The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, designed by Frank Gehry. (Photo by Joel Levinson)

by Joel Levinson

Architects living in Chestnut Hill have taken an active role in the Chestnut Hill Community Association, bringing their particular perspectives to making better what was already quite good. Despite the current downturn in the economy, they have helped turn the Hill into an attractive destination for homebuyers and new businesses. My hat is off to those many activist architects through the years who have been so dedicated to preserving and improving life on the Hill.

The topics I will be treating in this column are meant not just for readers in Chestnut Hill, but also for nearby neighbors in areas such Mt. Airy and Lafayette Hill. My column will likely not be a place where disputes are discussed regarding projects proposed for the Hill, nor will I be inclined to comment on the merits or failings of completed projects.

Instead, Archiyecture on the Hill will be a place where diverse issues related to design are presented in an informal conversational manner. I intend to discuss themes such as the pros and cons of traditional design versus innovation; things to consider when adding an addition; how to work with an architect; tips on interior design; how to deal with wet basements; what architects can do that contractors usually can’t; the critical importance of programming, and unique buildings I’ve photographed around the world.

Each article will include an image of a building or landscape I photographed, beginning with this month’s photograph of Frank Gehry’s strikingly original Guggenheim Museum in the Basque town of Bilbao, Spain, a shot which some of you may have seen in my retrospective exhibit at the Nichols Berg Gallery about a month ago.

I visited the museum and took that picture in 1998 on a trip to Spain. I had seen photographs of the titanium, glass, and limestone structure in architectural magazines and regarded the building as a strikingly audacious and robust work of architectural sculpture.

I recall leaving our hotel well above the Nervion River on a bright October morning a year after the museum opened to the public. We stepped into the middle of a street that dropped away steeply toward our destination. The old stone houses and shops flanking the narrow street were mostly in shade. There below us at the end of the street was a brightly reflective, twisted fragment of shimmering metal that looked like a segment of a space ship that had crash-landed on the riverbank.

There was no trace of a right angle. It looked like a loosely crumpled piece of silver foil fallen from another world, a world of wild dreams. My heart raced and our pace quickened as my wife and I raced down the hill, dodging cars and other tourists.

The impact must have been similar to those people, 600 hundred years ago, who for the first time came upon a newly built Gothic cathedral, white and glowing in the summer sun of northern France, a tower of flying buttresses rising above the Lilliputian half-timbered houses in Rouen, Paris, or Chartres.

We thought we’d spend a few hours at the museum and then get on the road for another site elsewhere in Spain. But the beguiling, ever-changing views through our cameras’ viewfinders kept us glued to Gehry’s creation.

The dazzling, titanium-shingled, crude but smoothly sinuous assemblage of colliding planes and contrasting materials were meant for celluloid. My concerns about a building that would likely require countless millions of dollars of repairs in the coming decades were displaced by sheer awe and seduction.

I was generally not taken by the museum’s interiors. In fact, a huge gallery that displayed Richard Serra steel sculptures actually repelled me, and the bathrooms were so ugly I had to flee as soon as I washed my hands.

Because we could not tear ourselves away from its magical, ever-changing curvilinear contours, we stayed the night and awoke to an overcast, sometimes-drizzling morning. Before leaving town we decided to cross a stunning footbridge designed by Santiago Calatrava and look at the building from the far bank.

What good fortune! The day before, the building was a dazzling object standing apart from it environs. But twelve hours later a moody gray sky, the reflective stillness of the Nervion in the foreground and the supine silver body of the Guggenheim fused into one integrated tableau that united the components of the composition into one memorable composition – a man-made object wedded to the watery elements of the earth, the sky, and the river.

Whether one likes all of Gehry’s work or not, the Guggenheim presents a powerful case for removing one’s blinders when it comes to design, and to dream with equal intensity about what could be, as well as what has already been done.

Future readers, welcome. I will look for your suggestions on topics of use and will look also to your guidance as to the value of matters I have chosen to write about.

Joel Levinson, a Chestnut Hill architect, photographer and author, recently had a retrospective show of his work at the Nichols Berg Gallery.

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