Nearly 20 years after Bilbao, the iconic architect continues to transform the world through his genre-defying buildings.
INTERVIEW BY SPENCER BAILEY
PORTRAIT BY NATHANIEL WOOD
November 2, 2015
At 86, Frank Gehry gives off the nonchalant vibe of an architect with nothing left to prove. He’s cantankerous, unafraid of criticizing detractors. But in conversation, true to the style of Los Angeles—where he has run his firm, Gehry Partners, since founding it in 1962—he also comes across as relaxed and easy going. He’s even nostalgic, though he probably wouldn’t admit it. Gehry claims he can’t walk through his current retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (through March 20, 2016) because it reminds him of his unrealized schemes and dreams. The comprehensive show, which explores his work from the 1960s to present via more than 200 drawings and 65 models, further cements the Toronto native’s legacy.
Gehry took a very circuitous path to his current post at the top of the architecture world: In 1947, his family emigrated from Canada to California. He went on to attend Los Angeles City College, and later, the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture, from which we graduated in 1954. After that, he spent time in the U.S. Army, and continued his studies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, eventually dropping out and moving to Paris for work. At age 33, he moved back to L.A. and ventured out on his own. Since then, he has gone on to design some of the most unforgettable buildings on earth, including the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain (1997), the Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. (2003), and the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris (2014), as well as Vitra and Knoll furniture and Tiffany & Co. jewelry.
In addition to the LACMA show, Gehry has seen two other major milestones come about this year. He was awarded the third annual Getty Medal for artistic achievement from the J. Paul Getty Trust, and Knopf recently published a 528-page biography, Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning architect critic Paul Goldberg. All of this attention comes as Gehry has taken on, to the disapproval of many, the incredibly ambitious project of rebuilding the 51-mile Los Angeles River (32 miles of which runs through the city itself); reported estimates suggest each mile will cost $100 million. More focused on hydrology and engineering than architecture, the project is a compelling departure from the bold and experimental sculptural forms that have made Gehry’s firm world-famous. Another of Gehry’s current projects, the renovation and expansion of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, also suggests a more subtle design approach. He will be transforming the interior, adding more than 169,000 square feet of exhibit space while keeping intact the integrity of the existing building.
Surface recently met with Gehry at his vast studio located in L.A.’s Marina del Rey neighborhood. Sitting on Knoll Cross Check chairs inside his mezzanine-level library (the books on the shelves include Ian Schrager: Works, Vishaan Chakrabarti;s A Country of Cities, Rowan Moore’s Why We Build), we discussed his military service, his continued disdain of the word “startichect,” and more.
The word “play” appears a lot in Paul Goldberger’s new biography, whether it has to do with your architectural work or your other interests, like ice hockey, jazz, and sailing.
Play is so basic to our lives. When you’re a child we call it “play”. It’s kind of a preface to adulthood: the interactions between people, your interactions with the world and environment around you. Everything you’re gonna be confronted with in life is sort of worked out when you’re a child playing. It creates hierarchies. It creates visions.
One of the scenes that struck me in the book was how, as a child in Toronto, you would watch carp swim in your family’s bathtub. It’s such a powerful image. Did they provide you with this sense of play?
I was scared of them. [Laughs] That story [of carp in a bathtub] is multiplies hundreds of millions of times in Jewish families. It’s not that unusual of a thing. In fact, there are books written about it.
It’s compelling, though, that such a usual thing in Jewish households has held such an unusual reverence in the context of your career.
Well, it came to the fore after I got angry with the postmodernist things and said, “Well, if you gotta go back, why not fish?” That’s real play—it’s adult play. But you start playing with that idea. Maybe it came out of that. I started thinking about it and drawing the fish and then, as life would have it, I was asked to do things with the fish image. I made the ColorCore lamp [for the Formica Corporation in 1983], people saw that, and then they asked me to do more. So I made bigger and bigger fish. It was a eureka moment. I was looking for a way to express the movement in buildings with inert materials. It was a way of expressing feeling—which was something I was anxious about and interested in—instead of decoration. The story about the fish in the bathtub came about because people would ask me about my work, so I’d tell them that story. It was a way to get rid of them. [Laughs]
You gave Goldberg total access to your world and complete control over everything that went into the biography. You must feel comfortable with him.
Yeah, I thought that was the only fair way to get an honest biography. I trusted him. Reading it, there are some laces where I wished he hadn’t said some things. It’s all right. There are always issues when you say things to people who you’re no longer friends with—an ex-wife, a lost child. Things are said along the way that have a different feeling when you read them 5 or 10 years later. It reawakens something inside you. In the long run, I just hope it doesn’t hurt people.
When did the biography come about?
It was like how the Sydney Pollack film [Sketches of Frank Gehry] came about. People were saying, “You need to have a biography—either you write it, or get somebody to write it.” I didn’t pay attention to it at first. Then more than one person I respect came to me about it, and I thought that there are things in my life misrepresented by the press. A lot of things like that are because people don’t really know what I’m struggling with, what my demons are. I want to meet the asshole who invented the term starchitect. It started out as a complimentary term, I would guess, and then people who like to make trouble grabbed it and used it as a negative thing. By now it’s the most stupid thing you can imagine saying.
I find it interesting that Golderberger was the first journalist to cover your work in a national publication, at least according to his biography.
I think that’s true. We became friends over the years. We don’t agree on everything. It’s a comfortable give-and-take relationship. I was at his wedding.
Media coverage of your work ballooned around the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao in 1997. Do you look back positively on that now? The project completely transformed your reputation internationally and may very well have brought about the loathsome word starchitect.
I’m very proud of the effect of what happened in Bilbao. Three and a half billion dollars has come to the city since the building opened. It changed the character of the city. It changed the politics. Just a little building did that.
Oftentimes, architectural forms or material applications that have never been used before imply expense. Santiago Calatrava knows this well—he’s been bashed heavily for the rising costs of his buildings. How do you respond to bad press? You once got so upset at a press conference that you flipped off a journalist.
It’s expected. Like that guy in London Jonathon Glancey, who called me “the one trick pony’s one trick pony” [in The Guardian] when I built the pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery [in 2008]. That’s something I’d never been called.
The biography makes note of numerous setbacks throughout your life. The press makes it sound like you designed Bilbao, and then everything’s’ been peachy since. That’s far from the truth.
I don’t know many people who have live their life as a creative person without ups and downs. I think the trajectory I’ve had has been pretty satisfying. But I can’t go look at the LACMA show, because I look at the models and get nostalgic about some buildings that haven’t been built.
What buildings are those?
The Corcoran Gallery. The New York Times building—I quite that one myself, so it’s my own fault. The [Le Clos Jordan] winery in Canada. The Samsung Museum [of Modern Art].
There seem to be quite a few examples throughout your life where you had these potential breakthrough moments and huge opportunities—your work for the cardboard furniture company Easy Edges in the ‘80s, the Times building—and then you walked away from them.
I was insecure about architecture [in the ‘80s]. I like invention, and I think there was tons more stuff we could have done with the cardboard had I stuck with it. One of my assistants a few years ago threw out all the Easy Edges press clippings. We had stacks and stacks. It was overwhelming to have all that press. I once walked through the Bloomingdale’s floor out display was on, and I aw this couple come running toward me. I thought, “Oh my God, is this what fame is? How do I get out of this one?” The lady just wanted to know where the restrooms were. It was quite a comedown.
Shortly after that, your office went full-boar into architecture. Years later, though, you returned to designing at a smaller scale, like your 2005 jewelry collection for Tiffany & Co.
I became more secure. During the Tiffany thing, my feelings were much different.
In the first part of the biography, you appear to be an outsider—your teachers would tell you, “You can’t draw. You’re not an architect.” Do you think that led you to eventually finding your way to success?
The outsiderness started when I got beat up for killing Christ in Timmins [in Ontario, where Gehry lived during his adolescent years.] A lot of anti-Semitism creates outsiderness. And then being poor creates another level of outsiderness. Maybe that’s where it all started.
Let’s move on to you time in the U.S. Army. You never complained to your commanding officer about an excruciating pain in your leg. Then, when he found it out, you were essentially rewarded for you toughness.
Leonard Nimoy was my master sergeant. Did I say that in the book? Was that in there?
I don’t think so.
I was in the 3rd Infantry Division—I think it was Eisenhower’s division, by coincidence. I was at Fort Benning. I had this bum knew. I was born with it, and it didn’t get me out of the army. I joined the ROTC—I wanted to be a pilot. I did four years of ROTC, and then this guy calls me and says, “Oh, by the way, we can’t graduate you because of your leg. It was a mistake. We should have caught it four years ago. “I had just been married. We were having a baby. And they told me that I wasn’t going on to flight training in the Air Force, which I had really wanted to do. This triggered my draft board to call me in for an examination. I went in for it, and the doctor who was seeing me was crippled. He said, “Oh, that’s not bad! They’ll find something for you to do.” He made me an I-A [meaning available for military service].
I did basic training. I was in pretty good shape. I could do 50 pushups—I still can, actually. But when I went on these 20-mile runs, I’d come back and there would be all this swelling. It scared me. That had never happened. I went to the infirmary, and the orthopedic doctor there got a little worried about it. He said he couldn’t do much, that he would continue the medical research on it. In the meantime, he said, “I don’t think you should wear boots. They’re what’s making it swell.” I found out that if you don’t have boots on then you can’t do “KP” [kitchen patrol] duty.
The captain of the company, the sergeant—practically everybody was anti-Semitic. They got nasty. But there was nothing they could do. So they sent me to the clerk-typist school. But before I went, on Sundays, at the PX [post exchange], the people in the army who were college graduates would find each other. Some of them were lawyers; some of them were personnel. I told a few of them about the captain, and they were like, “Give me his name.” I did, and he was transferred back to Alaska. [Laughs] He didn’t know what hit him.
So he got transferred to Alaska, and you got transferred to—
Clerk-typist school. I got to learn how to type 35 words per minute. I was very proud of myself. After graduating clerk-typist school, you’d go to a company to be a clerk-typist. I was aligned with an engineering company, where I would have fit in terms of my education, but the dum-dums there didn’t know how to use me. So they put me in as the company clerk. I had to do the daily report. The first day I did the report, I gave it to me boss, and he said, “What else can you do?” Apparently I didn’t do it very well. [Laughs] I tried! I really tried.
Anyways, that got me to make signs. They sent me to the general, who needed signs. He swore me into a high-security area. He said, “You aren’t communist or anything, are you?” “Nope.” He said, “Raise your hand.” So I did, and he swore me in right there. In college I’d been in all these lefty organizations, but I wasn’t gonna do anything against the country. I was making top-secret charts for a new army organization they were exploring.
At the same time, a landscape architect from Harvard was at my post, and I used to meet him for drinks every once in a while. He said his general asked him to find an interior designer, and he though I could fill the job. I was now in special services designing dayrooms.
Do you think this experience in the army prepared you well for dealing with some of the setbacks and difficult clients throughout your career?
Well it toughened you up. And I had some tough clients in the army. I never, ever, met the guy who hired me.
So you never met Client No. 1?
Nope. Lieutenant General Thomas F. Hickney. He was a paratrooper. It turns out that he was getting ready to retire, and he had this idea of building a motel in Miami for his retirement. He wanted to connect all the furniture people in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where there were all the factories that made furniture. He got this idea that he would use the PX money to rebuild the dayrooms—it was an honorable cause—and then would have access to all the furniture guys. We didn’t know any of this. We took it seriously. We were starting to talk to furniture people and design these dayrooms. These lists of people would come through. We didn’t know that the sergeant and the people over us were filtering them to the general.
In 1956, you moved to Cambridge to study urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, which presented a whole other set of difficulties.
Well, I was a do-gooder lefty. I didn’t wanna do rich guys’ houses. I thought that architecture had a broader mission. I had Garrett Eckbo and Simon Eisner as professors at USC. Simon was teaching urban planning, Eckbo landscape architecture, and both of them recommended that I go to graduate school at Harvard in city planning. I just thought that it was the right thing to do, so that’s what I did. And it wasn’t really the right thing to do. In a way, it was. It was a vector I would never have taken. I got to meet Otto Eckstein, the great economist, and take his class. When I quit planning, I did so with a trauma because the teacher diminished my work and insulted me in a presentation. My scheme for the project was about architecture, not about city planning. I got angry and quit.
Economics has played an interesting role in your life: Sometimes it was about not having enough money, other times it was about dealing with the pains of growing your own firm. Not many people think about you as a businessman, but you’ve shown great tact on the money side of things. How do you view yourself when it comes to having business acumen?
Well, my father always belittled me, saying that I would never be a businessman, and I wish that he were still around, so that he could see he was wrong. I never, until recently considered it a business thing as much as a logical thing. When I started, it had to do with having a sense of humanity. I laid down some ground rules: that I would never borrow money, because I was afraid of that; that I would only have people working for me that I could afford to pay; and that I would discipline myself so that the salaries people got would include yearly bonuses and at least the cost of living. I ended up working longer and harder because I couldn’t afford to do that. I did a lot of work myself, stayed up late at night. But slowly, it worked, and I was able to make a reality. The reality was saying I couldn’t do freebee work. I had to get paid a reasonable fee.
You’ve had retrospectives at the Walker Art Center in Minnesota and the Guggenheim in New York, and now you have an exhibition at LACMA, which traveled to L.A. from the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Aside from being a chronological showcase of your models and drawings, and a deeper look at your firm, how do you view the LACMA show?
It’s a showing the commitment to the project: the search to make humane places, to make uplifting places, to make places that transmit feelings. Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are merely players.” I think he was on the nose.
The urban planning of Los Angeles seems to be a hot topic these days. The New York Times just ran a story with the headline “Frank Gehry Draws Ire for Joining Los Angeles River Scofidio + Renfro’s Broad museum opened across from the Disney concert hall you designed, and downtown appears to be in the midst of a major transformation. How do you view all of this change, and in what ways are you hoping to get involved?
I always thought that L.A. was a linear downtown. This city was gonna be a car city, and it was gonna be spread all over the place. SO the logic was, it that’s the priority, why not make a linear downtown? Which would’ve worked perfectly from a traffic standpoint. There were all these missed opportunities. So now we should build a public transportation system—which they’re building. But the line that they’re building does many stops and is slow. A friend of mine ways you can walk faster.
You decided to engage in this Los Angeles River Project, which has so much to do with infrastructure and engineering, not necessarily architecture. Why?
The presumption is that somebody who designs buildings like I do would not be interested—that’s what I’m getting from the so-called opposition to my being there. They don’t realize I built a project along a river in Bilbao and changed the whole city. They haven’t done that. I’ll match my credits against anybody. I was asked to do this. I didn’t ask to do it. The people who are complaining think I did that because that’s how they do it—they have publicists and lobbyists. I haven’t seen a lot of things happen because of this. What I’ve been asked to do is something different. I’ve approached it as a hydrology project because the river must have its own mandate and requirements as a flood-control channel. If we were to reclaim the water that foes down the river and out to the ocean, it’s equal to one-third of the water that goes to the Imperial Valley. That’s a lot of water. That’s a lot of money. Because we buy the water from Imperial Valley, it’s an economic thing.
What would you say to all of the naysayers?
I think the people who are pissed off are going to be happy, because this opens the door to making their projects work.
Your commissions have been getting more and more major: the Louis Vuitton Fondation, which opened last year; the Menlo Park headquarters of Facebook, which the company moved into earlier this year. What are some of your unrealized dream projects, perhaps one or two that aren’t shown in the LACMA exhibition?
I don’t know what’s in the exhibition. Was Abu Dhabi [Guggenhaim] in the exhibition?
Well, we don’t know if that’s gonna be built. Were working on the Philadelphia Museum of Art expansion. When Bilbao was finished and got all the hoopla, I coincidentally went to the Barnett Newman show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art with some friends—[museum director] Anne d’Harnoncourt, Ellsworth Kelly, and I forgot whom else. Anne told me they had to double the size of the museum. She asked, “Do you think you’d be interested in trying to do something that had the impact of what you did at Bilbao but inside an existing old building?” I said, “Yeah, why not, I’m up for that!” We’ve started working on it, and we’ve got a scheme. I don’t know if it will be as successful as Bilbao, but it will have an impact. It will down the size of the museum, and you wont see any change from the outside.
The concept almost seems like it’s the anti-Bilbao.
It is, yeah! But this is what Anne asked for. She asked to create something as visually successful as Bilbao. I think we’ve done that. How much of it they’ll build, I don’t know. We’re waiting.