WORK IN PROGRESS : Frank Gehry’s Creative Journey : The architect has been back to the drawing board again and again since winning the assignment in 1988 to design Disney Hall


Architect Frank Gehry is relating a dream he had about a year ago: “I was going to conduct the L.A. Philharmonic. I was all duded up in my tux backstage, and all of a sudden I said to Ernest (Fleischmann), ‘I can’t do this. I can’t read music.’ ”

And how did the Philharmonic executive respond? “He said, ‘It’s all right. You’ll get through it.’ ”

You don’t need Freud to figure this one out. Gehry was selected in December, 1988, after an extensive international competition, to design the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Disney Hall is the high-profile future home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, destined for a chunk of land just across 1st Street from the Music Center.


But nearly four years after Lillian Disney gave the Music Center $50 million toward construction of Disney Hall, no ground has been broken and no final design model yet unveiled. Meanwhile, persistent delays have increased costs substantially.

As Disney Hall officials said and Gehry learned early on, they selected an architect, not a final design. The hall’s acoustician changed after Gehry was hired, for instance, requiring a new interior design. His assignment grew to include designing and accommodating a 350-room luxury hotel on the site.

Gehry--who answers to a “client” group that comprises representatives of the Music Center, Los Angeles County, the Philharmonic and Mrs. Disney--acknowledges that accommodating change hasn’t been particularly easy. “Everybody liked the design that came out of the competition,” Gehry says. “It felt good, from a people standpoint, so how was I going to put the genie back in the bottle?”

What happens when an architect takes on a huge project like Disney Hall? How does he set about making it happen? How does he adjust to change?

As Gehry has made continuing aesthetic and practical decisions these past months, The Times has been given rare permission to watch that creative journey. Besides having access to many models and drawings, The Times was allowed to review many early videotapes, photographs and other materials that the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities is assembling to document the hall’s design.

The architect says he welcomes the scrutiny. “The creative process does get to be mystical in a sense,” he says. “I don’t know why I intuitively do something. But I do try to explain as best I can the driving forces and issues that I’m dealing with that lead to my conclusions.”


These are good times for 62-year-old Frank O. Gehry. Just a few months after the Disney Hall commission, he won architecture’s prestigious $100,000 Pritzker Prize. In his office reception area--just in front of a wall plastered with 44 framed magazine covers featuring Gehry’s face, buildings or name--is his big, brash model for the new American Center in Paris.

Inside his sprawling Santa Monica loft space, row after row of young architects are bent over models or drawings. The table back in Gehry’s office is covered with design drawings for a new art museum in Minnesota. Finishing construction overseas are both an Entertainment Center for Euro Disneyland and a commercial center for a Barcelona hotel complex.

Frank and Berta Gehry’s wildly original house, the one some of their Santa Monica neighbors called an eyesore, today has so much tourist traffic he’s said he wished he sold popcorn. His furniture line has gone from stacked cardboard to fine wood, and he’s talking French limestone exteriors instead of chain link and corrugated metal.

Forget the grousing about how he was passed over for the Museum of Contemporary Art a few years ago. (Reporters have a way of catching you off guard, he says of his old comments on the subject.) It was, in fact, Gehry who led a well-attended public tribute to MOCA architect Arata Isozaki on Isozaki’s 60th birthday last month.

Gehry says he tried to be jealous, but simply couldn’t be. And now, why should he be? Disney Hall, he has said, is a “once-in-a-lifetime project.”

But whether for museums or concert halls, Gehry’s designs start with energetic, free-form line drawings that architectural historian Carol Reese calls “creatures” and some of Gehry’s associates call “scribbles.” Drawn in black ink from a Pilot pen with an ultra-fine felt tip, the sketches take shape on 9x12-inch sheets of 100% rag paper and reflect the affinity to art that led him to architecture.


The architect stews in what colleagues call “design central”--Gehry’s big box of an office that is separated from the rest of his staff by a massive, industrial-size door on tracks. The big track door is there so architectural models can be wheeled in and out and so that Gehry can operate the place like a collective when he so desires.

On Disney Hall, as usual, everyone’s a sounding board. Gehry schmoozes with colleagues, musicians and concertgoers, his many friends and clients in the arts. He draws on friendships and professional associations he’s made through work at the Hollywood Bowl since the ‘70s.

He’s no musician himself--although if he were, he says, he’d play the cello because he likes the body’s relationship to that instrument--and expresses as much of a visual as aural interest in the symphonic experience. “‘I look at the orchestra as a sculpture,” Gehry says at one point. “I look at what it is three-dimensionally. While I’m listening to music, I’m looking at the forms of the people, the staging, the instruments. I’m watching the movement.”

When Esa-Pekka Salonen was named the Philharmonic’s music director designate in August, 1989, Gehry quickly “pushed and pulled him into the process. I told him if we’re going to do a great hall we need the conductor involved like (Herbert von) Karajan was with (architect Hans) Scharoun (at the Berlin Philharmonic). I used to have that relationship with Zubin (Mehta) at the Bowl, years ago. And so my mind-set is to look for that relationship.”

Salonen stops by to look at models each time he’s in town. “That’s crucial to us,” Gehry says. “It gives me a comfort zone to know that he’s watching the process.”

Gehry has tried for years to help Grand Avenue live up to its name. He was part of a cooperative that submitted a losing bid in the competition to redevelop Bunker Hill several years ago. While he did design MOCA’s Temporary Contemporary in Little Tokyo, the museum’s Grand Avenue site had been particularly appealing to him.


Disney Hall gave him another chance. He walked downtown streets, comparing the area to what it was like when his family moved here from Toronto in the ‘40s. “I worked at Continental Jewelers down at 3rd and Hill (and) used to take Angel’s Flight down to work,” Gehry says. “I went back and looked at the area and remembered what it was before. I remembered what we lost. And I thought about the (existing Music Center buildings) and what was missing, what was wrong and what was needed for life down there.”

Besides planning extensive gardens to take advantage of Southern California’s warm climate, he designed a glass foyer that he refers to as a “living room for the city.” Opening onto Grand Avenue, his foyer would not only host musical performances, pre-concert talks and such but help link MOCA and the Music Center visually.

He frequently talks about the informality of the Temporary Contemporary, which he designed so that visitors walk right into exhibition areas instead of navigating a lobby or other formal space. He wanted Disney Hall’s “body language,” he says, to be similarly inviting: “A lot of cultural buildings speak to their elitist position in the community. The idea of making a populist place is something I feel very strongly about. Even my house has big windows so people can see in. I’m about being open and accessible if I can.”

But as Gehry is the first to remind you, things often look simpler than they are. Don’t be misled by the seeming casualness of his house or the airplane suspended off the side of his California Aerospace Museum in Exposition Park or the lifeguard stand-cum-study he built for a former lifeguard.

Don’t be deceived either by his frequent Woody Allen-style nattering for reassurance. He is an ingratiating blend of confidence and insecurity who has been talking for decades with psychologist Milton Wexler, a man Gehry refers to as “an elder in my tribe (who) guides me through the rough waters when I’m down.” The complaining and continual asking for opinions appear to be a key part of his process: talking it out makes it clearer for Gehry as well as for his listener.

Consider, for instance, the evolution of what appears to be Gehry’s playful obsession with fish. The motif, which Gehry often incorporates in his work, has become a form of design shorthand for several larger ideas.


A Pisces, Gehry has long made Formica fish lamps and received plenty of attention for the octopus chandelier and hanging crocodile sculptures he designed for Rebecca’s restaurant in Venice. He built a special walk-in fish for the traveling retrospective of his work at MOCA in 1988, and a 200-foot-long gold stainless-steel fish sculpture will go up soon at his commercial project in Barcelona. He even designed a restaurant in Kobe, Japan, that looks like a dancing fish (and which, he says quickly, is what the client requested).

Gehry has often traced his fish symbolism back to his childhood and times he would play in the bathtub with carp that would later go into his grandmother’s gefilte fish. Or maybe, he reflects, the image comes from his fascination with Japanese woodcuts and the drawings of Hiroshige.

Then he reflects some more. Here’s the real story: “I got interested in the fish image around the time everybody started doing neoclassical stuff. My anger got expressed by saying--and I don’t know why this came out of my mouth--if you’re going to go backwards, let’s go way backwards, and I started drawing fish.”

What happened next, he confides, is that drawing all those fish gave him a great way to study architecture’s double curves. “Double curves are hard to assimilate, to fantasize, and to make. So this was a way of concretizing them. If you talk about doing a study of double curves, it sounds terribly esoteric and heavy duty and I don’t like that. I don’t like to portray it to other people as a complicated, intellectual endeavor. It is for me, but I don’t like to lay that on other people.”

Not that all this was conscious at the time, he cautions: “I tend to find something and poke at it like a cat pokes at something. I’m curious. There must be something in this, and it intrigues me. It’s like following a thread. I trust myself to do that. I trust my


Disney Hall has changed several times since Gehry turned in his winning design. It was always understood that there would be a commercial component to the project, but it wasn’t until after the competition that a decision was reached that the commercial component would be a hotel that Gehry would design.


“We were choosing an architect’s creative abilities and sensibilities,” says MOCA director Richard Koshalek, who chaired Disney Hall’s architectural subcommittee. “We knew that following the design competition, the architect would get more involved with the client and receive more specific information and that the design would ultimately change.”

The hall’s interior required extensive redesign, for example. Gehry and Fleischmann swept through concert halls in the United States and Europe, poking around, listening to concerts and meeting with acousticians and musicians. The consultant who set up the initial acoustical requirements was replaced and although Gehry participated in the hiring of the new acoustician, Tokyo-based Minoru Nagata, he still had to redesign the hall’s interior.

When Nagata came to town for a series of meetings, Gehry and colleagues turned out dozens of toaster-size models of roofless concert halls that examined how such things as room shape, pillars and seating configurations affected acoustics. The resulting small white boxes are today up high on a wall outside Gehry’s office, reflecting all the research that took him from his competition-winning flower-shaped interior to today’s modified shoe box along the lines of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw.

As things stand now, Disney Hall’s 2,350 concertgoers surround the orchestra much as audiences do in both Berlin and Amsterdam. (About 250 people will sit behind the orchestra, as compared with 412 at the Concertgebouw.) Light will come from each corner, and perhaps also from windows near the top of the building that will be a sort of bonus for people in the cheap seats.

The hall’s exterior still resembles a flower, but Gehry analogizes its interior to a boat. Seating, which Gehry plans to design, will be set on a wood base that Gehry compares to the deck of a ship, and his metaphoric boat will be in a white plaster room with wooden and plaster “sails” above it.

“I think there was a lot of anxiety because of my reputation for using cheap materials, “ he says. “I had a reputation that didn’t fit the profile of somebody that should do a concert hall (and) I think that was a reasonable anxiety. I understand where they were coming from.


“It’s hard to live (those feelings) down, but that (early) work was done with very limited budgets. I made the most out of it by using those kind of materials. You always have to work against your past. It’s as though people expect you to blow one note all the time and I guess a lot of people can only blow one note. But there are people who can blow two or three notes, and I happen to be one of them.”

In his initial interviews for the Disney Hall job, Gehry said several times that he was the designer; the hall would be his design. But he never said the hall would be his only design project over all this time, and Gehry’s office may have as many as 20 projects in the planning, design or construction phase at any given time.

Office procedure on this and other jobs is pretty formalized, says Bob Hale, one of Gehry’s two partners. Once the firm gets a job--or, in this case, participates in a major competition--a design team sets about putting what the client wants into architectural terms.

On Disney Hall, Gehry associates spent several weeks digesting the “program”--the specific project requirements--and drawing it to scale. An incredibly detailed 49-page Design Commission Program, handed out to competing architects in 1988, set not just the number of seats and net volume, but also “strongly recommended” such things as the maximum distance from the front of the stage to a back-row seat.

(The requirements were so specific, in fact, that project designer Michael Maltzan says when they finished their concept of a floral-style shape, “we were sure everybody would (use) it because we felt it was the only way you could do it.”)

Between Gehry’s initial sketches and final models have come intermediate models and drawings that grow increasingly more detailed and specific. Changes in the Disney Hall model, for instance, have even required almost daily photographs. Thick green binders near Gehry’s office are packed with “dailies” that Maltzan analogizes to film rushes. “The model changes so fast, we can’t record it otherwise,” Maltzan says. “We can save the pieces and catalogue them but we need the photos to reconstruct.”


There’s a narrow corridor outside Gehry’s office where the models are lined up in what Maltzan calls “a holding pattern,” and there’s also usually a Disney Hall model or two inside Gehry’s office for him to look at. Sometimes, too, he climbs the gray metal stairs up to the loft where his sons--Alejo, 14, and Sami, 11--often play and from which he can look at the models from a different perspective.

Gehry estimates that about 20% of his own time is tied up on the Disney Hall project (although that percentage changes from time to time). He figures he’s traveling less because of it, but he’s still meeting with old clients and making presentations to new ones. His “out” basket is empty, but the ones marked “hold” and “in” are overflowing. He worries that he doesn’t have time for everything, but like many creative people, he has trouble saying no to intriguing assignments.

Gehry doesn’t limit himself to architecture either. He designs art exhibitions, such as the blockbuster “Degenerate Art” show currently at the County Museum of Art, restaurants such as the New York Bagel Company in Brentwood, and assorted pieces of furniture. He will be designing the chairs for Disney Hall and is meanwhile readying such things as wood chairs, snake and fish lamps and fish goblets for different manufacturers.

“I need a little bit of pressure, and work on lots of things at once,” Gehry says. “I get energy from the energy of working. You need a certain mix to be working on at one time, to kind of bounce off on. It’s like billiards.”

At the December, 1988, press conference announcing Gehry’s selection as architect, the hall’s opening date was targeted for fall, 1993. By the following summer, the hall was expected to open on Sept. 1, 1994, and by summer, 1990, Gehry was shaking his head and worrying that the date is “slipping into ’96 now.”

Asked at one point about all the delays, Gehry leans back in his chair and sighs: “Well, it’s taken a long time, and I think everybody expected it to go quicker. And the reason it’s taking a long time has to do with things beyond my control.”


But in this conversation, as in earlier ones, he mentions that he is protected from involvement with non-architectural issues. He hedges answers to factual questions about the project with phrases like “I think . . .” and frequently remarks that such matters as negotiations with the county or the hotel people, or traffic and environmental impact reports are ones that Disney Hall chairman Frederick M. Nicholas should address.

The good thing about all the delays, he hastens to add, is that they have allowed him more time on the hall’s interior. “Had we stuck to the original schedule, the time to refine and reflect and work on the interior would have been truncated. (Now) I think the interior space squeaks it’s so tight.”

Gehry may be his own toughest critic. Fleischmann, for instance, says Sunday-morning calls from Gehry have become almost predictable. “It reminds me of all the perfectionist musicians I work with,” Fleischmann says. “We feel he’s reached a brilliant solution to a problem and about 9 the next Sunday morning, he’ll call to say, ‘I just found it . You must come and see (the new model).’ ”

Asked about all the accommodations, Gehry says public projects are like that. “You listen as much as you can and then make your choices,” Gehry says. “I’m going to be the architect. I’m going to take the rap, whatever it is--good, bad or indifferent.”