January 4, 2008
  Mississippi Gets a Gehry that Lounges with the Trees
An architect and a potter who both see their work as art not craft converge in Biloxi

by Zach Mortice
Associate Editor

How do you . . . integrate a small, multipurpose, multimedia museum into a wooded site?

Summary: Frank Gehry’s Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art splits five different museum spaces into small, separate buildings that relate and collaborate with the site’s landmark oak trees. The stainless steel-paneled Ohr Gallery pods house the pottery of its namesake George Ohr and demonstrate Gehry’s most quintessential element of the museum campus. Some of the other buildings take cues from local vernacular forms. Construction of the museum was interrupted by Hurricane Katrina, and today elevated construction costs jeopardize the progress of the museum.

Even when AIA Gold Medalist Frank Gehry, FAIA, lowers his design for the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, Miss., to slide down below the museum campus’ majestic oak trees, it’s hardly an act of humbling; it’s much more like collaboration.

Gehry’s $30 million museum campus is a series of five small buildings that will “dance with the trees” and make lush foliage an equal partner in the architect’s singular design. These five buildings will make up 25,000 square feet of habitable space spread out on a four-acre site. The campus will feature a welcome center, an African-American gallery of folk art, a classroom and studio space called the Center for Ceramics, a contemporary arts gallery, and the George E. Ohr Gallery.

The museum campus’s most striking building is the Ohr Gallery. It consists of four single-room “pods” that will house the work of George Ohr, the eccentric, preternaturally self-aware and self-styled “Mad Potter of Biloxi.” Each pod is composed of four 30-foot sides of stainless steel that have been subtly twisted in place around each other, and they resemble nothing so much as leaves taken from Gehry’s own tree of radically exuberant forms. These steel panels look as though they might have fallen off his show-stopping facades for the Guggenheim in Bilbao or the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles; leaves disturbed in his “dance with the trees” that have settled comfortably under expansive branches. Museum Executive Director Marjie Gowdy says this modest and small-scale approach has “captivated the community.”

The architect and the potter
Though the museum set the preservation of the site’s oak trees and the bucolic nature as its top priority, it was Gehry’s decision to create five different buildings and further divide the Ohr Gallery into four pods. Brian Zamora, a project architect for the museum with Gehry and Partners, says Gehry felt that this type of intimacy would be an appropriate match for Ohr’s richly textured, expressionistic work, the point being not to try to “compete with George Ohr.”

The roof of the Center for Ceramics peeks out over the tops of the oak trees, but the rest of the plan lets nature be the most prominent and defining design element. A former residential-scaled neighborhood, the museum is a place where architecture is slotted into landscaping, not the other way around. Only seeing the buildings without the context of the trees is "only seeing half the design," says Joey Crain, AIA, whose local firm Guild Hardy is the museum's architect of record.

"The cost that went into the construction and design just because of the trees is enormous," says Zamora. He estimates that up to 20 percent of the project’s design time and construction costs were consumed by responsible integration of the trees into the plan. For their design models, Gehry and Partners surveyed branch lengths and built the galleries on top of pilings so that they wouldn't disturb root systems.

The small size of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art makes it a rare project for Gehry and Partners these days. Zamora compares it to Gehry’s design for the Loyola Marymount University Law School in Los Angeles, a small campus designed around a central plaza that (like the Ohr Museum) is a much more tightly wound collaborative composition than the massive and singular explosions of form that have made Gehry famous.

The one building on the campus Gehry did not design provides historical and vernacular design direction for the rest of the museum facilities. The Pleasant Reed Interpretive Center is a relocated and reconstructed house, originally built and financed by Pleasant Reed, an emancipated slave. This humble camelback shotgun house’s gabled roof is a repeated motif in the Center for Ceramics and the welcome center. Zamora points this out as a binding element in the design, especially the use of the open shoo-fly roof on the welcome center. These roofs' intersecting planes and their contrast to the curvilinear stairs that Gehry has designed for the buildings give the campus a fractious excitement common to his work on any scale.

History, interrupted
Like Gehry, Ohr was adept at shocking people with provocative forms, but the Biloxi native didn’t see fame in his lifetime. He had to wait five decades after his death to gain any kind of acknowledgement or prominence. Ohr approached pottery as an art and not a craft. His technical skills were unmatched. His works were delicate and wafer-thin and often bursting with color. The playful forms of his pottery could be deformed and sagging or fluid and sharp, but they were always unpredictable. In a designation Gehry might relate to, Ohr called himself "the apostle of individuality," according to a Smithsonian magazine article. The vast majority of his surviving work dates from 1895 to 1905, because a fire in his studio in 1894 destroyed much of his work, according to Smithsonian. Unfortunately, this wouldn't be the last time the legacy of Ohr would be interrupted by an elemental calamity.

Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast in late summer of 2005, when the museum was halfway finished with construction. A beached barge from the gulf struck the African-American Gallery, and two of the four Ohr gallery pods were ripped apart by the wind and rain. Reconstruction bids will enter the market soon, but Crain and Gowdy are wary of the high construction costs that have been exploding in the Gulf Coast region. Crain says that the burst of redevelopment created by Katrina has brought massive, high-dollar developers with condo and casino projects to the waterfront, forcing smaller projects to compete with organizations that have deeper pockets. "Prices have easily gone up 50 percent, and they've [stayed there]," he says.

Gowdy says she hopes to have two or three of the buildings open by the fall of 2009, but a volatile construction market could delay it further.

Crain (who called his work on the Ohr Museum “the most rewarding experience of my professional career") and his firm are working on a maritime museum next door to the Ohr museum. There’s also a historic pier for early 20th century ships nearby, and all this, he says, could shape the beginnings of a museum district. With a Gehry project already starting its dance with the trees, the Biloxi Gulf Coast is set to take center stage.

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