When his uproarious new building, the Experience Music Project, opens later this week in Seattle, it will be easy to forget that Frank Gehry, who is the world's most famous architect, was once just the world's most famous strange architect. That was in the 1980s, when to some people his angular rethinking looked all elbows. That was also when his mixture of high concept with cheap materials--chain link fencing, corrugated metal, pressed plywood--was getting his work labeled "populist," which generally means brainy but cheap. In 1981, when he was named Architect of the Year by his peers in California, he figured he should use the opportunity to accept his prize with a talk titled "I'm Not Weird."
"I was always mentally ducking," he says now. "People would yell at me and say, 'You can't do that.'" Nobody says no to Gehry anymore, certainly not since the triumph three years ago of his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. His hurtling design there was certified at once as "the most important building of our time" by Philip Johnson, the very gray eminence of American architects. It may also be the most purely delightful. With its improbable towers tilting against themselves and its titanium sheathing in full refulgent glow, it brings on a question that the world has not enjoyed asking itself since the first moon landings: If this is possible, what isn't?
The new Guggenheim has also flooded tourists into Bilbao, provided backup curves in a Mariah Carey video and was featured in the most recent James Bond film. What this means is that Gehry has managed to be both intellectually respectable and popular, not just populist, a balancing act that makes his tilted towers look easy. Richard Meier is the great American architect whose stately modernist buildings, most of them in a white so ideal it could be used for the table settings at Plato's Symposium, are the very opposite of Gehry's Baroque tumblings. Yet even Meier is happy about the way Bilbao has made architecture "part of public discussion again. All of a sudden people will say, 'This is architecture. It is not just building.'"
You could say that about the Experience Music Project, Gehry's first major public building to open in the U.S. since he did Bilbao. Located at the foot of that beloved American knickknack, the Seattle Space Needle, the EMP is an "interactive" rock museum costing $240 million (more than $100 million for Gehry's building, the rest for the museum installed within it). The money comes by way of Paul Allen, the billionaire Microsoft co-founder, who has his own rock band, a lifelong thing for Seattle native Jimi Hendrix and enough cash to indulge his pleasures in a big way. There may be no bigger way to do that than to hand yourself over to Gehry, whose work is the pleasure principle engraved in stone, twisted glass, titanium and crimson stainless steel. Gehry tells a story about one of a German client who came to him after seeing an earlier Gehry building in Switzerland: "He said to me, 'That one was Wow! Now give us Wow! Wow! Wow!'"