A couple of years ago at the Aspen Ideas Festival, there was an infamously nasty exchange between celebrated architect Frank Gehry and a spectator at his talk — a spectator who turned out to be Fred Kent, president of the Project for Public Spaces. Kent wanted to know if Gehry had any thoughts on why the sort of “iconic” sculptural architecture that made his formidable reputation had so often failed to create great public space in its shadow.

Gehry, who was once quoted saying “I don’t do context,” and who evidently didn’t realize he was speaking to someone who had himself been an Aspen Ideas Festival speaker a couple of years previous, refused to answer and dismissed Kent as “a pompous man.” Another attendee, veteran Atlantic correspondent James Fallows, reported that Gehry then “waved his hand in a dismissive gesture, much as Louis XIV might have used to wave away some offending underling.”

I was reminded of this mean exchange when I happened upon a fascinating online gallery at the Vancouver Sun’s website. The gallery, culled from several other lists, is a visual tour of “The world’s ‘ugliest’ buildings.” It features many buildings by postmodern “starchitects” obsessed as Gehry is with strange and wild forms — including Gehry’s own Experience Music Project in Seattle — as well as work by their modernist and brutalist forebears (I.M. Pei’s geometric Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the notoriously bunkerlike Boston City Hall) and some bizarro vanity projects (including the unfinished space-rocket temple of totalitarian egotism known as the Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea).

Some of this stuff is simply ridiculous on first sight, of course, and it would be merely laughable if not for the terrible toll it often takes on the urban landscape around it. Peruse the gallery, and what you generally find at ground level surrounding these iconic eyesores is a wide, empty expanse of concrete, a “plaza” trying and failing to embrace a building designed with total disregard for its context. These are ostensibly “public” spaces built to inhuman scale and abutting indifferent or openly hostile facades. (Indeed the Project for Public Spaces has its own “Hall of Shame,” which is populated largely by grandiose plazas and parks seemingly designed by some alien race with no firsthand experience of how actual human beings interact in public.)

These aren’t problems limited to unsightly buildings, either. I’ll wholeheartedly agree with the inclusion of Gehry’s Experience Music Project on the “ugliest” list — it struck me, standing in its shadow, like someone had conducted a failed experiment of some sort involving a discount furniture warehouse, an airbrush and a wind tunnel. But Gehry has designed some truly striking buildings, as well.

I visited one a couple of months ago in Düsseldorf. Or three, actually: Gehry’s Neuer Zollhof is a trio of warped, undulating towers, three variations on a theme in whitewashed stucco, red brick and gleaming silver metal. They are captivating funhouse-mirror buildings, highly original, and they anchor a section of Düsseldorf’s old harbor that has been reinvented over the last 20 years as Medienhafen, a tech-and-communications business hub.

Frank Gehry's Neuer Zollhof amid other new buildings on Düsseldorf's Medienhafen

Wealthy, ambitious Düsseldorf has surrounded Gehry’s slouching cones and boxes with a showcase of iconic design and outlandish form: everything from a technicolor tower by Will Alsop to a sleek hyper-modern abstraction by David Chipperfeld to a plain old office building scaled by dozens of primary-colored stick figures. It’s stunning in photos, and it’s a fascinating neighborhood to walk around during the day. There’s even a stylish café cantilevered off the side of a pedestrian bridge in the middle of the harbor when you need a rest.

I was in Düsseldorf with a handful of journalists and designers on a tour, and we stopped in at the café for a midafternoon coffee-and-cake break. It was a fine summer day, a weekday, the offices around us full of busy workers. The café was empty. So were the streets and laneways in and around most of the iconic buildings. If you moved a block or two off the harbor, you found a few busy shops and restaurants, but Medienhafen itself was cold in that stage-set way starchitecture often is. It was a collection of exquisite sculptures with some offices inside, a magnificent art gallery and probably not such a bad work address, but it was not a place, not a neighborhood or real urban district.

We decamped after our coffees to the stretch of riverfront abutting the Altstadt. Düsseldorf wisely buried a stretch of expressway along the river many years ago, at considerable expense, and the justification was everywhere in front of us. A long series of dockside cafes and beer gardens was beginning to fill in with customers and it would be rollicking by early evening. A Turkish cultural festival was setting up its tents for the weekend. The neighborhood thrummed.

Düsseldorf's harborfront promenade, on a site formerly occupied by multilane expressway

Beyond the harborfront, Europe’s flawless classical urban forms — midrise, mixed use, human scale, resilient and endlessly adaptable —continued to do what they had for many centuries. They welcomed shoppers, sitters, workers, livers, locals and tourists alike. They provided space for café seating, for the display of luxury goods, for modern offices and ancient crafts, for the weaving revelry of drunken bachelor parties in matching T-shirts.

There were high-end chain stores and funky little boutiques, hip cafes and classic German Gasthausen, brew pubs older than Germany itself that continued to serve Düsseldorf’s beloved Altbier in tall thin glasses, the refills coming in an endless automatic chain until you covered the top of one with a coaster to say Nicht mehr, danke.

You might sit for a drink at the stylish café on Medienhafen, gazing in wonder at Frank Gehry’s incomparable forms and all the rest of it. But then, acting on countless hidden cues in the context of those who don’t do context, you feel compelled to move on. In the Altstadt, though, you want to linger. You decide on one more Altbier, you follow the flow of the crowd down this street or that one, you find a comfortable spot down on the riverfront and stay later than you planned, sinking deeper into a conversation with a friend or reading another chapter of the book you brought. You disappear into the context. You become context.

This is what the starchitects too often miss. When you build things for people to live and work and play around, people are the context. And if you don’t do context, your innovations will never be more than formal, aesthetic, theoretical. You may make it onto the postcards, but you won’t live on in people’s memories. No matter how impressive your form, no one will want to linger in such an ugly place. And places, not buildings, are what cities are made of.

All photos by Chris Turner

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