The internationally renowned architect who designed the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum will be honored by President Barack Obama with the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House on Tuesday.
You may have heard of Frank Gehry — he designed the Ohr and a bunch of other less-important buildings, including the Guggenheim Museum in Spain, Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Dancing House in Prague.
His style is unusual and modern and frequently curvy. He’s not a straight-lines kind of guy. His buildings stand out in most cities, especially in Mississippi. It’s one of the reasons the Ohr has been ineloquently referred to by some Coastians as “the three beer cans on the beach.”
Gehry is among a star-studded lineup receiving the nation’s highest civilian honor next week. The 20 other celebrities include Robert De Niro, Cicely Tyson, Tom Hanks, Robert Redford, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Ellen DeGeneres, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, Bill and Melinda Gates, and “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels.
Dancing with the trees
Gehry first got involved with the Ohr project as a fan of the “Mad Potter of Biloxi” himself and a friend of project consultant Jeanne Nathan and her husband, Robert C. Tannen, of New Orleans.
“I love the friendly feel of Biloxi,” Gehry told the Sun Herald in 2000. “It is engaging and welcoming, it is soft and has beautiful light.
“It is a nice town in danger of being swallowed by the casinos, and I think this project will create a heart for Biloxi.”
He made his feelings on Casino Row pretty clear on more than one occasion.
“I want to be perceived,” he said in 2001, “as an architect from outer space who came here and respected the community and didn’t do what Beau Rivage did and give the community the finger. If you keep building these things (casinos), you’ll end up with a wall around the city. Don’t let that happen.”
Gehry was a big fan of Biloxi’s trees. He had an engineer make a topographic map of all the trees on the lot, then made a model of all of them before he even started designing the building.
“The trees are architecture,” he said. “They are as interesting as any building. It’s like if you go to a dance and your dance partner is the tree. She’s a pretty partner, so we’ll try and waltz her around a bit.”
Putting it more bluntly, he said, “Hell, they don’t need me there. They got God already.”
He decided to do several small structures rather than one big one so as not to overshadow the trees or upstage the museum’s art.
They used the same brick color as that of nearby Tullis-Toledano Manor and designed porches to reflect the Pleasant Reed House, which had been moved to the site.
Unfortunately, by the time Gehry’s project was about halfway through construction Hurricane Katrina threw a casino barge into part of the museum and both historic homes in 2005.
The museum was able to regroup and finish the first phase of construction in 2010. The third phase was completed in 2014.