Iming Chen - NATIONALE-NEDERLANDEN BUILDING
The Nationale-Nederlanden Building is Frank Gehry's bold project, in collaboration with Studio Vlado Milunic, set along the River Vltava in Prague. Created for a Dutch insurance company, the Nationale-Nederlanden, the building, often called "Fred and Ginger" for the pair of seemingly dancing towers attached to the north façade, has been an object showered equally with praise and criticism.
That Gehry should design a structure with such angularity and whimsy is no surprise, especially in light of his most recent projects, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the speculative New York Guggenheim to be set on the East River; sculptural forms and odd combinations of contradicting materials have always been his signature style. Nonetheless, "Fred and Ginger" stands out of the long list of other structures because Gehry has seldom relied on such an extreme take on deconstruction. In this way, Gehry, probably one of the most talented postmodern architects of our time, has created a building that lends itself to allusions and symbolism. Whether these may or may not be conscious decisions and product after long contemplation is uncertain. In whichever case, the Nationale-Nederlanden is important in its dramatic, unabashed form set in the traditional city of Prague.
Individual Expression in a Communist City
The setting of the Nationale-Nederlanden is significant. For a city that was under communist rule for a long time, the architecture of Prague has remained historical in style, a mixture of Baroque, Medieval, and Functionalism. Even today, Prague has retained the conservative nature instilled by communism, as evident from the fact that the majority of architectural projects in the city is restricted to historical preservation instead of new buildings. As part of the communist tradition of stifling individual expression, Prague has seen a complete divorce between architecture and art. Under previous rule, 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 was very important in communist architecture.
Perhaps that is one reason Gehry's work seems so appropriate in such a bland landscape; the brashness and individuality of the Nationale-Nederlanden reflects a new generation and represents the personal freedom and modernity lacking in the previous decade. The construction of the Nationale-Nederlanden is also a blatant rejection of the archaic communist values; it was not efficient, easy to construct, or economic in the least bit. Instead, the interior spaces were not planned to maximize floor space, and each of the 99 concrete panels that make up the facade are uniquely curved in three dimensions, making mass production impossible. Even the nickname for the towers of the Nationale-Nederlanden, "Fred and Ginger," an allusion to the famed dancing American film icons Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, is symbolic; such a moniker represents the glamour and the beautiful world of Hollywood cinema lacking in the utilitarian city, not to mention the desire of its people for transforming Prague into a more cosmopolitan metropolis.
If the purpose of Gehry's Nationale-Nederlanden were merely to provoke and dismiss the attitude of the past, then it would be an understatement to claim that the structure was wholly successful; not since the fall of the communist party in 1989 has the city of Prague seen such a flagrant celebration of creativity and excess of construction purely for aesthetics.
Deconstruction and Destruction
Nonetheless, as much as the Nationale-Nederlanden has gathered the enthusiasm of the people of Prague and worldwide, there have been stern critics as well. For instance, Wolfgang Pehnt, calls Gehry's "an aesthetics of the ugly." Others, as Wilfried Dechau, editor of "deutsche bauzeitung," has compared the building to a "crushed can of Coke" and admonished Gehry's structure for being too flippant within a setting that has endured great social, political, and economic change. Dechau is not entirely wrong and makes a good point. Postmodernism involves deconstruction, which in turn invokes destruction, especially in Gehry's case; it refers to violence, and Gehry's structure seemingly recreates the effects of destruction. The left tower of the building looks as if it has been crushed in the middle and is ready to topple at any moment, while the body of the building seems to be sustaining such pressure that its windows have pushed out of alignment. While Prague has been fortunate in avoiding the bombing that destroyed many other European cities in World War II, it is perhaps not by coincidence that the site of the Nationale-Nederlanden has seen its share of bloodshed; ironically, the building that preceded it was destroyed on February 14, 1945 by a stray American bomb supposedly headed for Dresden.
In effect, Gehry's design serves as a reminder for the violence of World War II. As such, the twisted structure has a historical dimension, as a monument that painful and horrific experiences did happen in Prague. If Prague had adhered to the communist building policies, a recreation of the destroyed building would probably stand now. But that would negate the significance of the historical roots of the city; it would be as if to pretend nothing has happened, which is an irreverent mentality. Surprisingly, such would have been the preference of critics like Dechau and Pehnt.
That Gehry is an architect with a "growing awareness of his "Jewishness" is significant as well. The violence inherent in the Nationale-Nederlanden can further represent the extermination of Prague's Jewish culture by German occupying forces. As such, to dismiss "Fred and Ginger" as simply an imaginative and playful structure would undermine its significance (although, at the same time, we must also recognize its lightness, because that is part of Gehry's genius). In this sense, perhaps Gehry's dramatic structure was the most appropriate "memorial" after all.
While we may conjecture of the rationale behind Gehry's Nationale-Nederlanden, it is important to note that Gehry never made any inferences or comments about the wartime references of his design. There would be good reason for him to disclose of such a gloomy mentality, especially since the Nationale-Nederlanden is a Dutch insurance company; it is certainly not good business for an insurance company to allude to the total destruction of war, when lives become insignificant and insurance is entirely useless. And it is also impossible to know for sure whether or not Gehry intended his design to be a symbol of such grave significance, or any at all. Nonetheless, such is an objective of art; it should move people and create emotions, and the best art also tends to provoke new mentalities through subtle symbols. At the very least, we can contend Gehry did exactly that.
The windows of the Nationale-Nederlanden are set as if they are in
Knapp, Gottfried. Frank O. Gehry Energy-Forum-Innovation. London:
Edition Axel Menges, 2000.