Am I Experienced?

Finding sound amid the noise at Frank Gehry’s Experience Music Project. 

(Note: This is the second in Culturebox’s series of architecture reviews by people who actually work in or use the buildings in question. Click hereto read Brent Staples’ piece on his jury duty stint in Richard Meier’s new courthouse.)

Any day now I’m going to fall in love with the Experience Music Project building, Frank Gehry’s most recent fun house of a museum. It’s too late for a full-throttle swoon—the building is nearly a year old—but I’m still hoping for sparks. 

I work for EMP as a multimedia producer but not in the museum itself, because Gehry neglected to include offices for most of the staff. Instead I work a block away in a brown inverted pyramid, on the same floor that used to serve as the former headquarters for Muzak (each office still features a Muzak volume control knob, mercifully disconnected). I drive by the building every morning on my way to work, and as part of the museum’s grand opening last June, I produced a kiosk about the building of the structure, tracing its evolution from Gehry’s first sketches through construction. The project gave me a solid appreciation for the building’s architectural pirouettes, but I’m still trying to get my head around some of Gehry’s choices.

There’s one vantage point from which the building coheres perfectly—when I’m standing in the middle of the Seattle Center’s Fun Forest amusement park, facing what Gehry considers the front of the museum. The architect has talked about wanting to pull the Fun Forest’s energy into the building, and he’s succeeded wildly. On either side are timeless amusement rides: the whirling bobsleds, the swinging Viking ship, the rattling roller coaster, and the thrilling water ride. EMP rises before me, a blinding purple cliff sandwiched between a polished silver hump and a bulging pool-liner. The blue and green glass that cascades across the opposite side of the building mimics the rails of the roller coaster.

But on my daily commute I only see the back of the building, where its multi-hued, amorphous shapes are oddly indistinct on cloudy days and blinding on rare sunny ones. Each of these shapes sports a different color: polished silver, burnished gold, psychedelic purple, arrest-me red, and a gentle blue. Gehry has said that a book on guitars inspired the colors. Think of silver guitar strings and whammy bars, a gold Les Paul, a red Telecaster. Purple, of course, is for Jimi Hendrix, even if he never owned a guitar that color (as for the pale blue, no self-respecting guitarist would be caught dead playing an ax in that shade). My personal favorite is the gold section, which follows the arc of the monorail as it passes through EMP, and whose stainless-steel tiles resemble the folds of a stunning gold curtain. But each time I look at the shapes together, I’m overwhelmed by the clash of colors. Even if you take them in pairs, it’s hard to figure. Purple and silver would work well for a pro sports franchise, and the purple and gold may have won over a few Washington Huskies fans, but purple and red? Gold and pale blue? Gehry may have wanted the exterior to reflect the energy and fluidity of rock ’n’ roll, but examining the cacophony of colors is like being forced to listen to feedback for too long.

EMP is a cross between a traditional art museum, intended to showcase awe-inspiring genius, and a participatory lab where visitors are encouraged to develop their own musical knowledge and creations. It’s as if the Metropolitan Museum of Art provided oils and palettes for visitors to create their own Monets. Accordingly, EMP’s interior spaces alternately remind you of your puniness in the rock ’n’ roll pantheon and encourage you to claim your part in it. The main areas fall in the first category: The first few times I walked around, I stumbled along slack-jawed. Most of the time I had no idea where I actually was in the building, and it took me a week to find my way around. Just off the main entrance is Sky Church, which soars four stories high and features a massive screen playing music videos. The museum’s largest space, it doubles as a 1,200-person concert venue and all-purpose central gathering place. The space must make performers feel like rock gods, but it makes me feel like a pipsqueak. On the other hand, the museum also features some more intimate spaces, designed for personal experimentation. There’s Sound Lab, where visitors can retreat to cozy pods to learn new guitar licks or step into soundproof rooms to hone their chops.

The building has a couple of minor practical drawbacks. Before the museum opened, I spent several days checking every artifact and audio clip in the exhibit What Is the First Rock ’n’ Roll Record? After three or four hours, my legs were ready to buckle. I finally realized it was because of the building’s concrete tile floors. Gehry undoubtedly chose them for their rough-hewn look, but their texture can exhaust the hardiest visitor. Meanwhile, most visitors miss one of the museum’s gems, a 200-person theater with walls that consist of perforated plywood. The room feels like a lavishly appointed honeycomb. Unfortunately, the hive is usually empty because the theater is so well hidden that the only people who stumble into it are visitors searching for a bathroom or a place to rest.

EMP has much louder critics than me, judging from the e-mail people send us. A local architect asked if Paul Allen had been taking the same pharmaceuticals as Jimi Hendrix when he approved the design. “We are trying to keep kids OFF drugs, remember?” A number of people generously offered donations to have the building blown up. Then there was Squirrel Man, who complained that the glare from the building’s purple stainless-steel tiles was adversely affecting the eyesight of the Seattle Center’s myriad squirrels and who threatened litigation against the museum for light pollution.

Squirrel Man and half of Seattle’s residents might be ready to turn down the volume on EMP, but give us time to recover from our shock. After all, most Americans were supposedly horrified the first time they saw Elvis shake and shimmy on the Ed Sullivan Show, but try and find anyone today who’ll admit it. Even though I don’t fully get its design, I have a feeling that in 20 years, people may look at EMP and wonder why Gehry didn’t crank it up even louder.