GRAND DESIGNS : Frank Gehry, Prophet of 'Cheapskate' Architecture, Makes a Bid for Permanence

Elizabeth Venant is a Times staff writer.

FRANK GEHRY OFTEN draws when he flies, in the time between lectures, meetings, interviews and dinners, in the spaces left in a life that, increasingly, is as crowded as a curio shop with the symbols of accomplishment.

Consider his latest collection of honors: This month, he will be inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, which counts just 12 architects among its members. In June he will receive awards from the American Institute of Architects for his Norton House in Venice and for the Computer Science / Engineering Research Facility at UC Irvine. And a retrospective exhibition of his work, mounted by the Walker Art Center of Minneapolis, has been crisscrossing the country since last autumn and will arrive at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art next February.

So, aboard planes, in the ice-blue calm of high altitudes, Gehry sketches his ideas--making squiggles that become architectural commentaries on the temporary, pop-art nature of American culture and on the rambunctiousness of Los Angeles.

Coming into prominence in 1972 with a line of cardboard furniture, Gehry created a populist building vocabulary of plywood, chain-link and corrugated metal. His imaginative juxtapositions of gritty industrial materials in ordinary residences eventually came to define a sort of Southern California architecture that is marvelously creative, though somewhat lightweight and quirky.

Increasingly, however, Gehry is garnering commissions that are larger, more commercial and removed from Los Angeles. Shifting away from inexpensive materials suited to his staple of low-budget clients and the mild Southern California climate, he has begun experimenting more boldly with shapes and spatial relations, using such sturdy stuff as stone and lead-coated copper.

His newest works don't read as buildings at all, but as abstracted sculptural objects. And, for the first time, he is struggling to translate those abstractions onto a large scale. Frank Gehry is dreaming about making magnificent towers.

Implicit in this new work is the expectation that these buildings will be around for years. Putting his sketches aside on a flight between Los Angeles and Chicago, the architect of the here and now addresses the issue of permanency.

The materials, he makes plain, aren't the point. "You can build a house out of beer cans or marble or chewing gum." Nor does he care if his buildings last. "I don't need that for my ego. If the ideas are worthwhile, they'll be properly represented. They've got books and photographs."

Architects, he says, have a responsibility to the present: Nostalgia is the "garden path to complacency," and there may not be a future to build for. "It may be that in the next 50 years, preserving the planet Earth ain't gonna work and you're gonna get on a spaceship and go someplace where you can't preserve the past. And who will be right then? As they say, one nuclear bomb can ruin your day."

He lets out a short, tragic laugh.

"Sure, it would be better if architecture lasted. But it's not in the cards. Land is going to become more valuable, and it's going to become more expedient to tear buildings down. It's a throwaway culture."

Isn't that capitulating? "What choice do I have?" he asks. "I don't feel omnipotent, so I can't and won't take on the task of solving all the world's problems with one little building."

He pauses, considers, doubles back. "I'm trying to build something that will be beautiful and interesting for a long time. But I don't have clients who have that kind of budget. So I make do."

But if he did have such clients, would Frank Gehry be tempted to build a monument with the permanency, say, of a Notre Dame Cathedral? Gehry pulls at the edges of the airline tablecloth and says with unexpected urgency, "That's what I want to do. I'd love to do a Catholic church."

He stops. Then, flicking a quick, mischievous grin, he adds, "Personally, I prefer Chartres."

FOR THE QUARTER-CENTURY he has been in business for himself, Gehry, 58, has been rattling the tenets of architecture. In a kind of commandment of the profession, 19th-Century critic John Ruskin exhorted: "When we build, let us think that we build for ever." Against this, Gehry has put forth architecture more as a one-night stand.

Nevertheless, he has won plaudits from the architectural Establishment. Cesar Pelli, the respected former dean of the Yale School of Architecture, calls him "one of the few people who are making the most interesting architecture in the country and the world today," and even detractors admit that he is important. "I don't think he is controversial anymore," Pelli says. "Anybody who matters has accepted him."

But Gehry's acceptance has been based principally on the artistic value of his work, and, critics say, his projects are more works of art than functional spaces.

His use of cheap materials means that some of his buildings will not last. And critics point out that, though he has fathered a liberating movement in architecture, the intensely personal nature of his creations makes it unlikely that an important new school will develop from them. Says Pelli: "I do not know if one can speak of Frank Gehry in terms of contributions (to the profession). That's a strange word to use in relation to him. He's doing primarily very individual, personal research.

He has not been working on a theory of how to help anybody."

AN UNINFORMED visitor can search in vain for a sleek avant-garde facade marking the Venice headquarters of Frank O. Gehry & Associates (FOG to the trade), only to discover a drab khaki concrete block with a plywood door and exposed steel studs.

Inside, the crude industrial space is jammed with rough worktables, punctuated with the black zigzags of gooseneck lamps. Traversing the room are electric cords held down with masking tape, and lying about are renderings and wreckages of the cardboard assemblages that once formed Gehry's models.

Shuffling through the turmoil is Gehry himself, a chunky, rumpled man in shirt sleeves, whose personal style could be called post-proletarian. Sticking out his hand without breaking his pace, he says, "Hi, be back in a minute."

Gehry wisecracks, squints, grins and worries about the world's chaos and the chaos within himself. "My work is a search for clarity in forms that is analogous to trying to find a clarity in my life," he says.

To an exceptional degree, his work has been an expression of his efforts to sort out the conflicts in his life. To put it mildly, Gehry is contradictory, liking nothing so much as to switch positions just when you think you've pinned him down.

He has, for instance, changed his name from Goldberg to Gehry and has spent more than 20 years in psychotherapy learning to understand himself.

Acquaintances freely joke about how the acronym FOG describes a certain remote mistiness, and his closest friend, Donna O'Neill, for whom he built his well-known hay barn, muses lightly, "Isn't it funny that his name is Frank?"

One day, Gehry's Panamanian-born wife, Berta, a stylish woman with sleek, dark hair, wraps her arms around his waist and teases, "I'm looking for Frank Gehry." A friend sitting nearby rejoins, "So is he."

In his work, Gehry has defended himself with a "don't-hit-me-I'll-do-it-first" strategy; to allay criticism, he dubbed his building collages "cheapskate" architecture and, responding to what he thought to be the consensus view of his creativity, he once gave a speech entitled "I'm Not Weird."

Indeed, Gehry's architecture, as it expresses his anger and fear at living in a hostile world, has intrigued colleagues. In the Walker exhibition catalogue, UCLA architecture historian Thomas Hines writes that Gehry's "buildings under construction" frequently suggest "the poignant incompleteness of all human existence. . . . His buildings of the late '70s, with studs tossed and 'frozen' just before the 'explosion,' could be read as a metaphor of the end of the world."

Typically, Gehry parries the comment, saying only that he and Hines had sipped a few too many bourbons together. At any rate, his work is "so dumb-simple" that he can't figure out why it puzzles anybody.

Models of his current projects are displayed around the studio on sawhorse tables like great culinary concoctions on buffet platters:

A Los Angeles home, planned for the U.S. ambassador to Finland, in which a bedroom appears to float like a barge in an artificial lake.

A gigantic pair of binoculars, designed by pop artist Claes Oldenburg, that will form a monumental entrance way for the Los Angeles headquarters of the advertising firm Chiat / Day.

The Norton House, which an AIA jury calls "the ultimate beach shack," with its office-as-lifeguard-stand, designed for its scriptwriter-proprietor, who in his youth guarded the strand.

There is also the Yale Psychiatric Institute, a village-like collection of buildings that corresponds to a progressive treatment program; a restaurant in Kobe, Japan, decorated with a 72-foot-high fish; a Malibu millionaire's mansion of stone and marble; a utilitarian furniture factory.

But it is with the Winton Guest House in Wayzata, Minn., to be completed this spring, and the high-rise multi-use Turtle Creek project in Dallas, in its initial conceptual phase, that Gehry is, as he says, "pushing my limits."

Working in a spirit similar to that of the Russian Constructivists of the teens and '20s, Gehry began his architectural exploration with simple cement blocks; his seminal house for graphic designer Louis Danziger, built in 1964, is a composition of two cubes. In the 1970s and early '80s, he began to expose the framework of buildings (most notably in his Santa Monica home), leaving key structural elements unfinished and in the open. More recently, he has broken buildings into distinct exterior shapes. And, finally, he has pulled houses apart altogether, into separate or barely connected one-room objects.

Building the Winton Guest House to accompany a classical Philip Johnson home on an estate, Gehry has created a veritable garden sculpture in which to live. The house is a cluster of abstracted rooms, which he compares to a Giorgio Morandi still life and which looks for all the world like a child's building blocks.

The Turtle Creek project in Dallas, consisting of a condominium, a hotel and an office tower, experiments with sculptural composition in buildings ranging from 16 to 24 floors. Gehry has created craggy cliff-like blocks, a truncated fish shape and a third, "indeterminate" shape with shaggy edges and staggered, stick-columned facades.

Incredulous at this last creation, Gehry's staff of young architects has christened it "the disease." "It's outlandish," laughs Tom Buresh, one of Gehry's brightest designers. "It's almost on the edge of buildability." When Gehry telephoned his office from a jet to explain his new idea, an architect recalls, "We didn't understand it. We thought that when he came back he'd make it all go away and get serious."

Gehry's creativity, indeed, has long perplexed, delighted and frustrated colleagues and clients. He calls his studio a playpen, but one staff architect notes, "Sometimes he's the only kid playing." He attacks his white cardboard models with an X-Acto knife, ripping off roofs and hacking up rooms, only to stick them back on in different places. Richard Koshalek, director of the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art, says Gehry "likes to scare himself by testing new ideas."

In the process, he has also tested the nerves of some of his clients. Rebecca's, the trendy restaurant-bar in Venice that has perhaps most identified Gehry to the general public, is a case in point. Says Bruce Marder, its owner: "You can get anxiety when you're dealing with Frank. You don't know what he's doing. He's afraid that if the (creative) process was described to people, they wouldn't want to do it, but that's not true." For his part, Gehry hasn't set foot in Rebecca's for months and truculently states, "I don't like the owner."

His most compatible clients are those who, as he says, "want me to do my stuff." Advertising executive and art collector Jay Chiat fits into that category. Chiat even rejected Gehry's original proposal for his offices as "too traditional" and calls the architect "as comfortable as an unmade bed." If the idea of a binocular gateway for the agency shook anyone, Chiat says, it was Gehry. "Frank's greatest fear is that the building will be on the cover of Time magazine, and they'll crop the picture so that the only thing you'll see will be the binoculars."

GEHRY'S CREATIVITY, if largely internalized, has nonetheless spawned an avant-garde movement that recognizes him as its spiritual chief.

"He's the guy with the machete," Michael Rotundi of the Morphosis design group proclaims one night, packed into the post-punk bar crowd at Rebecca's. Rotundi, an architect whose interest is in genetic coding, or "non-buildings" as he calls them, is drinking and shoveling down tacos with Craig Hodgetts, one of the city's perpetual "bad boys" of architecture.

"We wouldn't be allowed to produce the work we do if Frank hadn't started it first," Rotundi says.

Hodgetts : "There is something so inherently subversive about his work."

Rotundi : "Yeah, take the Hollywood Bowl (which Gehry first renovated in 1970). It's cheap, cheap, cheap. He took Sonotube, a cardboard tube you pour concrete in and then throw away, and used it for what is considered to be a permanent work of high culture."

Hodgetts : "L.A.'s the blueprint for the future. Students in other cities wish desperately that they could do what's being done here."

Rotundi : "When I was growing up, nothing here was authentic. L.A. was always about other places. Now the stew is starting to get some flavor."

He waves at the colliding marble and wood joists, the mock-Mexican painting on velvet, the flying crocodiles. "This place couldn't exist in any other city."

Hodgetts : "It's Lolita; it's just as raunchy and sexy and real."

Rotundi : "Post-modernism is an East Coast concept. All of those symbols refer to queens and kings and dukes. We're not split pediments."

Hodgetts : "We're driving around in Jeeps; they're in the limos."

Rotundi : "They'd never invite our buildings to their buildings' parties. They'd be afraid our buildings would spill punch on their buildings' floors. . . . When the revolution comes, post-modernism and Frank Gehry will be on opposite sides of the barricades."

CRITICS OF GEHRY'S aesthetics do not agree, of course. They wonder if his work isn't too much akin to the urban detritus he is commenting on.

"He's a brilliant acrobat," says Los Angeles architect Stefanos Polyzoides, a creative formalist.

"It's an ego trip," says noted architecture historian and critic Kenneth Frampton of Columbia University.

Polyzoides : "We see the city as having a structure and history which one can respond to. We're interested in continuity as much as in newness."

Frampton : "One of the problems with some American architects like Frank is a kind of artist-envy. But architecture isn't really art."

Polyzoides : "His work does not engender warmth and love and care on the part of other people; it's about disconnection and alienation . . . it's about values that are temporary and current."

Frampton : "His architecture has no civic aspect to it. It's irresponsible toward the duration and well-being of society."

Polyzoides : "He's making monuments which are by definition permanent, yet he's making them look and feel very temporary."

Frampton : "Frank has this cavalier attitude as to whether it comes off or doesn't. His best work is done on a small scale where building-as-art-object comes off."

Polyzoides : "The work makes a virtue out of constructive carelessness."

Frampton : "It's a comment but it's indistinguishable from the thing itself."

Polyzoides : "Architecture is about building a place in the universe, not about mimicking a depleted, decrepit reality.

"I don't think his work has conceptual bearings deep enough to survive him. I don't think it's architecture for the centuries. Frank's work is about his lifetime."

ON A HOT DAY WHEN the sun flashes off the pavement in a white glare, Frank Gehry is driving down Olympic Boulevard in his black Mercedes. Except for his work, he is conservative and well organized, he explains, "something most people don't realize."

He shops at Brooks Brothers, methodically classes his clothing according to the ebb and flow of his midriff and complains that Berta, who manages her husband's office, never puts papers in the same place, which drives him crazy. "I don't like a mess," he says. "I like to pull order out of a mess."

The mess, for Gehry, is a metaphor for the city, the kinds of raggle-taggle visual conflicts one finds along Pico or Ventura or Olympic boulevards.

"I hate chain-link," he says, passing a block of the fencing, which he nonetheless has translated into a hallmark of his aesthetics. He also hates the faceless ugliness of industrial buildings and the sham of irrelevant greenery in the concrete ponds of parking lots. "How do you think that little palm tree feels up against the Texaco sign?" he asks at a corner gas station. "When I place a building, it's next to all that junk. I accept that stuff that's out there." More or less.

As a young architect educated at the University of Southern California and Harvard, Gehry naively expected high levels of craftsmanship. Working for Victor Gruen Associates, a firm that then specialized in building shopping malls, Gehry first came to grips with what he considers the slapdash quality of the Southern California construction industry.

Later, launching into his own creative business, he reasoned: "Well, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. If that's what you're going to get, then turn it into a virtue. Having watched Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns make paintings that were worth money out of junk, I didn't think that was such a bad way to go. You accept the junk of the culture and turn it into art."

It wasn't long before Gehry's architectural jargon became polemical; as he says, "I see my work as an expression of my political beliefs." In his youth, Gehry yearned to be a politician, but he found himself inadequate as an orator and leader. "I was always a tag-along and I didn't speak very much."

Through architecture, he says, "I found a place where I could say what I believe . . . where I could lead."

Expressing populist tendencies was not only expedient to meet tight budgets, it was also a natural outgrowth of what Gehry calls "my lefty background."

Born in Toronto into a family of Polish Jewish stock, Gehry was raised along with his sister, Doreen, in an atmosphere of tolerance and support for the working class. From his parents and grandparents, he received a religious education (his grandfather was a Talmudic scholar) and the security of a middle-class life. His father, Irving Goldberg, earned a modest living as a small businessman variously running a grocery store and selling arcade machines and household accessories.

When Gehry was 17, however, his father fell on hard times, losing both his business and his self-confidence and finally suffering a heart attack. Moving to Los Angeles, the former entrepreneur took a job as a clerk in a liquor store and found a home for his family in a downtown apartment, which Gehry remembers as about the size of his present office.

"It was terrifying to me," he says of the economic plunge. "I have a lot of fears about money and being bankrupt. I talk about myself as being poor and not having anything. It's a baldfaced lie. But I can relate to that."

Pulling the Mercedes up to the curb at 19th and Burlington streets, he walks over to look at the bare brick building where he used to live. It seems an inauspicious beginning for an architect--the dull blockish construction with its one-time view of a row of rundown Victorian houses. Then one thinks how in his work Gehry translates the bits and pieces of the city, the collision of cubes and Victorian gables.

FRANK DOESN'Tjettison any part of himself," Thomas Hines declares. Nowhere is that more evident than in Gehry's Santa Monica house. A house within a house, it is sheathed on the outside in corrugated metal and rough plywood and crowned with a chain-link tiara. Completed in 1978, it was like a raised fist challenging the complacency of suburban America and, predictably, it produced local outrage and brought its owner lasting professional notoriety.

Today, with the shock-aesthetics over, one sees the inside as much as the exterior--the old pink-shingled house, sheltered by its carapace. Standing on the asphalt floor of the kitchen, Gehry looks into the window of the living room and is reminded of the synagogue that he attended with his grandfather and of his grandmother's Victorian house.

He gets frightened at the way noises carry bizarrely and doesn't like to be alone at night; it is a family house, where he lives with Berta and their two sons: Alejo, 11, and Sami, 7. This is his second marriage; he has two grown daughters by his first one and says: "I wasn't a very good father then, I don't think. I was busy making it. Now I'm trying to do better."

On a weekday night, sounds of showers and a TV spill down from upstairs, while Gehry shows off the house--a surprisingly comfortable place where nostalgia and newness carry on a clever but easy dialogue--old family portraits winking at the plywood walls, gold velveteen wing chairs sitting serenely under exposed light bulbs.As a frequent visitor has remarked, it could almost be an old sea captain's house.

Gehry shows how the glass skylight makes multiple reflections of the moon and how the kitchen window is a cube trying to escape from Cubism, and then he takes you to see the hundreds of model airplanes he's built with Alejo.

Fellow architects and historians have made much of Gehry's childlike fantasies: His fish have been identified as an expurgation of the anti-Semitism he endured in Canada, when schoolmates teased him as "fish head"; his village-buildings and horrific-cute crocodiles have been interpreted as ways to render a threatening world less hostile, and the pure forms he feels he's now creating are said to be his resolution of the confusion of contemporary society. This may be true.

It also seems true that when he said Alejo had designed part of the California Aerospace Museum, with its F-104 Starfighter jet careening across the facade, that he meant it. Says a friend: "You don't have to be a grown-up to be an architect." Indeed, Gehry's dream for a new house is a walled-in village with all of the parts detached--his own small city, a sculpture garden. The ultimate playpen.

He is content with the current stage of his life. "I think I've gotten to a very clear idea of who I am in my work," he says. Still there are persistent hurts and unfulfilled ambitions. The old wound of not being chosen to design L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art flares up at times. "That was my museum," he cries out one evening. " I'm the artists' architect."

He also dreams that his business will handle several large projects a year--a major museum, a corporate office building and a medical facility that would engage complex functional issues; on the side he would design furniture and some museum installations. He sighs at the thought. "That's asking for the stars, the moon, the wind. What you get is what you get."

For the moment, what Gehry is getting is a growing amount of work from commercial developers. Speculation on how he will fare is, of course, rife and varied.

Among the avant-garde there are fears that his creative integrity could suffer. Paul Lubowicki, an architect who formerly worked with Gehry, says that when Gehry was working on the Santa Monica Place mall, "he wasn't comfortable with the developers. He hated it. I think he built his own house as a reaction to it." Hodgetts reflects that "the best thing Frank has to say in architecture is really about people and not about power." And Rotundi worries that "the compulsion to build bigger seduces you to lose sight of what your own true values are."

Put off by the commercialization of his Easy Edges furniture, Gehry dropped the project, taking a financial loss. Koshalek believes he'll do the same thing with buildings if he feels compromised. "He'll just walk away from (the job)."

Meanwhile, Gehry has become more sure of himself as an architect, a view that is echoed by colleagues. Comments Pelli: "In later years, Frank has grown enormously and has expanded his palette of materials to be able to work in any climate. He has also acquired a much greater control of his forms, so that if he wishes to, he can detail them very precisely."

In Gehry's own eyes, his work is a kind of improvisation, a seeming effortlessness achieved through practiced control. "How do you play off the note? That's the issue," he says one day, hunched over pictures of the Dallas project. "How do you make it feel like something living and not something dead?" Like Miles Davis lost in his music, Gehry is swaying and gesticulating. "The fish form moving, the thrusting of it, the skin feeling like it's rippling, the excitement of the forms colliding. That's the excitement of the city."

Later, Gehry trudges out across the beach to have his picture taken. Obligingly, he climbs out onto a rock at the end of a jetty. He modestly zips up his windbreaker to hide his gut and sits down in a cardboard easy chair. Out there where he can go no farther, he looks as comfortable as an Archie Bunker.

And the Turtle Creek project in Dallas? Isn't his reputation at stake? Gehry grins. "Y-e-a-h," he says. "Isn't that nice?"

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