Peter B. Lewis ’55’s comment in reference to Frank Gehry’s Lewis Library — “Every building he designs surprises me” (cover story, Oct. 8) — pulled me up short. The only thing surprising about the new library (I’m judging only from PAW’s photographs) is its immediate site sensitivity, not exactly a Gehry hallmark. In almost every other way this building not only fulfills the expectations modernist architecture invented and honed in the 20th century, but also gives us that unmistakably sculptural feel of any mature Gehry structure — or Gehry-esque structure, for that matter.
At one glance, we know this is contemporary architecture à la Frank Gehry, just as at one glance we know that Whitman College is collegiate gothic. Once you’ve created “a new architectural language,” as William Mitchell puts it, the buildings that use it, that speak it, are no longer profoundly innovative. And though the Lewis Library possesses unique aspects, it also is comfortably familiar, which is, to my eye, Gehry’s real achievement here: an elegant poise between the newfangled and the predictable, the one-of-a-kind and the commonplace. But surprising? Hardly.
What troubles me is not the building itself but the way we talk about it — “we” constituting both its fans and its detractors. Modernism, born out of a rejection of what it saw as moribund traditions and their rules, always has been loath to acknowledge its own rules, de rigueur gestures, shibboleths. “Challenge viewers’ expectations!” is still its battle cry, even though a challenge to our expectations is, now, exactly what we expect.
What the Academy of Modernism has not done is to prepare us to grasp and appreciate those inevitable and necessary aspects of new work that can only be described in our current flawed discourse as traditional — whether the tradition is centuries or merely decades old.