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ARCHITECTURE

Designed by Gehry, a new arts center is a performance in itself

Bard College complex marks a new stage for the luminary

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. -- Last week we wrote about a new architectural masterpiece, the Dia: Beacon art museum in Beacon, N.Y. Just a little up the Hudson River from Dia, at Bard College, is another gem, the new Fisher Center for the Performing Arts by Frank Gehry of Los Angeles.

The Fisher isn't quite a masterpiece, but it is a very good building. It also marks a new stage in the ever-evolving career of an architect who never stops surprising you. Ever since his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, opened in 1997, Gehry has been probably the most famous and influential architect. But he hasn't rested on his laurels, and the Fisher is something quite new in his work.

What strikes you right away about the Fisher is how casual, how thrown-together it looks. It's basically a building of three or four cubes made of glass, concrete, and stucco, with a shiny blanket of stainless steel thrown over them as if to protect them from the rain. The blanket falls over the cubes in a billow of curves, as loose and free as if it had landed accidentally. The only place where it takes a definite shape is at the main entrance, where it swoops down like a monk's hood to shade and protect visitors as they enter, or as they stand outside for an intermission.

Gehry is famed for his free-form shapes and for the skill with which his office creates them using a computer program called CATIA, originally invented for aircraft design. Where the Fisher is different from earlier Gehrys is in the way the metal blanket is separated from the building. At Bilbao, the blanket is the actual roof of the building, and the interior spaces are shaped by it. But at Bard, the blanket is merely a parasol that floats above the roof, a sort of half-erected tent over the rest of the building. The blanket is largely decorative, not functional, and looks it.

When you view the blanket from underneath, you see that it's supported by a mad erector-set framework of struts and bolts that appears to have been improvised on the spot, perhaps with materials scrounged from some nearby junkyard. And where the blanket comes down to the ground at the front of the building, it reads as a stage flat. The whole building has a patched together, temporary look. It's that sense of improvisation that makes this architecture so right here. Artists will feel free to experiment. Nothing about this building intimidates you or says "cultural institution." The building is itself a performance, an improv, a dance. You feel you could strike the set tomorrow.

The Fisher Center will be a home for both student and professional work in theater, music, and dance. It consists of a main theater with 900 seats, a smaller black-box theater, and a profusion of lobbies and backstage and rehearsal spaces. The night I visited, the main hall was the venue for the opera "Osud (Fate)," by the Czech composer Leos Janacek, with a wonderful set by Gehry. The stage floor looked like shifting tectonic plates, a metaphor for the uncertainty of life. As a backdrop, Gehry suspended two free-form shapes, one large and one small, lit at different times in different colors. They resonated magically with the tragic love story that is the plot of the opera.

The hall interior feels intimate, containing just over one-third the number of seats of Boston's Symphony Hall, and there's a very direct connection between performers and audience. It was hard to judge acoustics with the orchestra in a pit, as it was for the opera. But when the players are up onstage for an orchestral performance, a crescent of thirteen tall cylinders of Douglas fir, perhaps 20 feet high, is mechanically wheeled onto the rear of the stage. The cylinders gather to form a tight semicircle behind the players, enhancing the acoustics which, from all accounts, are superb. The acoustician was Yasuhisa Toyota, who is also doing Gehry's monumental Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, due to open in October.

Seen from outside, the Fisher is a huge gleaming sculpture set against a lovely rolling landscape. Whenever you visit, people are standing in front of it, gaping at this shiny object as if it had just plummeted from another galaxy. Perhaps aliens will emerge from it? It certainly advertises the presence of art and daring. If you walk around to the back, where the offices and loading docks are, the steel blanket overhead disappears, and the Fisher emerges as a plain, white boxy building of no distinction. Budget problems were the main reason, but even this plainness works. The Fisher is theatrical, a building with a frontstage and a backstage: a facade for the arriving audience, and a practical rear for the workers.

It's perhaps worth noting that a building like the Fisher is something you can do only once in a given setting. A street of such buildings would be a disaster. Gehry's free-form architecture depends for its success on being a unique gesture in an otherwise predictable world, whether that world is a normal landscape as at Bard or a context of conventional buildings in a city.

With the addition of the Fisher Center at Bard and Dia, the Hudson River Valley is on its way to becoming one of the premier cultural destinations in the nation. Nearby, among many other sites, are the sculpture park at Storm King, the Franklin Roosevelt house at Hyde Park, and Olana, the home of the premier painter of the Hudson River School in the 19th century, Frederick Church. The river that inspired artists from Thomas Cole to Thomas Wolfe is becoming once again, after a recent era of industrial decline, a locus of beauty. For performance times at the Fisher, visit www.bard.edu/fishercenter. Robert Campbell can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

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