Gehry Time 

Forget the question of why Lehi got the Gehry project and Salt Lake City didn’t. Let’s just celebrate.

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There are two general rules about the discussion of architecture: First, be careful when bringing up the topic of your favorite local building. This will bore to tears those uninterested in architecture, or puzzle people who’ll think you’re someone who’ll talk about anything. After all, how many people talk about architecture the way they talk about “last night’s game”?

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Second, don’t talk about architecture at all when sharing the company of aesthetes. Pick the wrong building as your favorite and they’ll look at you as if you’ve just confessed to molesting a child.

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Hanging out with some friends years ago, I remember well the audacious moment I named the One Utah Center, recently unveiled in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City, as a creation I quite liked.

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“You gotta be kidding!” my friend responded. “That piece of crap! It’s a disgrace! A joke! That building with the copper hues?! If you like tha,t then you must have a Duracell battery on top of your nightstand! What?! Do you like some little element you can see? Some simplistic, asinine design that gives you a cheap thrill! Jesus Christ, that building’s pathetic!”

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That was probably the last time I hazarded a conversation about architecture with anyone. Still, I can hardly contain myself over the recent announcement that Lehi, of all places, had the unbelievable luck to land a real-estate development that will be designed by the golden touch of “starchitect” and Toronto native Frank Gehry. Here in Salt Lake City we hardly blink an eye when some polygamist cult or self-proclaimed “prophet” freaks out. It’s par for the course that our winters are subject to outrageously unhealthy air. We’re almost numb to the latest moral crusade coming out of the legislative session, or the fact that our education system’s nearing a crisis situation. But when an internationally renowned architect comes out of nowhere to plant his eye on Lehi, it’s not just big news. It’s news of the flabbergasting, incredible sort.

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While not a huge fan of Gehry’s work'at the risk of offending my friend once more, I side with Dutchman Remment Koolhaas, the master behind Seattle Central Library'I know I don’t have to see one inch of his prospective design for the Lehi development. Having seen his Walt Disney Concert Hall up close and personal, I know for certain there’s going to be something to love once this Lehi project’s finished. My heart sinks that some Salt Lake City developer never had the guts to give Gehry a phone call, but let’s not quibble. Utah County entrepreneur and developer Brandt Andersen should get a boatload of accolades and congratulations for making this happen. Besides, we in Salt Lake City already have the marvelous downtown library, designed by Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie, who worked two years under the renowned Louis I. Kahn.

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Good architecture, like good food or good music, is a blessing of such magnitude, most of us don’t realize its full glory until we’re presented with something truly jaw-dropping in stature. It’s no accident that so many of the world’s religions are built around temples, cathedrals and other such structures. High ceilings, colored glass and symmetrical design evoke the soul’s potential. They give off spiritual vibrations. Everyone knows Friedrich Von Schelling’s famous saying that architecture is “music in space, as it were a frozen music.”

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If I could hope for one social trend in the near future, it would be the American public’s wholesale realization of great architecture’s paramount importance in our lives. Hopefully, great architects will one day carry more cachet than rock stars or, dare I say it, professional athletes. With real estate continuing to boom, plus a handful of publications like Dwell showcasing avant house design almost as if it were the new pornography, that day may come yet. If your heart doesn’t skip a beat at the sight of a house designed in the spirit of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilian, you’ve got a heart of stone.

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I’m not the only person fed up with lazy urban planning that puts parking lots before storefronts, commercial developments thrown up almost overnight with little or no concern for the eye and every thought on the bottom line. That’s business, yes. But where’s the unwritten rule that we must be a community of strip-mall zombies and cookie-cutter designs? Anyone who has traveled knows that our downtown Matheson courthouse is hardly distinguishable from other cities’ courthouses. What we need is the establishment of a municipal fund of volunteer donations for the design and construction of something truly unique. We did it with the Main Library. Let’s do it again in the next five to 10 years.

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We live in a city fixed in measurement around one piece of architecture in particular: the downtown Temple. But I think Salt Lake City’s moment of revelation concerning great architecture’s true potential arrived with the opening of Safdie’s marvel of a library. As a Koolhaas fan, I’d have to defer to Seattle’s Central Library as a better piece of work, but not by that much over Safdie’s.

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Gehry has his critics as well as fans. Just as Quentin Tarantino cannot make a film without gratuitous violence, Gehry seems addicted to warped, twisted and bent shapes. His materials are so reflective they allegedly induce sunburn on hot days.

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Someone famously described his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, as walking up to a piece of bunched-up tinfoil. That’s got to be a compliment, however. Walk around his Walt Disney Concert Hall and you’ll be amazed at how many shapes and sights it gives birth to. I relish the anticipation of driving down to Lehi to drink in Gehry’s finished creation, but my aesthete friend won’t be riding shotgun.

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