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King Alfred development - Gehry: visionary or vandal?
Published: September 7, 2005
|Architect Frank Gehry|
Next week councillors will decide the fate of the proposed £220 million leisure and apartment complex at Hove's King Alfred Centre. Rob Hustwayte looks at some of renowned architect Frank Gehry's other buildings around the world and the impact they have had on architecture.
It is probably fair to say that the designs for the King Alfred Centre would have been laughed into the sea long ago had it not been for the reputation of Frank Gehry.
Although far less radical than the original Four Maidens plan, or the Tin Can Towers depending on your opinion, the proposals are still unlike anything else seen in the city before.
The plans on the table include ten abstract towers of different height providing about 750 homes.
They will surround a £30 million sport, leisure and shopping complex.
The fate of the site and the merits of Gehry's plans have been hotly debated for several years.
Architect Frank Gehry
Conservationists say they are totally out of character in the setting of quiet, spacious, and traditional Hove.
Supporters say it is a unique opportunity to create a landmark which will one day be compared with Brighton's Royal Pavilion.
Those who back the plan have either been convinced by the designs or impressed with Gehry's canon of iconic work.
The Canadian-born designer, 76, is perhaps the most famous and celebrated architect in the world and has decided he wants to build in Hove.
Dr Anthony Seldon, principal of Brighton College and author of Brave New City, a blueprint for the future of Brighton and Hove, said: "Frank Gehry is of a similar stature to Henri Matisse or even Pablo Picasso.
"It would be an act of artistic vandalism without parallel in 200 years to turn our back on him."
Gehry won architecture's version of a Nobel prize, the Pritzker, in 1989.
But it was his work in building the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, northern Spain, which made Gehry world - famous and recognised outside architectural circles.
Anyone visiting Bilbao a decade ago would have found a dirty, run-down industrial city with a seedy reputation and a high crime rate.
The Basque Country Administration commissioned Gehry to design a building for its new museum that would attract visitors from around the globe. That's exactly what it has done.
The museum attracted 1.3 million visitors in the first year, three times the number of people originally expected.
The Guggenheim has sparked new investment in the city and improvements to public transport.
It has put the previously-insignificant city on the map.
It has triggered work to increase capacity at the city's port, the revamping of the airport, a new conference and performing arts centre and the construction of a metropolitan railway spearheaded by another venerated designer, Sir Norman Foster.
The natives of Bilbao have taken to referring to the Guggenheim as "the artichoke," which is a description of the abstract titanium volumes that form the focal point of the building.
The building is an extraordinary combination of interconnecting shapes. Eight-sided blocks in limestone contrast with curved and bent forms covered in titanium. Glass curtain walls provide the building with light and transparency.
They were installed to protect the works of art from heat and radiation.
The half-millimetre thick "fish-scale" titanium panels covering most of the building are guaranteed to last 100 years.
Gehry was inspired by memories of the live fish his grandmother bought and placed in the bath before cooking.
The Guggenheim is a glistening example of architecture as art. Gehry's latest headline-grabbing offering is the Walt Disney Concert Hall in his native California, which has been nicknamed the "sparkling artichoke."
To some it is a glistening, cubist masterpiece while to others it resembles an exploding tin can.
Gehry fans are quick to point out there was widespread objection to his plan in Bilbao originally and emphasise the good it did for the city in the end. They say Hove simply cannot lose with an architect of such renown and accuse critics of nimbyism.
He has even brought a dash of Hollywood glamour to the project by drafting in apprentice Brad Pitt to work on the design.
In 2003 Gehry completed his first building in Britain.
The cancer centre in Dundee was designed as a tribute to Scots architect Maggie Jencks, who died of the disease ten years ago. It includes a steel roof which changes colour as it reflects the sky above.
No wall in the £1.43 million building is straight and it has a central tower resembling a lighthouse. Gehry's status as one of the world's most revered architects may not be enough to save two of his creations from demolition in California – the Santa Monica Place shopping mall and a building on the University College Irvine campus.
The mall was not popular with many Santa Monica residents, who said it did not mesh with the city's outdoor, beach environment.
A developer wants to replace it with a large commercial and residential complex, but some in the community oppose those plans.
UC Irvine officials say they are tearing down their 17,800 sq ft Gehry building because the roofs leak, the ventilation systems are failing and the structures have dry rot. It reportedly cost two million dollars to build in 1986 and repairing the faults would cost many times that.
Not everyone is seduced by Gehry's reputation. Dr Geoffrey Baker, a retired reader in architecture at Brighton Polytechnic and a Hove resident, is passionately opposed to the King Alfred towers.
He says supporters of the project are being swept up in a tide of Gehry hysteria.
Dr Baker is convinced celebrity architects and iconic buildings are a fad. He says: "These are now swiftly moving out of favour both within the architectural milieu and among municipalities as it is realised iconic buildings are irrelevant because they do not commemorate anything worthwhile."
While Dr Baker admires Gehry he says what was successful in Bilbao and Los Angeles will not work in Hove.
He adds: "The Guggenheim Museum is on the edge of town.
"The Walt Disney Concert Hall is in a typical American downtown devoid of interest, atmosphere or character. In such characterless situations his buildings are a welcome distraction. They add sparkle and vitality.
"Frank Gehry, distinguished though he may be, has apparently not spent sufficient time in Hove to understand its unique location.
"The towers will overwhelm their small-scale immediate neighbourhood, will place large areas in shadow and will cause serious wind turbulence."
He says the development will add to congestion problems and argues it would be far better to spend money on a makeover of the King Alfred Centre.
Architect Richard Coleman, of Sackville Road, Hove, says there is no comparison between Hove and Bilbao.
He said: "Hove does not need that kind of a boost. The Guggenheim was central to the regeneration of Bilbao but Hove is not run-down.
"This is not a major public building but primarily a residential development on a site which has to be developed.
"It will do no harm to Hove and will refocus what was known to be the historical centre of Hove.
"Gehry's work is a joy to behold. He is one of the greats of architecture. He has always lived life on the edge with an organic approach to design.
"People are understandably apprehensive about change but this is a magnificent opportunity to revitalise a gateway to the city."