Taking a gamble

A Thanksgiving trip to Biloxi, Mississippi was a chance to check out the new Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, designed by architect Frank Gehry, which opened after a 12-year planning period just a couple weeks ago. My niece and nephew were in tow.


Though still incomplete, the structure has been completely rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina initially destroyed it 5 years ago. Due to years of design work, the intricately engineered details, the rebuilding, and the heavy costs associated with post-Katrina construction, total costs are estimated at $45 million for the few clustered pavilions which house the art. Cities have been paying premiums for years to entice “starchitects” such as Gehry to design major cultural institutions in the hopes of putting the host city on the map. But in Biloxi, population 45,000 (and center of a metro region of 240,000), this is a pretty big gamble. Biloxi has casinos, fishing, and decent travel time to New Orleans and Mobile. But it has little else to entice tourists–especially post-Katrina, when much of the old historic fabric of the city disappeared.

Does it speak to you?

Spending this much money begs the question: is it worth it? Time will tell; on the day after Thanksgiving a thin but steady stream of visitors walked through the few exhibits. Above, my niece regards ceramic heads by Jun Kaneko (the museum has a focus on ceramics, particularly the local work of George Ohr, the “Mad Potter of Biloxi”). The small galleries had some well-chosen pieces, curated and displayed in the manner one would expect in a much larger facility. Architectural details were often delightful, but sometimes felt a bit forced or cramped given the humble size of the spaces. And looming in the back of my mind was that price tag–with all the needs this city has, did the building have to be so lavish?

Nature had its way

Above is the site after Katrina, showing a casino barge that was literally dumped onto the property during the storm, forcing the builders to start over from scratch.

Gehry meets the southern breezeway

And above is the now-finished product, a tumble of steel and brick structures arranged across the Oak-filled property.

How much is too much?

Above is one of those delightful moments: a playful way of handling natural, diffused light. However, when taken into the larger context of the very confined gallery space, these engineering gymnastics can also feel excessive.

A lot or a little...for a lot

Don’t get me wrong–it’s a fantastic idea for this city to experiment with a major investment in the arts. I hope that this museum attracts thousands of visitors and brings needed revenue into a region which is still hurting. But not every Gehry building turns its host city into an instant Bilbao (this article from the New York Times explores this subject a bit). It will be interesting to see if the Ohr succeeds in placing Biloxi on the cultural map–or if it becomes a rather expensive, steel-clad elephant.

I want my MTV

My nephew did enjoy the small but satisfying Andy Warhol exhibit, above. Like Warhol predicted about all of us, at least for now the Ohr is indeed relishing its “fifteen minutes” of fame.  The story of the Ohr is worth remembering, as we make choices in our own city about design: when is it appropriate to pay a premium for world-class architecture? Is it ever appropriate to pay a premium for merely the perception of world-class architecture? And when is it appropriate to simply demand good, well-proportioned “background” buildings that won’t garner any international attention but may, when taken into context, create  superb built environments? Eminently ponderable questions all.

16 responses to “Taking a gamble

  1. Prime candidate for “Eyesore of the Month” contest.

  2. I’ll check it out online before affirming or disagreeing with DD’s opinion. In general I don’t care one iota for designs that are out of synch with its environs. I prefer instead a natural blend.

  3. Interesting commentary. I’m for building well and using limited resources to bring out the best in local place character. Rather doubt this project will pay off, as you seem to suggest. Venturi’s ‘Decorated Shed’ would have been a better choice than a ‘Duck’.

    • Excellent way of putting it. It all feels a little too “high art” for my taste, for the local context, for the content, and probably for George Ohr himself (not to mention Warhol).

  4. I LOVE the campus, and plan to visit it soon, but I have to wonder, too, is this worth it? Hopefully, time & nature will be kind to Biloxi, and this will blossom into something all of coastal Mississippi can be proud of.

    This also makes me think about Birmingham, and what’s going to be appropriate for our built future. Is it desirable or interesting to have a new stadium, museum or church designed by a starchitect? If Daniel Corporation decided to erect an 800 ft. tower in mid-town (let’s pretend the economy is soaring and demand for downtown office space is “through the roof”) in order to surpass Mobile’s RSA Battle House, should it be designed by an international star? If so, could we be assured we’d get something that looks like it’s SUPPOSED to be in Birmingham?

    The thing about Bilbao’s Guggenheim is that it simply looks like it’s SUPPOSED to be there. Strangely enough, the very same thing happens with the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (which I’ve actually been to for performances). One architect, two completely different cities.

    Would a Gehry work here? I seriously doubt it. Would a Sir Norman Foster? Well… only if he focused on the “green” aspects of technology, and riffed off our geography. Foster would certainly “get” the heavy English influences all over the City, being a knighted Englishman himself.

    Getting back to the subject of your blog, I think Biloxi (and the museum) would have been best served by one of Sam Mockbie’s graduates, and gotten a LOT of bang for their buck. The leftover $$$$ could have gone into recreating exactly the lost historic homes and businesses. Some places just don’t need to try to be cutting-edge or edgy, even if they ARE on the edge of the mainstream (or the continent). As much as I ADORE the collected works of Zaha Hadid & Daniel Libeskind, I think both would fail in a laced-up, buttoned-down region such as Birmingham’s (simply because their designs would get vilified and watered down anyway- though I doubt any corporate entity here would ever actually have the vision to commission either genius), but would succeed phenomenally in a “blank slate” region such as Huntsville’s. I think places should embrace what they already are and build accordingly.

    I’ll give you an “update of impressions” after I’ve visited the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art. ;~D

  5. Note: I DO NOT condone or support Über-tall buildings in Birmingham’s City Center. I like the intimacy and relative scale of what’s there now. Getting rid of more vacant lots sure would be nifty, though. We could use more Clark Buildings.

    I hope Biloxi’s historic preservation committees will gain the upper hand going forward.

    • Ha! As much as it stings that Mobile, a much smaller city, now has the tallest building in the state–I agree that more low-scale infill (with street activation and night-time life) is much preferable to a few tall skyscrapers that empty out at night.

  6. Agree, firmly, that smaller to mid-sized buildings filling all the gaps downtown should be the priority. Recently visited Kansas City, MO, where the new Power & Light District designed by 360 Architects has done just that for a multi-block area, including some one-story retail not unlike 2nd Row — but on former parking lots. It feels whole again.

    • Power and Light District–a good example of a city planning, branding, and implementing an urban design to revitalize an area. It would be great to have a similar type of focus in this city!

  7. Interesting, but, as you said dicey. I tend to look at buildings in terms of long term care and maintenance and so have an innate distrust of architectural statements, however striking. I want to know who is going to wash the windows and how. Or, how will the light bulbs be changed? Can they be ordered locally, or do they have to be special ordered from elsewhere in the world????

    I wish them the best. The region certainly deserves some good luck and some long term positive activity.

    • There are so many examples of not planning ahead for maintenance as you point out, which can set a building down a slow road of decline. It would be nice to think that the casinos would fund an endowment in this instance–because you are right the region deserves something positive.

  8. Don’t forget our kirklin clinic. I was trying to think of what other starchitect projects we can really claim in town — and with that sorry I M Pei cookie cutter building, we certainly did not get anything noteworthy beyond a name and a high price tag.
    To go back to the Ohr, the scale of the pods (not completed yet) is intriguing for a smaller city and I will be curious to see how this complements the other structures when they open.

    • The Kirklin Clinic may be a good example of hiring a starchitect for the perception of “world-class”–because that building does not itself rise to that level, either as a building or as an urban place-maker. The name is there, but not the design. Overall the scale of the Ohr does seem appropriate for a smaller city–agreed. It will also be interesting to see how the emptied landscape around the museum fills in–the new Yacht Club next door is an ominous direction.

  9. It’s been decades since Gehry’s smaller efforts have shown much resourcefulness or sensitivity. He’s beyond the need for it. I’d put him in the same league with Dale Chihuly or Bob Dylan as great talents now mostly content to rest on their laurels. It takes something really extraordinary to inspire them to aim for greatness these days. When a town like Biloxi or Birmingham calls the starchitect with the household name, you can imagine those commissions get handed off to junior associates pretty quickly (if they’re even accepted).

    Birmingham will do well to cultivate its own architectural identity by demanding high quality from local architects and planners and rewarding those who distinguish themselves (such as Giattina Aycock). A welcome new study of local architectural history (Michael Fazio’s “Landscape of Transformations: Architecture and Birmingham, Alabama”) might just help us shift into a higher gear.

    • Your “resting on laurels” analogy is well-put. I actually give good marks to Gehry’s proposal for Atlantic Yards (he’s since been removed from the job), but you are right that his smaller projects often seem less than stellar. Maybe that type of sculptural expression just works better at a large scale.

      As to Birmingham–we seem too complacent about accepting mediocre architecture here. With the a few exceptions, most commercial architecture is standard corporate-lite with little innovation and seldom rising above the ordinary. A few more well-selected designs from “foreign” architects would be welcome, in terms of expanding the local dialogue. The trick is not to be swayed just by the big name, but to insist on excellent design–which of course often comes from no name at all.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s