers that can temper his impractical utopian visions with brilliant execution is the notable incursion of modernism.

Gehry’s designs are intended to be as loud or louder than the cultural institutions that they house. Think of it as New York’s next Lincoln Center — just downtown this time.

The project will likely take years to complete, if it’s ever finished, since extensive work is still being done to the World Trade Center foundations. And construction of the new center cannot begin until those are done.

Furthermore, with a full price tag of $450 million and a sole tenant with total assets less than $20 million as of 2008, they might as well contract Swarovsky to build the place since there’s such a dizzying quantity of money that needs to come from somewhere to actualize this Gehry-chic performing arts palace downtown.

And it’s all subject further make it or break it discussion by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation in an as-yet unscheduled board meeting sometime in November.

For more information, see what the New York Observer, Bloomberg’s Own Bloomberg, and the New York Times are saying.

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Ian Epstein

Ian Epstein is a freelance writer and photographer living in New York City. He has worked for The...

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