In spite of fantasy-like visions of the role of an architect, new buildings often provoke the public to wonder, “Who’s idea was that?” Regardless of architectural merit, every new building encounters some level of disapproval, reflecting a common view that modern architecture is less worthy.

    Buildings that escape public disdain are those made intentionally to look old, either through use of materials that weather easily or by copying the past directly. For Europeans especially, architecture should symbolize permanence and stability in times of chaos and disorder.

    Yet permanence in architecture seems less important in parts of the world plagued by the unpredictable forces of nature. Earthquake-ridden Japan and Los Angeles exhibit some of the most innovative contemporary design. In both places, social thought reflects geophysical conditions.

    Japanese religious beliefs play a role in the acceptance of ephemeral architecture. In the Shinto tradition, temple building involves constructing, disassembling and rebuilding every twenty years. Los Angeles is a different kind of mecca. It represents the American dreams of westward expansion and wide-open spaces, while Hollywood provides destination for stardom-seekers. L.A.’s most praised, modern architecture reflects this zeitgeist.

    In Hollywood, even architects can become stars — witness Frank Gehry. Sculptural forms and odd combinations of materials mark his signature style. But what is regarded as uniquely personal is actually a product of the socio-cultural and environmental influences of its southern California setting. But can his architecture fit the scenery of another place?

    The Dancing Building

    While working in Prague this past summer, I met Vladimir Milunic, the Czech architect who collaborated with Gehry on one of his latest projects, an office building for the Dutch insurance company, National Nederlanden, to be completed in December 1995. The project, a bold, curved structure that resembles a pair of dancers in motion, is affectionately called "Fred and Ginger" by American architects, and tancinsky dum (the dancing building) by Czechs.

    Yet the dancing building has become the object of much criticism from both the Czech public and American expatriates, summed up in the words of an elderly woman who passed me as I sat sketching it, “To je spatné” (It’s terrible). People see Gehry’s work as a sort of alien invasion. In spite of his effort to weave his design into this elegant city’s architectural fabric, Gehry manifests the vogue of transient southern Californian attitudes that seem out of place in timeless Prague.

    Prague is a living museum that celebrates the architectural innovations of its past. It has the great fortune of a very stable climate, and was left virtually unscarred by the bombing that destroyed many other European cities during World War II. It boasts a rich collection of styles, including, Medieval, Baroque and Functionalist. Tourists flock to the city to experience the enchantment of well-preserved history. Architecture has also given many Czechs a sense of stability in the face of great social, political and economic change.

    The majority of architectural projects in the center of Prague today are historic preservations and renovations, rather than new buildings. The exceptions to this receive much negative attention from tourists as well as older and more conservative Czechs, even when the architect is Czech. Conspicuously located in the heart of Prague on the Vltava River, Gehry’s undulating facade, in full view of the Charles bridge and Prague castle, is the current focus of public scorn.

    Ironically, the building that preceded it was destroyed on February 14, 1945 by a stray American bomb supposedly headed for Dresden. Defenders see Gehry’s collaboration as a kind of peaceful reparation. Others see his design as the second American bomb to be dropped on the site.

    So why was Frank Gehry, known for his very sculptural and anti-historical forms, invited to build on this site in the first place?

    Since the fall of the communist party in 1989, the celebration of individuality is one aspect of Hollywood that Prague has been thirsting for.

    If art is defined as individual expression, then the effect of communism in Prague was to divorce architecture from art. Under communism, architects worked in large state firms of up to 800 people responsible for industrial buildings and the massive concrete-panel housing blocks that line the edges of the city. Emphasis was on efficiency, ease of construction, and the provision of functional, democratic buildings in mass quantities. Neither aesthetics nor individuality were very important in communist architecture.

    Now, after communism, the brash, personal expression of Gehry’s playful architecture seems to represent personal freedom. The younger generation that transformed the country wants to see Prague become a cosmopolitan and modern city, and many are enthusiastic about “Fred and Ginger”.

    The “Fred and Ginger” building, with its metaphorical association with a dancing couple, is anything but efficient, easily constructed, or economic. The interior spaces are not planned to maximize floor area, and each of the 99 concrete panels that make up the facade are uniquely curved in three dimensions, making mass production impossible.

    This can be justified as necessary excess for such a sculptural piece. But what is disappointing is the building’s apathy towards its Czech context. This is partly because the company that sought out a foreign architect is Dutch rather than Czech. But it is also because Gehry is not accustomed to the landscape of a place so different from Los Angeles. Gehry could have made a greater effort to immerse himself in Prague’s culture and to explore the site thoroughly before designing the building.

    Typically, Gehry’s projects involve host architects. They use his sketches to develop the necessary construction drawings and oversee the building process. Vladimir Milunic, the Czech architect collaborating with Gehry on “Fred and Ginger,” told me that Gehry came to the site for the laying of the foundation stone and is not to return until the building’s completion. While this collaborative arrangement may work well for architects on familiar ground, it has drawbacks for projects in foreign lands.

    A case in point: the building sits at an intersection of two of Prague’s busiest thoroughfares, where vehicular traffic is dense. Instead of easing a dangerous situation, “Fred and Ginger” does just the opposite. A piece of the building, Ginger’s “skirt,” protrudes out into the street and cuts off a large portion of an existing sidewalk, forcing pedestrians closer to the street while encouraging vehicular traffic to speed up. Milunic defends this part of the design, saying, “Prague has a tradition of being a circuitous and winding city where you never know what will be around the corner. It does not share the sublime qualities of the Champs Elysées in Paris with vistas extending to infinity. The projection into the street goes along with this tradition.”

    Milunic acknowledges that the approach to the building is quite hostile to pedestrians. Milunic's idea for a pedestrian tunnel to link the building to the lower boardwalk was rejected by city officials, and they had to fight hard to get the current design approved.

    Witnessing the construction of the “Fred and Ginger” building made me aware of the challenges of international collaboration. Valid architecture, appreciated for its accomplishment rather than its apparent antiquity, balances individual expression with respect for the cultural and physical site. Architects who design for foreign communities need to experience both the tangible and intangible aspects of a place and its people, nuances that cannot be gained simply through e-mail, fax, and phone. As an architect interested in overseas projects, I see the potential for new designs that will be just as applauded as Prague's historic center — buildings that harmonize the voices of many instead of spotlighting soloists.

    Meghan Walsh is a graduate student in the College of Architecture and Urban Planning and a Resident Fellow in the Pilot Program. The International Institute sponsored her 1995 summer internship in the Prague design studio of Petr Fuchs.