"The world is not a rectilinear world, it is a curvilinear world. The heavenly bodies go in a curve because that is the
natural way..."

-- George Bernard Shaw

"I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein."

-- Oscar Niemeyer

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

5. Las Vegas: Lou Ruvo Centre for Brain Health

If you look in the dictionary under "WOWchitecture", you'll see a photo of Frank Gehry.

OK, so there's no such word as WOWchitecture. I made it up. Poetic license and all that. Still, if you look in Wikipedia under "Starchitect", the first image will be that of Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

Toronto-born and California reared, Gehry is quite simply the world's most famous living architect. Just about everything he builds is dubbed iconic. And rightly so in the case of his swirling titanium masterpieces like "El Goog", the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and Chicago's Millenium Park bandshell. He has a Pritzker Prize, which is often described as the Academy Award of Architecture -- although I've yet to see a winning architect show up wearing an embarrassing gown or deliver a drunken speech.

Perhaps Gehry's greatest accomplishment has been building a classy building in Las Vegas -- a city he swore he'd never work in. The Lou Ruvo Centre for Brain Health has just about everything you'd expect from a Gehry building: extreme design, swirling metal, and controversy over what it represents.

"What does the building mean?" Gehry asks, anticipating the usual question. "The objective is to have a building that has feelings, that has an emotional response to the place it's in, to the topic that it's addressing, and to the people that are going to view it."

Like most Gehry buildings, the Centre, which opened in 2010 doesn't seem to spring organically from its natural surroundings:

In this case, the building was deliberately designed to be provocative (as if a Gehry building could be anything else). The Centre wanted a building that would encourage people walking by its downtown Las Vegas site to come in and begin a dialogue on the prevention and treatment of brain diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's.

True to it's word, when I visited in late 2012, an eager volunteer sprang from the building with a load of information about the Centre's ground-breaking research and treatment, as well as its architecture. I learned, for example that the building has 199 windows, no two of which are alike:

Each window has a custom-fitted computerized shade connected to its own motor so can close independently when the baking Mojave desert sun becomes too much. The windows are set in an undulating stainless steel canopy made up of 18,000 shingles, each cut to unique measurements. It's all held together by 30,000 steel bolts.

The Centre consists of two sections: the "molten-metal clad" event centre, and a more conventional-looking treatment and research facility. Connecting the two is a colourful courtyard:

Gehry's buildings may not be as organic as those of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose horizontally expressed prairie houses mirror the flat plains on which they're set. But in its own way, the Lou Ruvo Centre is the perfect symbol for its location. After all, what could say "Las Vegas" better than palm trees in the desert and a handful of hot dice:

Unlike the proverbial lion in winter, Gehry, at age 84, hasn't lost any of his growl  or bite. He's still carving out new architectural roads and snapping back at critics who refuse to follow. Here's a preview of his Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation that will open later this year in Paris:

And here's what he's planning for one of downtown Toronto's main streets:

The latter, a trio of 80+ story skyscrapers, would create a global icon in the heart of Toronto. It would also provide an enduring tribute to the architect-genius who still has a strong emotional connection to his birthplace. 

Yet, as with nearly all Gehry buildings, there is considerable controversy and opposition to the project. Toronto is a city that is slow to warm to the avant-garde. Much of its populace considers the design too bold. And the city's planning department, whose name has never been mentioned in the same sentence as "visionary" or "daring", claims it's too high. Meanwhile, Gehry himself has said he'd rather pull the project than see it butchered.

Stay tuned. This is going to be interesting.