This essay is courteously provided and translated into English by Josef Pesch (Freiburg, Germany). Text by Josef Pesch.
Internet version by Henri Achten. A printed version of this essay appeared in KUNST & KULTUR 4.5 (Juni/Juli/August 1997): p. 14-17.
Frank Gehry's "Ginger and Fred" in Prague
Playfully Postmodern or Seriously Post-Apocalyptic?
The Californian architect Frank O. Gehry and his Czech co-architect Vladimir Milunic have designed an impressive building
to fill a space left empty in the centre of Prague after World War II bombing. It is a 'dancing building' and was named
"Ginger & Fred" in an allusion to the American film icons. The building is part of the tradition of deconstructive
architecture (also known as catastrophe architecture): Gehry's postmodern signature is undeniably visible - and stands
in marked contrast to the building's historic setting. It is thus perceived by many people to be an alien element, a
Californian eye-sore in one of the few central-European cities not reduced to rubble and ashes at the end of World War
II. Some say "Ginger & Fred" repeats the destruction of the cityscape on this site, where American bombs (accidentally)
destroyed a building at the end of the war.
Wilfried Dechau, editor of deutsche bauzeitung, states that the building reminds him of a 'crushed can of Coke.' He
clearly thinks that Gehry should not have marked this corner of Prague with his 'scent,' for 'this gap torn by American
bombs at the end of the war should have been closed with utmost formal restraint in order to preserve (at least from the
outside) the homogeneous impression of this street.'
Other critics, for instance Simonetta Carbonaro, call the building a 'Dancing Palace,' 'a new jewel of the city's
architecture [...] that is adding a new aspect to its history.' Unfortunately she does
not explain what that new historical aspect is. Josef Singldinger's comments are just as positive: he points out that
"Ginger & Fred" marks a clear contrast to the rather boring recent architecture found elsewhere in Prague. He classifies
Gehry's house as 'catastrophe design,' but does not give any further information.
His classification may be right, but is not unproblematic. Is something to be called 'catastrophe architecture' if an
architect avoids right angles or if he or she designs buildings that stand in optically loud contrast to their
surroundings? Architects of the Californian SITE-group have turned this into an art form in their designs for BEST
supermarkets. But is all this really anything else than ordinary attention-grabbing sensationalism which places
postmodern culture so close to advertising? Can a dancing building which nostalgically refers to the world of the good
and beautiful (cinema) world of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astair really be part of an 'aesthetics of catastrophe'?
According to Wolfgang Pehnt, such an aesthetics is 'an aesthetics of the ugly' - and thus he hopes that 'such ugliness
may prevent future sinning' in architecture. But neither the dancing couple of American cinema nor Gehry's "Ginger &
Fred" are really part of an aesthetics of the ugly - and only the Puritan founding fathers of the New World perceived
dancing as sinful.
It seems to me that neither praisers nor critics of Gehry's building do it justice. Of course I do not deny the playful,
dancing element of "Ginger & Fred" - that would mean negating its charm and lightness. However, Dechau is right somehow
when he compares it to a crushed can of Coke. Apparently he has seen the effects of violence encoded in the building. The
left section of the building seems indeed to have been crushed in the middle, while the right section looks as if pressure
from above has compressed and twisted it to a point at which its windows no longer align .
Furthermore, the windows and frames look as if they had been pushed out from the inside. But such 'deconstructive'
elements are not just 'comic' or 'comic-destructive' as Charles Jencks, arch-critic of postmodern Architecture, wants
us to believe .
Deconstruction always implies - but must not be confused with - destruction. It refers to violence, re-creates effects
of destruction - and this is where the building's deeper historical foundations are to be located. "Ginger & Fred" was
not just placed somewhere in the cityscape, but fills an empty space, a reminder of the destruction of World War II.
Such vacant lots are historical evidence, monuments of absence into which painful and horrific memories are inscribed.
There is always a historical dimension to the architectonic treatment of such sites of memories, such 'empty' spaces.
Preserving these gaps is not a realistic option in European city centres. In Prague the site remained vacant because of
conditions special to the communist building policies. To fill a gap like this with a building 'restoring' a unity of
style - as Dechau and others demand - and to reconstruct a 'historical' ensemble, negates the recent history of this
location and pretends that 'nothing has happened.' Such restoration of facades was an important strategy in many cities
destroyed by World War II, particularly in West-Germany, where memories of the war were to be erased as fast as possible.
Nothing was to remind Germans of the apocalyptic destruction of the 'Third Reich'; 
no ruin was to recall the radical and (almost) total loss of historic buildings. This erasure of memories was achieved
by re-building the cities wherever this was feasible - or by using this opportunity for constructing completely new
cities on the rubble. In either case ruins - the reminders of ruin - were to be eradicated as fast as possible. Just
in a few cities, in a few locations, a ruin was preserved, though none plays as central a role in shaping the city
centre as the monumental ruin of Coventry cathedral. Prominent war ruins and their painful warning functions seem hard
to bear, and thus the last large ruined space in Germany, the 'Frauenkirche' in Dresden, is now being sacrificed to
restoration. But smaller architectonic 'cleansing' operations are being performed as well: for instance in replacing
the provisional 'filling' in the left tower of Cologne cathedral. Here a large gap torn into the corner of the cathedral
by a British air mine was filled in with bricks from the rubble by citizens of Cologne in order to prevent the imminent
collapse of their church. For fifty years this 'blemish' in the house of God has served as a reminder of the apocalyptic
destruction of Cologne, but perhaps also of the role and collaboration of the Catholic Church in the Nazi regime. As such
it is obviously no longer acceptable to worshippers and the Archbishop.
In cities like Münster or Freiburg (to name but two) the restoration was largely successful. To a lay-person both cities
seem 'old', even though most houses in their centres are little older than fifty years. Few citizens - and hardly a
tourist - will notice that they are not looking at authentic historic buildings, but at copies. Jean Baudrillard
identifies such historicizing copies as 'simulations', because they are pretending to be what they are not, and speaks
of "Disneyfication". He does, however, limit the use of this term to American buildings that are copying European
originals . Such simulations seem much more irritating in Germany than they are in
America, for in the latter they are easily identified, whereas in the former this is almost impossible to the untrained
Gehry's building, on the other hand, is a dramatically visible reminder that something was destroyed in wartime Prague,
even though physical damage was the exception here. Yet a building by an architect who is convinced that 'his growing
awareness of his 'Jewishness' was a source of the powers that shaped his work'  may
further be read as a symbol for the violence and destruction, for the extermination of Prague's Jewish culture by German
occupying forces. A destruction of the cultural fabric of the city that was total, but left the facades in
Looked at from this perspective, "Ginger & Fred" is anything but an alien American element in a Central-European city.
On the contrary: the building is to remind Europeans of the darkest chapter in their history. As a deconstructive
building it represents the apocalyptic destruction of historically grown physical structures and thus refers to the
violent annihilation of a significant part of European cultures, Jewish cultures in particular. To make invisible such
memories with a restorative style of building, to pretend that "nothing has happened" here, would have been true
If my reading of the dome on the roof of the right part of the building is correct, then a further historical reference
beyond Europe is made. For this empty dome alludes to the steel structures of the
dome of the Hiroshima A-bomb memorial building. This and other similarities in the structures of both buildings are
too obvious to be coincidental . However, in Hiroshima - and Nagasaki - destruction
was so complete that no restorable facades or ensembles were left: both cities and most of their inhabitants disappeared
in apocalyptic fires. I see local reference in this allusion to destruction on a much larger scale, captured in a
building occupying a site of a house also destroyed at the end of the war. Furthermore, the former Hiroshima Prefectural
Industrial Promotion Hall, built in 1915, was designed by the Czech architect Jan Letzel (1880-1925) .
"Ginger and Fred" thus becomes a nodal point linking the local to the global across time and space. In the light of
these references I am certain that Prague - a city that had to suffer the consequences of German aggression and
occupation for so much longer than many on this side of the Iron Curtain - could not have wished for a building more
apt, more right for its city centre than Gehry's elegant memorial.
The rejection of such 'post-apocalyptic' architecture may be caused by the fact that 'a house that is about to collapse
[...] suggest a larger catastrophe than a 'deconstructive' chair.'  This may
activate long-forgotten memories of
apocalyptic loss of world in the generation that experienced such losses during the war, but repressed their traumatic
pain. The American writer Kurt Vonnegut who survived the bombing of Dresden as POW, and Hans Erich Nossack who survived
the fire storm of Hamburg, write of the confusion and total disorientation in a world of ruins, where just hours
ago the houses and homes had been.  Photographs of the ruined
cities  show that all kinds of 'new' sights of
cityscape had opened up: multiperspectivist vistas looking through buildings or across the city into the
surrounding countryside; windows framing blue sky or clouds; free-standing facades and chimneys turned into
columns before an empty horizon; rooms were cut open for a good view, frame structures were laid bare to
reveal steel cubes; I-beams were twisted and contorted; bizarre sculptures of steel bent at odd angles penetrated
public spaces. In different degrees of stylization this universal language of ruins (it is hard to tell which
city the photos come from) has found its way into the forms and structures of an architecture often called postmodern
or deconstructivist, that I suggest should be called post-apocalyptic.
I have identified such elements in the model of the SITE group for the "Museum für Moderne Kunst" in Frankfurt/M.
that was unfortunately not chosen. Neither Jencks nor SITE had anything significant to say about the model. 
Elements are also to be found in Günter Domenigs "Zentralsparkasse" in Vienna;  in
the split tower of Eisenmans Wexner Center for the Visual Arts at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio; 
in the 'Dancing Chimneys' and other elements in Coop Himmelblau's "Funder Werk" in St. Veith/Glan, Austria; 
in the empty 'sky windows' of a building with the telling name "Babylon" by Arquitectonica; 
in the roof structures of Gehry's "Edgemar Farms" in Santa Monica  as well as in
Gehry's private house with its open, asymmetrical and broken roof constructions. Even the postmodern critic of
capitalism, Frederic Jameson, seems to have missed this reference to ruins and ruin. 
And many post-apocalyptic elements can be identified, of course, in some of Bernard Tschumi's "Folies" in the "Parc de
la Villette" in Paris.  Deconstructed facades are visible in Hans Hollein's
"Haas Haus" in Vienna  as well as in Mario Botta's office building in Lugano,
Switzerland.  Twisted steel structures that penetrate public space are to be
found in Behnisch & Partners' "Hysolar-Forschungsinstitut" in Stuttgart,  where a
steel rod even 'penetrates' an I-beam, where windows are at odd angles, and where a 'hole' is visible in the roof.
I recognize the historical reminders of destruction in Coop Himmelblau's roof extension in Vienna, 
but also on the inside of Eric Owen Moss's "Lawson/Western House"  in Los Angeles.
Or in Nigel Coates' and Nato's "Caffé Bongo" in Tokyo, which Jencks identifies as "Post-Holocaust Design"
without further comment.  And elements of post-apocalyptic deconstruction
are undeniable present in Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum now under construction in Berlin. 
How can one speak of deconstructive architecture without thinking about the destruction of World War II? Did this
destruction not generate the fragmentation that makes postmodernism what it is when it provided elements such as
sky windows, empty facades, free steel cubes, dysfunctional columns, steel sculptures, and walls turned inside out?
Has this destruction (and its documentation in photos and film) not generated a new perception of the constructedness
of buildings and a new sense of their fragility? After all, solid buildings on whom people had depended for comfort
and shelter for ages, had suddenly been turned into fragmented rubble.
Admittedly, in most cases the quoted ruins are not identified or commented on neither by architects (with the exception
of Libeskind) nor by critics. In the interview with Carbonaro neither Gehry nor his co-architect Vlado Milunic even
mention ruins or the history of the site of their building. Both give purely formalistic reasons for the structure
of their building.  But then, it would not have been good for business to present a client like "Nationale Nederlanden
ING Real Estate" (part of an internationally operating insurance group) with such historical background information
to the building, which reveals the uselessness of all insurance, and touches on painful memories that everyone would
rather forget. For such reasons alone, I guess, the SITE draft for Frankfurt am Main was unacceptable. The difference
in experiencing destruction may explain why deconstructive architecture is more popular in the USA than in Europe.
Yet even there, postmodernism pretends just to be playful, comical: a movement of fun and dance in which everything
has its playful order on the surface. A second level of reference, however, which is inscribed into the structure of
the buildings, will only be perceived and interpreted by those in whose minds the images of destruction are still
present. Others will not get beyond the latent unease that manifests itself in metaphors like that of the crushed
can of Coke.
If, however, you link the history of the site of "Ginger and Fred" to the history inscribed in its walls and roof, a
building that is blandly postmodern at the surface acquires more and more depth, becomes intimately linked to its
location, its city, its continent - to all the ruins this century produced so thoroughly and efficiently with all
technological means at its disposal. Furthermore, Gehry reminds us that his building is a memorial which indicates
via Ginger and Fred that we cannot do without dancing or poetry after the Shoah; that more than ever before we need
the fictions of the good life that the makers of celluloid illusions gave us, that we need the harmonious dream of
a dancing couple like Ginger and Fred, if we do not want to freeze or despair when we face those other film documents
shot in Auschwitz and Buchenwald and Dachau and all the other places of organized mass murder - or pictures of bombed
out cities like Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It may well be that such
monuments always have to be doubly encoded so that we can bear them.
This may also be the reason why it is so difficult to conceive a memorial of remembrance that can carry the whole
burden of the Shoah for Berlin. Can any one memorial - whatever its design - really memorialize the
murdering of human beings that used to live among us and were part of a deeply rooted Jewish-German culture
that is now lost forever? How can such a monument hold its own against the pomp and glamour of all the buildings
the new Federal Republic is now erecting in its new/old capital? Perhaps Gehry's "Ginger and Fred" shows that
such memories can be inscribed into 'ordinary' architecture, if we were courageous enough to 'disturb' the public
a little more - and particularly in central locations - by buildings designed by Gehry, Eisenman, Coop Himmelblau
or SITE. It may well be that the war generation does not need to be reminded of the ruins, but for those blessed
with having been born after that war, such re-inscribing of ruins into our city centres by visibly post-apocalyptic
architectural memories of the Unthinkable, Unbelievable, Unimaginable and Monstrous is becoming increasingly
* * *
Dr. Josef Pesch is an independent scholar in Freiburg i.Br. (Germany)
and is writing a book on North American Post-Apocalyptic Literature.
(Schwarzwaldstr. 204, 79117 Freiburg, Germany. Tel. ++49-761-65619;
An earlier version of this essay was published in German in Kunst & Kultur 4.5 (1997): 14-17.
Meghan Walsh. "Fred & Ginger: Gehry's Dancing Building steps out in Prague."
Michael Frank. "Prag: Tanz in der alten Stadt." Süddeutsche Zeitung 109 (11./12.5.1996): 111.
Wilfried Dechau. "Ein Amerikaner in Paris." Deutsche Bauzeitung 8 (1996): 6. (my translation)
Simonetta Carbonaro. "Der tanzende Palast: Frank O. Gehry
und seine Begegnung mit Vlado Milunic in Prag. Text und Interviews." Deutsche Bauzeitschrift 9 (1996): 93-97. 94. (my translation)
Josef Singldinger. "Architektur als Zeichen der Zeit." Kunst & Kultur 8 (1996): 4-9. 5 (my translation)
SITE. SITE. Stuttgart: Verlag Gerd Hatje, 1989.
Wolfgang Pehnt. "Scharf wie ein Rasiermesser. Katastrophenästhetik, zu einer gegenwärtigen Stimmung." Das Ende der Geschichte. München: Prestel, 1989. 246-250. 250. 249. (my translation)
Gehry's explanation for the "jumping windows" is purely functional (and modernist). It seems to be a defense against the suggestion of (postmodern) introduction of deliberate disorder made by Carbonaro (1996: 95).
Charles Jencks. Die Neuen Modernen: Von der Spät- zur Neo-Moderne. Stuttgart: DVA, 1990. 123; 282.
A term first found in the apocalyptic thinking of Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135-1202); cf. Damian Thompson. The End of Time. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996. 63-65.
Jean Baudrillard. Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.
Thomas S. Hines. "Heavy Metal: Frank O. Gehrys Ausbildung." Frank Gehry und seine Architektur.
Hg. Mildred Friedman. Basel: Wiese Verlag, 1989. 11-21. 11. (my translation)
Vlado Milunic, Gehry's Zagreb-born co-architect, identifies Gehry's Jewish, Polish, and
Slavic ancestry and speaks of him as a boomerang returning to his point of origin. Furthermore, he recalls that during the
collaboration with Gehry another war was ravaging Yugoslavia (Carbonaro 1996: 96-97).
"Hiroshima: August 6, 1945. 'My God ... what have we done?'" Special Report. Newsweek July 24,
1995. 18-41. For further photos of the building see also Hiroshima's web site.
Milunic, on whose original 1990 design "Ginger & Fred" is based, has a structure like this in an early model of the
building. This contradicts Gehry's version that the idea for the dome was accidental and late (Carbonaro 1996: 94).
Milunic has lived in Prague for so long that he may know about Letzel. Information about Letzel is hard to come by. A
one page leaflet "On the Atomic Bomb Dome" (without publication data) supplied by Shinji Ohara of the Hiroshima Peace
Culture Foundation states that he "studied Secession style architecture from [sic] Professor Jan Kotera at the Academy
of Applied Fine Arts, which later became Prague Art College." It further says that he "came to Japan in 1907" to spend
14 years there, designing "the Seishin Women's School in Tokyo [completed in 1909], Japan Private Health Association,
Matsushima Park Hotel, Miyajima Hotel, and other notable structures, and became on of the most distinguished architects
in the Taisho Era." Another leaflet "Construction of the Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall" (also without
publication data; supplied by Shinji Ohara) describes Letzel as a disciple of "the premier 'Sezession architect' Otto
Wagner." From a letter to his mother, supplied by Shinji Ohara of the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation (copyright
Státní okresní archiv, Náchod, Czech Republic), dated 10. September 1923, it can be surmised that his contact to his
embassy was close. Before his death he seems to have worked for the Czech government in Prague.
Pehnt 1989: 246. Gehry also designed chairs: see Frank Gehry und seine Architektur. Ed. Mildred Friedman. Basel: Wiese, 1986.
Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dell, 1983. Hans Erich Nossack. Der Untergang: Hamburg 1943. Fotos von Erich Andres. Hamburg: Kabel, 1993.
e.g. Erich Andres in Nossack Der Untergang. 1993. Hermann Claassen. Nie Wieder Krieg! Bilder aus dem zerstörten Köln. Hg. Klaus Honnef und Walter Müller.
Köln: Winand Verlag, 1994. Stadt Freiburg (Hg.) Freiburg 1944-1994: Zerstörung und Wiederaufbau. Waldkirch: Waldkircher Verlag, 1994.
Jencks 1990: 282. SITE. SITE. Stuttgart: Verlag Gerd Hatje, 1989. 138.
Günther Domenig. "Zentralsparkasse, Wien, 1979-82." Architektur Heute. Charles Jencks. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1988. 223.
Peter Eisenman. "Wexner Center for the Visual Arts, Columbus, Ohio, 1985-89." Die Neuen Modernen: Von der Spät- zur Neo-Moderne. Charles Jencks. Stuttgart: DVA, 1990. 223 & 227.
Coop Himmelblau. "Fabrikanlage Funder Werk 3, St. Veit 1988-1989." Architektur des 20. Jahrhunderts. Peter Gössel & Gabriele Leuthäuser. Köln: Benedikt Taschen, 1994. 370-371.
Arquitectonica. "Babylon." Dekonstruktivismus. Hg. Andreas Papadakis. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1989. 255.
Frank Gehry. "Umbau Edgemar Farms, Santa Monica, Ca., 1987-1989." Die Neuen Modernen: Von der Spät- zur Neo-Moderne. Charles Jencks. Stuttgart: DVA, 1990. 271.
Fredric Jameson. "Architecture: Spatial Equivalents in the World System." Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.
Durham: Duke UP, 1991. 97-129. Frank O. Gehry. "Haus Gehry, Santa Monica, Ca., 1978-1979." Architektur Heute. Charles Jencks. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1988. 216-217.
Bernard Tschumi "Folies." Dekonstruktivismus. Hg. Andreas Papadakis. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1989. 182-183.
Hans Hollein. "Haas Haus, Wien, 1985-1990." Architektur in Europa seit 1968. Eds. Alexander Tzanis & Liane Lefaivre. Frankfurt/M. & New York: Campus, 1992. 195.
Mario Botta. "Bürogebäude, Lugano, Schweiz, 1981-1985." Die Sprache der postmodernen Architektur. Charles Jencks. 3. Aufl. Stuttgart: DVA, 1988. 175.
Behnisch & Partner. "Hysolar-Forschungsinstitut, Stuttgart, 1987." Architektur des 20. Jahrhundert. Gössel & Leuthäuser. Köln: Benedikt Taschen Verlag, 1994. 366.
Coop Himmelblau. "Dachausbau, Wien, 1983-1988. Architektur des 20. Jahrhundert. Gössel & Leuthäuser.
Köln: Benedikt Taschen, 1994. 361.
Eric Owen Moss. "Lawson/Western House, Los Angeles, Ca., 1988-1993." Contemporary American Architects. Philip Jodidio. Köln: Benedikt Taschen, 1993. 124.
Nigel Coates and Nato. "Caffé Bongo." Was ist Postmoderne? Charles Jencks. Zürich & München: Artemis, 1990. 52.
Deutsche Bauzeitung 11 (1996): 50-107.
Simonetta Carbonaro. "Interviews mit Frank O. Gehry und Vlado Milunic." Deutsche Bauzeitschrift 9 (1996): 94-97.
I am not suggesting here that the Shoah and the bombings were of the same moral order.
Postscript Internet version
The A-Bomb Memorial used to be the Hisoshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, built by Jan Letzel (1880-1925), a Czech architect.
The dome of the Memorial is reminiscent of the open dome in Gehry's building. The contrast with the rebuilt city is quite uncanny.
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