Much fanfare has followed the opening of Princeton University’s 87,000 square-foot Frank Gehry-designed Lewis Science Library on the first day of classes this September. And coupled with the opening of the building, the Princeton University Art Museum is hosting the first museum show ever devoted entirely to Gehry’s architectural drawings on view through January 4.

Gehry’s whimsical, expressionistic designs draw significant and often controversial attention, but something not often discussed is the fact that the viewer is often left wondering how such structures were created. This is where Gehry’s drawings come into play, 31 of which are on display at the art museum.

The exhibition, “Frank Gehry: On Line,” was organized by Esther da Costa Meyer, associate professor of art and archaeology at Princeton, who also wrote the accompanying book with the same name (co-published by the Princeton University Art Museum and Yale University Press). “I can think of no better way to mark the completion of the Lewis Library than with an exhibition devoted to Gehry’s sketches,” says da Costa Meyer, a native of Brazil, who earned her Ph.D. from Yale in 1987. She teaches modern architecture from the late 18th century to the present, and is in the process of completing a book on urban change and social history in 19th-century Paris. (Adedoyin Teriba, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of art and archeology, will give a lecture, “Frank Gehry’s Renown: An Image of Us” at the museum on Friday and Sunday, October 17 and 19.)

Even the innovative packaging that da Costa Meyer’s book comes in — bound in metallic-coated paper, the book is inserted in a corrugated cardboard slip case — alludes to Gehry’s creative use of the same materials. Visitors to the exhibit will notice the three corrugated cardboard chairs that function both as art and actual seats.

The sketches do not immediately seem connected to the finished buildings. On their own, without the context supplied by da Costa Meyer in her book, they appear cut off from the finished work, as if they were drawn by another hand. In the fall of 2007, I wrote about my impressions of the Lewis Library then under construction (U.S.1, Oct. 3, 2007). I had been photographing the site and emerging building since contractors broke ground in late 2004. After four years of watching this building grow, it’s almost difficult to see it functioning as a science library, among its other uses. I was familiar with it in its unfinished state — skeletal, exposed, provisional — sketchy. Somehow, unfinished, it seemed closer to Gehry’s original idea for the building.

In a conversation with da Costa Meyer, I was chastised for calling the drawings “scribbles.” But it was inconceivable to me that these fairly abstract sketches were used as tools for moving from idea to finished building. It was not until I watched Sydney Pollack’s documentary film, “Sketches of Frank Gehry” (2006), that I was able to comprehend that in a tight-knit architectural firm like Gehry Partners, a nebulous sketch could be understood as something more than a gesture made with lines. (The documentary will be screened on Wednesday, November 5, at the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts.)

A scene in the film shows Lewis Library project designer Craig Webb (Princeton Class of 1974 and a partner in the Gehry firm) sitting at a table with Gehry, cutting pieces and fixing them to an informal model. Gehry’s not sure why something isn’t working with the model, but says “it’s pompous” and gestures to Webb to strip a couple of forms. Webb cuts them out from the model and Gehry folds them into a kind of accordion, saying that they need to “get corrugated.” Webb cuts and folds the stiff paper with the metallic silver sheen and applies it to the model. Gehry laughs and says, “it’s so stupid, it’s great.”

So somehow they got from pompous to stupid in quick succession. By “stupid,” I take it that Gehry, who turns 80 in February, meant that there was a simple solution to the problem at hand, and that the solution required thinking outside the box.

I began to see that if Gehry and Webb can work together intuitively in such a way that they can interpret each others’ meaning, perhaps the team can indeed translate Gehry’s sketches into a model, and from there, continue to modify successive models (sometimes up to 30) through back-and-forth discussion and cutting and pasting. In the book “Gehry Draws” (MIT Press, 2004) Webb discusses the chronology of what happens when Gehry puts a drawing on the table. “Frank describes what it is. So it’s both verbal description and the drawing of a gesture. And then I try to get the energy of the gesture in the drawing. . . . We usually work in sequence: first the drawings, then a model, then Frank looks at the model, evaluates it, and then makes more drawings. Then we make more models. And so on.”

Where do they go from there? Once a satisfactory model is reached, a more sophisticated technology takes over. When his team scans the final model into software called Computer-Aided Three-Dimensional Interactive Application (CATIA) — the same technology used by Boeing to fashion airplanes — Gehry tells Pollack in “Sketches of Frank Gehry” that he sees the resulting image as “a dried-out version of what I’m thinking.” He has trouble keeping the original idea in his head when confronted by the imagery spit out by the computer. Yet, this software program is what allows him the freedom to design with some abandon, since the dimensions of the elements and forms are all calculated within the program and allow the contractors to work without traditional detailed drawings.

Where did Gehry’s unique esthetic come from? Born in Toronto in 1929, Gehry and his family then moved to Timmons, a small mining town in Ontario. His father, Irving Goldberg, worked for a time for a pinball and slot-machine supplier, then later became an award-winning window display artist. (Gehry, who has said in interviews that he remembers as a child going with his father to restaurants that had signs saying “No Jews Allowed,” changed his name as an adult, but admits he regrets that decision.) In 1947 the family moved to California. Much later, after Gehry’s father died in 1962 and Gehry was already grown, his mother, Thelma (of Polish descent), worked in a department store, eventually becoming head of the drapery department, adding interior design to her resume. In an article in Time magazine in June, 2000, Gehry is quoted as saying: “So the creative genes were there. But my father thought I was a dreamer, I wasn’t gonna amount to anything. It was my mother who thought I was just reticent to do things. She would push me.”

His first job was driving a delivery truck. He then attended Los Angeles City College, graduating with a degree in architecture from the University of Southern California in 1954. He joined Victor Gruen Associates, where he had apprenticed part-time while still in school. After a year in the army, he was admitted to Harvard Graduate School of Design to study urban planning, but never completed a degree. He briefly worked for Pereira and Luckman, then rejoined Gruen, where he stayed until 1960. He also worked in Paris for a short term and returned to Los Angeles in 1962 to establish his own architectural practice. He divorced his first wife, Anita Snyder, in 1968.

Early on Gehry was known chiefly for the deconstructed esthetic, which he established in the 1970s. He created collage-like structures from materials that were widely present in the built environment around him, such as chain-link fencing, corrugated metal, and plywood. Interestingly, Gehry’s own house did not reflect the high-tech vision he is noted for now, at least not initially. It was a modest pink bungalow in Santa Monica, which he and his second wife, Berta Aguilera from Panama, purchased in 1978, in between the births of their two sons, Alejandro and Samuel, born in 1976 and 1979. Gehry soon, however, let his ideas for his own house run wild — he was, after all, his own client — taking “off-the-shelf” materials and combining them into a deliberately non-coherent package that surrounded the original house. This risky endeavor — inspired by the freedom evident in artist Robert Rauschenberg’s assemblage work at the time, as well as Picasso and Braque’s earlier 20th-century forays into cubism — jumpstarted his journey to becoming an architectural risk-taker extraordinaire.

Not only did his work go against the grain of the current esthetic, it was also about as low-tech as you could get. But as Gehry continued to thwart both the purist Modernist boxes and flagrant postmodern recalls of traditional forms, he began to see the expressive possibilities of new technologies and materials. His Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rheim, Germany, completed in 1989, is cited as a turning point in this new direction, where curves began to infiltrate his aesthetic. The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (1989), the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (2003), and the Stata Center at MIT in Cambridge (2004) have cemented his reputation as the progenitor of curvaceous metallic structures that defy convention. Essentially he has dropped the collage esthetic — along with dropping lower-end clients, such as commercial stores and residential houses — but has retained the cubist one.

In 1992, as Gehry’s work shifted to more complex shapes and arrangements of elements, he and his research and technology team changed the way his practice approached design. Paper-based documentation of architectural projects could not accurately express his designs. Gehry built a team of professionals that began using advanced 3D aerospace technologies to design, document, and go directly from design to construction. The team founded Gehry Technologies (GT) in 2002 to bring technology and methodology advances to the wider architecture and building industries. Gehry Technologies develops and sells Digital ProjectT, a suite of powerful 3D building information modeling (BIM) and management tools that operates on the CATIA platform.

Ideally, the BIM software eliminates the guessing game of presenting the multitude of forms and dimensions inherent in any Gehry building to a contractor. Greg Ondick of Barr & Barr Inc. Builders, the architectural project manager and general contractor for the Lewis Library, said in the Princeton Weekly Bulletin (September 15, 2008), “you couldn’t build a building like this without the modeling software. It tells us where to put a brick, where to erect a beam, how much glass to cut.” Da Costa Meyer sees great irony in this fact. As she and I tour the exhibition at the Princeton Art Museum, she says that “Gehry’s team has pioneered this high-tech approach to design; on the other hand, he is holding onto an older tradition of architectural drawing.”

Even using BIM, however, the Lewis Library design created some problems for the contractor. According to W. Barksdale Maynard in “The Gehry that Landed on Ivy Lane” (Princeton Alumni Weekly, October 8), the expansive forms that hover over the “treehouse” (the reading room at the extreme western reach of the library) required two expensive tries to get them right. In fact, the university fired the initial construction firm, New Jersey-based Beacon Skanska Construction Company, now known as Skanska USA Building Inc., for failing to keep to the schedule. The scheduled completion date was December, 2006, but ended up taking until this summer — 25 months turned into 45.

There have been problems with other Gehry buildings as well. In 2007 Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a negligence suit against Gehry, charging that flaws in his design of the $300 million Stata Center caused leaks. According to a November 6, 2007, article in the Boston Globe, MIT says that both Gehry Partners and Skanska (the Lewis Library’s first construction firm), violated their contracts with MIT and are responsible for construction and design failures on the project. Skansa blames Gehry, claiming that he was warned about the flaws in his design. The suit has yet to be settled. Amy Guttman, the Princeton University provost (now the president of the University of Pennsylvania) assigned to work with Gehry, actually took a group from Princeton up to look at the MIT building and firehose-tested the Lewis Library.

Problems with the Disney Hall in Los Angeles include the fact that the shiny steel faces create intolerable glare for onlookers. To avoid that problem with the Lewis Library, the exterior steel surfaces were sandblasted to create a linen-like texture.

Neil Rudenstine (Princeton Class of 1956), a former president of Harvard and currently a Princeton University trustee, helped oversee the Lewis Library project. In the Princeton Alumni Weekly article Rudenstine says, “you don’t choose Frank Gehry if you don’t want to be daring. You choose Frank, you get Frank. That inevitably involves some level of risk. You don’t know exactly how it is going to turn out.”

That “level of risk” becomes all the more remarkable when you consider the cost of the building — $60 million plus additional costs, undisclosed by Princeton University, due to delays and overruns. The $60 million came from Class of 1955 alumnus Peter B. Lewis (for whom the building is named), a university trustee and chairman of the board of Progressive Corporation, who insisted on Gehry as the architect. According to the Princeton Alumni Weekly story (for which Gehry declined an interview), the approved costs have reached $74 million, according to the university treasurer’s 2006-’07 report.

Gehry says that people sometimes have the misconception that he crumples up a piece of paper and out comes a new design. He understands the inherent humor in that, even occasionally engaging in some tongue-in-cheek self-critique. For example, an entire episode of TV’s “The Simpsons” in 2005 showed Gehry fulfilling just that role. The character in the animated show had his voice and looked like him. In the episode one town wants to impress its snooty neighboring town by building its own concert hall. Gehry, as the reigning “starchitect” (celebrity architect), is sent a design invitation by letter, and when he opens it at his mailbox he simply crumples it up and tosses it on the ground, which, of course, becomes the inspiration for his design.

Having been criticized in real life as part of a cadre of architects labeled “starchitects” by critics who see them as emphasizing popularity over substance, Gehry has confronted this label head-on. For example, in the Lewis Library a star-shape opening cuts through the second floor of the library over the checkout area below. It is also rumored that this star shape will be added to his line of jewelry at Tiffany’s. Once again, Gehry has the last laugh.

However, there may be some truth to this label, given the difficulty of negotiating the multiple entrances and floors of the Lewis Library. As you enter the building through its formal entrance off Ivy Lane, you are confronted by an expansive atrium, from which you can view a menu of possible destinations. If you want to get to the library, or just to the reading room within the library, from this entrance you will need to climb down the 21 limestone stairs to the library entrance below. Once in the library, you must either take a set of concrete stairs up to the second floor or take the elevator to get to the long walkway that leads to the “treehouse” reading room. You would think that this would be easier than it is because the library is the central component of the building. You can also enter from the east or south, which at least gets you to the same level as the library entrance, but unless you are a repeat visitor you wouldn’t know this.

Once the visual spectacle has worn off, the day-to-day details may present problems for actual users. The sketches, too, show a lack of concern for the actuality of the finished building, which now houses the university’s astrophysics, biology, chemistry, geosciences, mathematics, physics, and statistics collections. The building also contains the map collection, the digital map and geospatial information center, the Office of Information Technology’s Educational Technologies Center and its new media center, a new broadcast center, and the Princeton Institute for Computational Science and Engineering.

There are 15 drawings related to the Lewis Library reproduced in the “Gehry Draws” book, all from 2002 and 2003. (Two sketches of the Lewis Library and the final design model are on view at the art museum.) The tower shape appears as a repeated theme in many of these drawings. Webb says in “Gehry Draws” that they had wanted to use the tower in another project, and that they “made the mistake of showing that shape to the client [Princeton] and they didn’t want to get off it either.” And for good reason, it turns out.

Aside from its melting ice cream cone appearance, the Gehry elevation sketch for the Lewis Library that is on display in the exhibition does illustrate certain important details. Often criticized for his lack of attention to context, here Gehry shows the prominent central tower (the cone) that will work with the existing building — Fine Hall tower, just south of the site, which now connects with the Lewis Library below grade. (Below ground is also where most of the library’s 325,000 volumes are stored — an interesting decision that reflects Gehry’s vision of what a 21st century library should be.) Gehry seems to have almost inadvertently found a way to mitigate the effects of Fine Hall — Princeton’s tallest and perhaps least esthetic building — by drawing from the tower motif used in another project. His stepped-up forms lead the eye slowly up and distract from the overwhelming presence of Fine Hall. The finished building has done much to improve this area of campus, which until now had largely turned its back on passersby.

So whether the sketches are credible renderings of the final buildings is somewhat beside the point. As da Costa Meyer points out, Gehry takes his art seriously, and these sketches reflect his attempt to keep his designs fresh and imaginative. As she states in her book, “with their spontaneity and work-in-progress informality, Gehry’s drawings record the intellectually driven exploration that fuels architectural investigation.” And, again harking back to his admiration, even envy, of modern painters and sculptors, Gehry says in Pollack’s film that he aims for the emotional immediacy of painting in his work — that he would prefer to maintain more of the sketchy quality of his drawings in the finished buildings.

What Gehry’s sketches do show is his mindset as an artist. He has been influenced by painters, sculptors, and musicians throughout his career. A sculpture by Richard Serra, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” sits just east of Lewis Library and can be seen from many strategic locations in the building, as if Gehry wanted to showcase this piece of art. When Gehry describes his drawing technique as a “kind of grinding into the paper, trying to find the building” (“Gehry: On Line”), this is an artist using his imagination and intuition in producing an image, not an architect putting pencil to paper in order to describe his plan. In da Costa Meyer’s book, he calls it “thinking aloud.”

And apparently architects’ or maybe just starchitects’ drawings may take on a life of their own as pieces of art long after the buildings they portend are built. Following a brief but illuminating history of architectural drawings and their significance, da Costa Meyer explains in her book that “today, architectural drawings have their own institutional clients, which include specialized galleries and art collectors, not to mention that most ephemeral of modern clients, the auction house.” It is this auction house mentality of today’s starchitects that some object to.

Da Costa Meyer writes via E-mail that Gehry’s “drawings are both elegant goals in themselves, as drawings, and at the same time, they are part of architecture, since he both seeks a final form and a fine drawing at the same time.” Other experts see them differently. Horst Bredekamp, professor of art history at the University of Humbolt-University of Berlin, claims in “Gehry Draws” that “drawing is the creative ferment of [Gehry’s] goals, so that it should be considered as much a part of his calling as architecture and sculpture.” It is this state of confusion though, that also characterizes his buildings. Are they primarily sculptures? Are they overly concerned with the pleasures of form and emotional content? Have they gone past the tipping point, where utility is subservient to art?

As for his sketches, I now see the point. Gehry has been actively drawing since he was a child, and he draws intuitively. Da Costa Meyer sees in the drawings an affinity with Cy Twombly, whose seemingly random scribbles do show a resemblance. Add to that Alberto Giacometti’s nervous pencil that darts in and out until it finds a likeness in his portraits, and you have Gehry’s drawings. Gehry has reduced his buildings down to gestures with a minimum of detail.

The sketch for another Gehry building, the Louis Vuitton Fondation in France, which is part of the art museum exhibit, shows a swirl of sail-like lines, which cannot be immediately identified as a building. As he tells Sydney Pollack in “Sketches of Gehry,” he always wished that he was a painter. He’s most “fascinated with that moment of truth. There’s the canvas, it’s on your easel, got a brush with a palette of colors and what do you do? What’s the first move? I love that dangerous place.”

Gallery Talk, Friday, October 17, 12:30 p.m., and Sunday, October 19, 3 p.m., Princeton University Art Museum. “Frank Gehry’s Renown: An Image of Us” presented by Adedoyin Teriba, a Ph.D. candidate in the university’s department of art and archeology, in conjunction with the exhibit “Frank Gehry: On Line,” on view through January 4. Free. 609-258-3788 or www.princetonartmuseum.org.

Sketches of Frank Gehry, Wednesday, November 5, 7:30 p.m. Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street. Screening of documentary about architect Frank Gehry, directed by Sydney Pollack. 609-924-8777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.

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