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Gehry’s Ohr-O’Keefe architecture drawing international attention

BILOXI — “I want buildings that have passion in them, that have feeling in them, that make people feel something, even if they get mad at them.” said Frank Gehry, the architect for the new Ohr-O’Keefe Museums.

Gehry, one of the world’s most famous architects, has designed a series of five pavilions amongst a grove of live oaks at the Biloxi beachfront site of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museums. It is safe to say that the design is like nothing ever built in Mississippi — or the Southeast.

The designs are too unusual for the taste of some.

“It a pretty avant-garde design, very contemporary,” said Marjorie Gowdy, executive director of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museums. “Frank immediately fell in love with the romance of the Coast, the old homes along the waterfront with long green lawns and metal roofs. In a very contemporary way, he took those old Southern-style designs and made them his own, a Gehry style as opposed to the traditional lines of homes on the Coast we are all used to. I think once it is built that they will be a series of buildings that will grow on folks as they come to know them. They will love the openness of the campus.”

It is fitting that the designs are unique and unusual — like the work done by the museum’s namesake, George Ohr, the 19th-century artist who was known as “the mad potter of Biloxi” because of his long, handlebar mustache and bizarre pottery creations. Although highly regarded today, and known as “the father of American pottery,” during his time Ohr was largely unappreciated.

Jeremiah “Jerry” O’Keefe, the former mayor of Biloxi who has been a major financial contributor and fundraiser for the $16-million museum project, said if the museum buildings were commonplace, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting a project.

“This is a particularly artistic result of Frank Gehry’s creative mind,” O’Keefe said. “I don’t expect it to please everybody, and would be disappointed if everybody fell in love with every design he has. We really believe his architecture will probably be the strongest draw that this museum will have on its completion. This is the only Frank Gehry building in the state of Mississippi. I believe people will come from far away to see his artistry. Each of the five distinct buildings will have its own personality.”

One of the reasons Gehry agreed to do the project is because he is a fan of George Ohr’s work.

“He had seen a good bit of George Ohr’s work before he undertook this project,” O’Keefe said. “I think from an artistic standpoint, George Ohr and Frank Gehry are kindred spirits. The union of Frank’s innovative design with the expressive sculptural vessels of George Ohr and the cultural heritage of the region will create a harmonious village of art, culture and history, unlike any other in the South or the nation.”

“The freedom of expression and spontaneity that George Ohr’s works embrace have long been an inspiration for me,” said Gehry, who has been awarded the Pritzker Prize, the highest award of architecture for lifetime achievements. “His flowing shapes imply a sense of movement that is similar to the gestures of some of my buildings.”

Even prior to being built, the project has garnered nationwide publicity, most recently being the subject of an article in Architectural Digest.

“The design has been featured in The New York Times four times already and it hasn’t even been built,” said Joey Crain, Ohr-O’Keefe Museums project architect for Guild Hardy Architects, Biloxi, which is serving as the executive architect on the project designed by Gehry. “It has also been in the Los Angeles Times. There has been intense interest. I think this museum will do for the Coast and the state what the Guggenheim Museum did for Bilbao, Spain.”

The Guggenheim in Spain, which has been described as everything from “an architectural epiphany” to “a lunar lander in search of its moon,” is credited with sparking an economic revival in Bilbao, attracting millions of visitors to the area.

Guild Hardy Architects is responsible for developing the design into final construction documents and for construction administration. It is the kind of project architects dream of being involved with.

“We’re having a ball,” Crain said. “This is his first building in the Southeast region. And even in his body of work, this is unique. For one thing it is a lot smaller than his typical commission. He is working on a number of commissions right now that are easily 10 times this size.

But I have heard from his office that when he has new clients in, he will walk them past some of his larger projects and right to the Ohr Museum.

“It is a set of pavilions facing the Mississippi Gulf. In terms of surface geometry and shapes, it is somewhat a change in direction from his other buildings. There are still some pretty interesting shapes, but he has interpreted and distilled some of the local vernacular architectural forms. What you will see is some pretty interesting interpretations of that. The galleries have porches on them, but not what you would envision when you think of porches.”

Gehry was intrigued by the challenges of the site, which includes a four-acre grove of old live oaks. So instead of one large building that would have sacrificed the trees, five smaller buildings are being built around the trees. The idea is that visually the pavilions will appear to be “dancing” among the live oaks.

“We are coming within three feet of the oaks,” Crain said. “These are trees that are several hundred years old. And we are doing it in a way that will not harm the trees. Landscape architects, an arborist and structural engineers are involved in making sure the construction and finished buildings don’t harm the trees.”

In addition to the gallery featuring the pottery of George Ohr, the new museum will also have African-American folk art and history as well as works by contemporary artists of the region. In addition to the five pavilions, the museum complex will include a cultural center and an education building linked by a central courtyard. Already on the site is the Pleasant Reed House, a 19th-century historic structure named after the former slave who built the house, situated as the keystone at the entryway to the museum complex.

The Ohr-O’Keefe Museums complex and an adjacent Native American meditation garden overlook the site of a former tribal village set within the Tricentennial Park, an eight-acre park that includes the restored antebellum Tullis Manor and adjacent former slave quarters. A new public pier and boardwalk with access to the historic Biloxi Schooners are also planned.

For more information, visit www.georgeohr.org on the Web.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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