You’ve probably seen the ads. Popping out from your Facebook newsfeed, the Masterclass sales pitch immediately attracts the eye: beautifully backlit wooden models and silky hand sketching emphasized by orchestral swells are accompanied by an adorable pirouette by the one and only Frank Gehry. The combination of Gehry’s status and slick production has managed to amass over 1.6 million views for the trailer on Youtube. Even in the company of courses taught by Martin Scorsese, Deadmau5, and Samuel L Jackson, the lone architect impressively lays claim to the eighth most popular teaser in the Masterclass series. The production value alone is almost a convincing argument for the $90 USD price, a detail that is quietly left out of the trailer.
The course has been reviewed by a critic, a practicing architect, and a curator—but what of its ostensible target audience, the architecture student? Has Masterclass managed to crack the online class conundrum with cinematography and celebrity?
“Frank Gehry Teaches Design & Architecture” is two hours and forty-two minutes of Gehryisms, anecdotes, and occasional instruction. Seventeen chapters comprise a documentary-esque long-form interview. But with an opportunity to mine the mind of a virtuoso like Gehry, Masterclass has failed to deliver.
When the course focuses on a single topic, it succeeds. The most compelling chapters are the two “Take Away” case studies on LA’s Walt Disney Concert Hall and NYC’s 8 Spruce Street. These sections offer a legitimately intriguing peek into Gehry’s iterative design process. The narrative surrounding the Concert Hall is particularly inspiring. Gehry recounts the building’s story—from the design changing hands and the shifting of blame over its initial $60 million flub, to precedents and his process working alongside Yamaha acoustic engineers. Gehry obsessed over the sound quality to ensure an intimate connection between orchestra and audience. To achieve that, Yamaha built large scale 1 to 10 mockups of great concert halls, and put conductors such as Pierre Boulez inside them to test the sound. Music, movement, and feeling resonate in the Concert Hall and showcase the vibrancy inherent to both Gehry’s process and persona. His passion for the perfection of space reminds students like us why we got into architecture in the first place. Despite that, this emotionally resonant chapter isn’t enough to redeem the whole course.
Masterclass insists, and uses language that reinforces the idea, that this video series is a comprehensive learning experience, a “course.” That claim is misleading. Masterclass presents a skewed impression of the field by offering a simplistic representation of Gehry’s own true process and rigor. The sequence of chapters is indicative of this: “Generating Ideas,” “Frank’s Inspiration,” “Creating With Your Client,” and, most egregiously, “Business” overpromise and underdeliver. The latter chapter is little more than vague fiscal advice and snazzy title cards that urge the viewer to “Have Financial Integrity,” “Be a Master Builder,” and “Prove Your Design Can Be Built.” Going beyond platitudes would have been helpful.
Frank Gehry’s brilliance is defined by digitally conceived designs, yet no chapter covers his process beyond abstract “eureka moments.” The “course” concentrates on the sculpture and “movement” of architecture but doesn’t address technicality. Why is there no chapter on structure? Where is program? Building technologies? Drawing conventions? For the casual viewer, the Masterclass is harder to fault. Gehry is accessible, engaging, and fun to watch. But, for an architecture student, save for a few inspiring episodes, the content offers minimal substance for its $90 USD price tag and opens more doors than it explores, leaving us confused as to who the intended audience is.
The accompanying assignments do little to redeem the course. Upon enrollment, students are presented with a list of suggested reading and are asked to participate in online discussions with classmates. They are also assigned a single arts and crafts project, which instructs the participant to use cloth to physically model “folds” and subsequently reflect on “which ones might best translate into architectural space.” The undertakings were not particularly helpful. It would have been more fruitful to have had an assignment that carried over from chapter to chapter and culminated in a self-driven design informed by Gehry.
Although the instructor is brilliant, this particular Masterclass does not hold a candle to online architecture courses offered by Harvard, edX, and MIT. Meanwhile, the casual viewer is better off paying $10 USD for a Netflix subscription just to watch their Bjarke Ingels documentary, which manages to highlight over half a dozen built projects in 45 minutes. Architecture students should save the money for plotting.
Andy Chen and Thomas Musca are Cornell University B.Arch Students.