Reprint from 9/8/12, #61, with 8/21/21 update
Goodbye Berkman Plaza II: a Frank Gehry masterpiece about to be destroyed: We have an architectural chef-‘oeuvre in our midst. I’d seen the building before, but it wasn’t until my mind cleared, and I saw a photograph, that I connected the dots. Far from being a hulking hollow shell haunting the skyline, it is a Frank Gehry work of genius! Of course I’m talking about the Berkman Plaza Two.
Frank Gehry, the Pritzker Price-winning architecture based in Los Angeles
Inspiring this insight for me was a photograph of a Santa Monica house Gehry designed, a mashup of construction site and 1940s residential, juxtaposing elements of traditional home with raw surfaces utilizing concrete blocks, corrugated sheet metal, and suggestions of cyclone fence. At first you’d think it is a dump, but soon its postmodern sublimity washes over you and arrests your mind.
Shortly after I saw the photograph, I was in downtown Jacksonville, and I realized that right there on the river was another Gehry tour de force. Several aspects of the edifice clued me in. First, there is the embedding of residential themes within unvarnished and rough-hewn material surfaces. Second, the references to unadorned structural assemblage, plus the abrasive exposure of the bones of the building, provide strong indication it’s a Gehry. Third, and most compelling, is the similarity of the motif—the characteristic Gehry architectural styling—the pastiche effect that brings unlike components into both startling combination and stark contrast. In this case, it is the raw, building-site-like elements intermeshed with smoother, glossier surfaces harking back to a more prosperous but now bygone era. In sum, from the half-completed concrete and steel formation emerge the subtle tones of a circa nineties Miami waterfront condo:
Frank Gehry’s Berkman Plaza Two
All these years I had assumed the Berkman Plaza Two complex was just a 22-story horrific hollow shell standing on the north bank of the St. Johns River. Locals have dubbed it the north-shore eye sore. I had heard that a combination of hurried construction practices and the utilization of shoddy building materials, especially the use of poor-quality concrete, led to its multi-story parking structure collapsing before the project was even completed. I am sorry to report that one worker died in the collapse, and this man should not be forgotten: “Willie Edwards III [was] a construction worker and single father pulling extra hours to pay for Christmas presents” (Steve Patterson / Times-Union, Dec. 5th, 2009).
Let us take a moment to be silent and serious, even in this piece of satire, to remember the life of Willie Edwards III.
Now, back to the satire.
How did I discover this local architectural gem? I was walking in downtown Jacksonville by the jail one hot, sunny afternoon and, voilà! THERE IT WAS! Berkman Plaza Two was immense, overwhelming, mind boggling! It was as if for the first time I were beholding Olympic Park’s glaciers, or Denali, or Mount Blanc, or a peak in Darien. My mind labored to catch up with all of it, to grasp its magnitude, to take possession of the concept. I was in the presence of the sublime as Immanuel Kant described it. Only after I had written the analytic critique above did my agitated thoughts settle. When at last I had wrapped my mind around it, I recognized it for what it is: our city’s signature landmark!
Please take a moment to admire its austere, postmodern grandeur:
The paper you edit, Mr. Times-Union editor, didn’t report that Frank Gehry designed the Berkman Plaza II. What else might your paper be holding back from us, your readers? Could Goodby’s Creek (San Jose Blvd and Baymeadows) also be a Gehry structure in disguise? Similarly standing idle for several years, vacant and half built, Goodby’s Creek is a sprawling, five-story concrete shell. This postmodern pastiche of half-assembled building materials with residential undertones similarly haunts the city skyline. All along, I have been assuming it was the 2008 financial meltdown that accounted for it being the way it was. But maybe I have been wrong! You would know, Mr. Editor. So, now, come clean. And don’t lie. Out with it!! Is this structure, which has been hiding out in plain site, also part of Gehry’s oeuvre?
Goodby’s Creek Condo project–a Frank Gehry masterpiece?
You ask, who is Frank Gehry? This TED talk will inform you, and then you will understand why it is such a distinction for Jacksonville to have one, and possibly two, of his master works.
Just thought I would let you know my thoughts.