and Yang to Fred and Ginger: The Dancing Building in Prague
|In a quiet
green space in the ancient city of Prague, Czech Republic, a stone-faced
old man sits idly and watches as a gleaming couple bends and sways in a
perpetual dance on the corner of a busy intersection near the banks of
the Vltava River.
But there is
no music to be heard as the couple dances, because in reality “the dancers”
are actually a Frank Gehry creation officially known as the Nationale-Nederlanden
has been dubbed “Fred and Ginger” by appreciative critics because
of its resemblance to the famous dancing pair of Fred Astaire and Ginger
Rogers. Like-minded Czechs tend to call it tancinsky d?m, or, The Dancing
Building, while less appreciative viewers have names for it like: “terrible“
and “looks like a crushed can of Coke“ to name but a few.
Gehry, known to many as the King of Pop Architecture, has won world-wide
acclaim (and occasional derision) for his unusual and seemingly gravity-defying
designs throughout the world, including the new Walt Disney concert hall
in Los Angeles, the Experience Music Project in Seattle, and the Guggenheim
Bilbao art museum in Spain. In architectural circles he has long been known
as “the other Frank”, alluding to the universally known American architect
Frank Lloyd Wright.
In 1992, Gehry
teamed up with Yugoslav-born Czech architect Vlado Milunic to create
the seven-story office building for the Dutch National Bank. Since its
completion, people throughout the worlds of art and architecture have been
staging a long-running argument over its apparent merits and faults.
In a 2005 interview
with Radio Praha, Milunic discussed how the project was born: "In 1990
I got the original idea and I was contacted by my friend Paul Koch, who
was a representative of the Dutch company National-Nederlanden. And, he
liked my project but we decided that we would not be able to receive all
the necessary approvals. We decided to associate with another architect,
someone known with 'authority', who would help approve this project.
architect we tried was Jean Nouvel, but he refused this collaboration
because he said that 500 square meters was too small for two architects.
And, in '92
with Paul Koch we visited Frank Gehry in Geneva. When he saw my first sketches
Frank accepted the idea of having two different parts."
continued: I wanted the building to reflect the situation of the Czechoslovak
society during the Velvet Revolution. Two parts. Like a society that forgot
its totalitarian past - a static part - and a society that forgot its totalitarian
past but was moving into a world full of changes.
That was the
main idea. Two different parts in dialogue, in tension, like plus and minus,
like Yang and Yin, like man and woman.
of Prague was spared any damage related to the destruction caused by the
bombing and fighting in the European theater during World War II,
the site of the Dancing Building was once home to a Neo-Renaissance house
dating back to the 19th century but was destroyed on February 14, 1945
by an errant American bomb that most believed was destined for the fire
bombing of Dresden during the final stages of the war.
of the destroyed building were cleared away in 1960, leaving a gaping hole
next the neighboring house which was co-owned by Czech ex-president Vaclav
Havel, who lived there from his childhood until the mid-1990s.
literal and figurative depression, the Dancing House would someday
spring, and its creators were determined to honour its historical foundation.
began in 1994 and was quickly finished in two years time, despite the fact
that the building is made from 99 concrete panels each of different shape
and dimension, which meant that each panel required a unique wooden form
in order to ensure proper construction.
to www.galinsky.com: Gehry had an almost unlimited budget, because ING
wanted to create an icon in Prague.
When the construction
was completed, ING had its icon, but not necessarily the one they were
looking for Gehry to create.
like Simonetta Carbonaro, have called the building a 'Dancing Palace,'
new jewel of the city's architecture [...] that is adding a new aspect
to its history.'
comments are similarly positive: he said that “Fred and Ginger”
marks a clear contrast to the rather boring recent architecture found elsewhere
Gehry's construction as an example of 'catastrophe design,' which is similar
to deconstruction design in that the creations of both are usually borne
from the ashes of destruction: in this case, from the errant American bomb.
|On the other
hand, critics like Wilfried Dechau, the editor of a German architectural
magazine, states that the building reminds him of a 'crushed can of Coke.'
He believed that the American architect should not have marked this corner
of Prague with his 'scent,' for “this gap torn by American bombs at
the end of the war should have been closed with utmost formal restraint
in order to preserve (at least from the outside) the homogeneous impression
of this street.”
While the argument
may forever rage over Gehry's decisions to imbue his own unique interpretation
into the space, at least one critic believes that his achievement struck
the right chords in both form and function.
In his wonderful
essay on the building, Joseph Pesch states: “'Fred and Ginger" is
anything but an alien American element in a Central-European city. On the
contrary: the building is to remind Europeans of the darkest chapter in
their history. As a deconstructive building it represents the apocalyptic
destruction of historically grown physical structures and thus refers to
the violent annihilation of a significant part of European cultures, Jewish
cultures in particular. To make invisible such memories with a restorative
style of building, to pretend that 'nothing has happened' here, would have
been true vandalism.”
with the theme of remembrance for the darker times, it is interesting to
note that the building's large dome, which sits atop the corner of the
building, harkens back to a catastrophic event which took place thousands
of miles away from Prague's bustling streets but is nonetheless connected
to Prague's history of sadness.
that this empty dome alludes to the steel structures of the dome of
the Hiroshima A-bomb memorial building. This and other similarities
in the structures of both buildings are too obvious to be coincidental.
However, in Hiroshima - and Nagasaki - destruction was so complete that
no restorable facades or ensembles were left: both cities and most of their
inhabitants disappeared in apocalyptic fires.
I see local
reference in this allusion to destruction on a much larger scale, captured
in a building occupying a site of a house also destroyed at the end of
the war. Furthermore, the former Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion
Hall, built in 1915, was designed by the Czech architect Jan Letzel (1880-1925).
'Ginger and Fred' thus becomes a nodal point linking the local to the global
across time and space. In the light of these references I am certain that
Prague - a city that had to suffer the consequences of German aggression
and occupation for so much longer than many on this side of the Iron Curtain
- could not have wished for a building more apt, more right for its city
centre than Gehry's elegant memorial.
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