Then 49, he was an architect who had courage and dreams but made no money. Most of his buildings were just designs on his office walls. I remember sitting in his newly converted homethen wrapped in chain-link fencing, with asymmetrical walls and a kitchen floor that had actually been asphalt. His design was totally unfinished but somehow intuitive. I said to him, Frank, what are you thinking?
Its been a long time since anyone has asked Frank what hes thinkingwe have seen him grow to be the champion of unforgettable, groundbreaking, dramatic design that has changed the face of architecture worldwide. The Frank I know has not changed much. He is still open and articulate, unafraid but always worried, unassuming but totally confident and still eager to share new visions. Its just that the money, finally, comes easier now, and the acclaim and awards are constant.
I used to tell Frank he createson some planet I have never visitedbuildings that are far and away heart-stopping. Today, many millions have visited Frank on his planet. On these pages, we show an array of Franks latest effortsmost of these images have never been seen. We caught up with him as he was returning to his hotel from the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, exhausted. He had arrived from receiving the Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement in Architecture at the 2008 Venice Biennale and had been meeting about plans for yet another huge project.
ANNIE GILBAR: Are people still asking What are you thinking when it comes to your new designs?
FRANK GEHRY: Not so much anymore. They do sometimes think I will repeat myself, and they dont want to be number two. Thats strange, because I never repeat myself. Believe it or not, I havent been called to do a concert hall since Disney Hall.
When you started Disney, I came down to your office and saw the models you were building with your hands, with straight pins holding the pieces. You said that without the computer, there was no way you could design them.
The computer allows you to demystify the messageit gives contractors a clear picture of what to build. It makes it precise and allows you to get realistic bids. The steel bids for the Guggenheim Bilbao were $18 million under budget, and thats because of the computers. You also save in the construction processthe 3-D technology allows you to avoid the conflicts of the different crafts. This way, you prevent a plumber coming along and hitting a steel beam. We have started a separate company, Gehry Technologies, with this imaging, and we are training people to use it in China and throughout the world. Its attracting big savings.
Years ago, many of your designs were not built.
I didnt have the credibility. But once I was able to do Bilbao, that problem disappeared. Bilbao was constructed for $300 per square foot in 1997, which was kind of amazing. The Disney Concert Hall was a very reasonable $215 million in total construction cost. That compared very favorably with other halls.
I hear people are dancing on the roofs of your buildings?
Thats something I never imagined. Noémie Lafrance, a choreographer, asked if she could dance on the roof of the building I did at Bard College. She brings her choreography and my architecture together. When you think of the movement in the curves of my buildingsdynamic, soaring, kind of freeingdancing on them makes sense. We are helping her get permission to dance on Disney Hall and Bilbao. I think its beautiful.
Is there anything on your wish list you havent done?
I havent done an airport. Ive always wanted to do a hospital, a cathedral or a synagogue. But I don't go after them. I wait until they come to meI have a superstious thing about that.
You are superstitious?
I don't solicit for a job. It's better if someone decides they need you. The relationship is better, and it leads to a better building.
When I think back to when you and I met, there were certain materials associated with youthe chain-link fence and the titanium skins and stainless steel. Are there any materials that are inspiring you these days?
I am working with Gary Winnick, CEO of iCrete, who has a method of using concrete that can reduce the carbon footprint by 40 percent, depending on the specifics of the building. Its stronger and cheaper. We are using it on the 76-story Beekman Tower in New York City. Its an amazing concrete.
I think of your designs as ephemeral, very light and feathery, so associating you with concrete is so different.