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I’m Frank Gehry, and This Is How I See the World

Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

A short time ago, Frank Gehry boarded the jet of Vegas billionaire Steve Wynn for Bilbao, Spain. Wynn had hired Gehry to design a $1-billion hotel-casino complex in Atlantic City, and the two were on their way to see the architect’s most lauded creation, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which had made him an overnight world celebrity. Gehry had brought along a series of sketch models and wanted to articulate his vision for Wynn’s project. But the more Gehry pressed, the more Wynn ignored the scheme in front of him, offering alternatives of his own instead. By the time they landed, Gehry was unnerved. * The next day, Gehry recalls, as the two stood in front of the museum’s now-famous titanium-clad facade, an ecstatic Wynn turned to Gehry and said, beaming, “Frank, I’m happy. I’ve found my architect.” Gehry, however, was now skeptical. “I said to him, ‘Steve, I don’t think I’ve found my client.’ ” Weeks later, he walked away from the project--all $1 billion of it. * “He kept changing the rules,” Gehry recalls. “And it scared me. I can’t do it alone. I need to fall in love with the people, the client, the site. And building up that trust gives me a lot of freedom to explore.” Then, after a moment, he adds: “I guess I’m more secure now. I’m not willing to put up with as much.” * For Gehry, making architecture is often a painful psychological struggle, a balance between the competing impulses of freedom and anger that define his life. It is, ultimately, about control. He remembers designing a house long ago for a wealthy lawyer in Malibu. But the client, distracted by domestic troubles, showed no interest in joining in Gehry’s vision. Finally, when the plans were complete, Gehry walked through his office and--his young model-maker trembling in fright nearby--smashed the model to pieces with his fists. He has never gone to see the finished house.

Since such early frustrations, Gehry has achieved what not so long ago seemed impossible for most architects: the invention of radically new architectural forms that nonetheless speak to the man on the street. Bilbao has become a pilgrimage point for those who, until now, had little interest in architecture. Working-class Basque couples arrive toting children on weekends. The cultural elite veer off their regular flight paths to Paris and London so they can tell friends that they, too, have seen the building in the flesh. Gehry has become, in the eyes of a world attuned to celebrity, the great American architect, and, in the process, he has brought hope to an entire profession.

That success has engendered an outpouring of awards and commissions. He is designing a vaporetto terminal for the Venice, Italy, airport; the DG Bank building on Berlin’s Pariser Platz and, more recently, a research building at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that will replace the school’s famed Building 20, where the Manhattan Project was born. It’s a remarkable string of work. As Rem Koolhaas, the avant-garde Dutch architect who is now collaborating on a project with Gehry in Dusseldorf, Germany, remarked with undisguised awe: “It is amazing to watch Frank operate. He is always able to get what he wants.”

In Gehry’s mind, however, he has not. He has often complained that Los Angeles has never appreciated his talents. He thought his moment had finally come in 1988, when he was commissioned to design the Walt Disney Concert Hall. But the project was halted early in construction, with costs rising out of control, in part because the firm charged with completing the working drawings for the building, Dworsky Associates, could not handle the complexity of the design. Yet publicly, Gehry--then burdened with the label of a troublesome artist--got most of the blame. It was only two years ago, with the intensifying buzz over the success of Bilbao and the intervention of Mayor Richard Riordan and philanthropist Eli Broad, that the project was finally revived. Perhaps, if the building opens as scheduled in 2002, Gehry will get what he wants here, too.

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Sitting amid the pleasant clutter of his Santa Monica office, Gehry looks out over a cavernous workshop of 120 employees, clustered in groups around study models, some the size of small cars. Nothing about the scene is neat. Gehry wears rumpled clothes; his gray hair is ruffled; his desk, tidied by a secretary, is in disarray soon after he arrives. On this day, Gehry is worrying about the Disney Hall’s new exterior cladding. In an effort to streamline costs, he has agreed to change the exterior from limestone to metal, and, with the sun beaming down on him, he walks outside to watch the play of light on sample plates of titanium and stainless steel. He seems, for the moment, blissfully happy.

One of the surprises of Gehry’s work is its violence. Each of his famously euphoric and sensual designs--for the Guggenheim, for the Disney Hall, for others--emerges not only from a sense of joyful chaos but also from a mind seemingly tearing apart both a fragile inner world and our shared cultural history, and then carefully piecing them back together, his way. But if Gehry is an anarchist, he’s an anarchist with a practical bent. Despite appearances, he designs buildings pragmatically, from the inside out. He begins by assembling simple wood blocks that represent the layout of the project’s components--a strategy that often baffles clients who know only his exuberant completed works. The forms come later.

Like all great architects, Gehry straddles the border between the practical world and the possibilities that lie just beyond. He is seeking freedom from the conventions of architecture, from the routine relationships between designer and client. As he slowly elaborates his increasingly fantastic architectural language, he expects clients to absorb his methods, to embrace the process, to get caught up in his excitement.

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“Frank was always looking for freedom from restraint and from guilt, in some ways,” says a former project manager, Paul Lubowicki. “It’s about this mixture of anger and joy.”

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Frank Owen Gehry was born on Feb. 28, 1929, in a working-class Jewish neighborhood of Toronto. His father, Irving, born in New York City, worked at a series of odd jobs, including arranging fruit displays for a local supermarket, selling slot machines and eventually opening a small furniture business. “My father would never come home with just a banana,” remembers Gehry’s younger sister, Doreen. “If he went out for a banana, he would come home with a whole crate of fruit.”

Gehry has often described the fantastic images of growing up in the immigrant community. He remembers watching live carp swim in the bathtub while his maternal grandmother, Leah Caplan, prepared to make gefilte fish in the kitchen. On other occasions, she would bring home wood scraps from a local cabinet shop, and the two would build miniature cities on the living room floor. In his work, these images would later take on an almost mythical importance. Fish often appear as forms in his buildings. And Gehry once claimed that his later inspiration to pull buildings apart into discreet blocks sprang from those early childhood games.

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By his own account, Gehry was a recluse, sitting for days in his room, sometimes with a close friend, tinkering with philosophical formulas. His father was a tough man, given to grand gestures and a terrible temper, which he often directed at his son. “I’d hide in the woodwork and try to be invisible,” he remembers. “My father thought I was a dreamer, that I didn’t know the value of a buck.”

Gehry’s mother, Thelma, a strong-willed woman who emigrated with her parents from Lodz, Poland, had high cultural aspirations for her children. She often played the violin for her family in the evenings and, when money permitted, took her children to the local philharmonic. There were few books in the house, but there was a hunger for culture. “Culture,” Doreen says, “was something you had to go out and take.”

Those early, fantastic memories of immigrant life ended abruptly in 1947, when, in the midst of a violent argument with his son, Irving suffered a heart attack while chasing Frank out of the house. It was a turning point in the family’s fortunes. Soon after, Irving lost his furniture business and the family, worried about his failing health, moved to the warmer climate of Los Angeles.

They lived in cramped apartments, first in a run-down section near downtown, then in a Jewish neighborhood near the Fairfax district. His father supported the family working in a liquor store, often arriving home at 2 a.m. Gehry, now 17, found work driving a truck. At night, he and his sister alternated between sleeping on the sofa and a Murphy bed in the living room. “We had a kitchen the size of a closet,” Doreen says. “But my mother cooked dinner every night and put a tablecloth on the table. She was really something.”

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“L.A. was like falling off a cliff,” Gehry says. “It was very poor. We had a ’37 Ford and were living in two rooms. My father was in bad shape. It was a shock.”

Escape came in making art. He began attending classes at Los Angeles City College and took a ceramics course that a local artist, Glenn Lukens, gave at USC. The well-known California Modernist Raphael Soriano was designing a house for Lukens in the West Adams district, and Lukens took Gehry to meet the architect. It was an awakening. “When you’re a kid, you’re looking for role models,” Gehry says. “Here was a guy in a black suit, a black beret, telling contractors what to do and railing against Frank Lloyd Wright. And I fell in love with the whole idea of it.”

Soon Gehry enrolled in USC’s School of Architecture, where he studied with the likes of Gregory Ain, the radical left-wing Modernist, and landscape architect Garrett Eckbo. “We used to go out every Sunday to look at Wright, [Rudolph] Schindler, [Richard] Neutra,” Gehry says. “Harwell [Hamilton] Harris was God.”

It was a period when the great Modernist tradition that had dominated the first half of the century was beginning to falter. In Los Angeles, a city that had long been an incubator for invention in domestic architecture, other great works by the likes of Soriano and John Lautner were yet to be built. But the culture of radical experimentation that had thrived here had become stagnant. Architects such as Neutra and Schindler--the twin pillars of Los Angeles Modernism--had long ago stopped producing their best work. Ain, a disillusioned Socialist, was no longer building.

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Gehry, too, believed that architecture was a social art. Yet he didn’t feel wholly at ease within the city’s increasingly conservative architecture community. While at USC, Gehry married Anita Snyder, whom he met during his truck-driving days, and began working at Gruen Associates, a high-profile firm that built competent Modernist office buildings. He was restless. Virtually penniless, the two soon left for Paris, living briefly in a basement apartment a friend had loaned to them and then--after saving up a little money--embarking on a yearlong tour of European architectural landmarks.

When they returned in 1961, Gehry set up his own shop in a studio building he shared with a newfound artist friend, Chuck Arnoldi, and formed many of the friendships that would later influence his work, with artists such as Ed Moses and Robert Irwin. Gehry was drawn to the small, introverted art scene forming in the lofts and warehouses of Venice Beach and Santa Monica. He found the informality of art life liberating, and it offered an escape from what he perceived as the rigid formalism of most architectural work. “We were bound to each other because there was nothing else happening,” recalls Billy Al Bengston, an artist friend from that time. “It was the only game in town. And I think Frank admired the gang aspect of it.”

But even as Gehry was exploring other cultural worlds, he was trying to find his place in architecture. In 1973, he and Irwin launched a short-lived line of furniture called “Easy Edges.” The furniture seemed to capture many of Gehry’s interests as a designer. Made of layers of die-cut cardboard sheets glued together, the chairs were cut out into playfully loopy shapes. They were also cheap, durable and easily mass-produced. Yet shortly after the furniture went on sale, Gehry pulled the plug. “I was afraid of where it was taking me,” he recalls. “I wanted to be known as an architect, not a furniture designer.”

By then, Gehry’s marriage with Anita had failed, in part, he says, because of his growing devotion to his architecture career. Gehry later met Berta Aguilera, a petite, ebullient Panamanian woman with a sharp wit who had come to apply for a secretarial job at his office. The two quickly fell in love, but Gehry--who had a troubled relationship with his two daughters by Anita--was terrified about beginning another family. Berta wanted children.

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Gehry couldn’t find a way to reconcile the various fragments of his life, so, in a bizarre twist, he asked his psychoanalyst, Milton Wexler, to intervene. Wexler, now a close friend, remembers brokering a deal. At one point, he took Berta for a long walk in Marina del Rey and told her that Gehry would be willing to have children, but only two, and that the architect was nervous about the effect a family would have on his career. She would have to raise the children. Berta agreed, and ever energetic, eventually took over the management of his office.

Most of Gehry’s architectural work from this period was competent but not groundbreaking. But he clearly was determined to break out of normal architectural conventions. In 1974, UCLA held a celebrated three-day conference that was meant to introduce the pillars of the East Coast architectural establishment to their lesser-known West Coast colleagues. Gehry was not invited, but he wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass. Ambitious and stubborn, he threw a party for the group at his Venice loft. “I invited all my artist friends at the last minute. They were my support group,” Gehry says. One member of New York’s avant-garde scene at the time recalls the host: “He was this round little guy who’d done nothing. He was a developer’s architect. I remember thinking: ‘Who is this guy?’ ”

Yet there were hints that Gehry was laying the foundation for a more idiosyncratic architectural language. An early 1964 studio and residence that he designed for graphic artist Lou Danziger along a dilapidated strip of Melrose Avenue, for example, touches many themes that Gehry would later develop. Its exterior was intentionally banal--a stucco box that faded into its tough urban context--while inside, its structural bones were left exposed. The project can be read as a celebration of the everyday streetscape or as a protective shield for a private inner world--an apt metaphor for Gehry’s complicated relationship to his own past.

The first glimpse at Gehry’s future, the first indication that he might possibly change the course of 20th century architecture, came with the completion of his own house in 1978. At the time, Gehry was working largely on generic developments, squeezing any concessions he could out of clients in attempts to create something of architectural value. “It was a no-win thing for him,” says Paul Lubowicki. But with his own house, “he was able to tell everybody, ‘This is what I’m going to do, like it or not.’ It was an aggressive approach.”

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Berta found the house, and it was she who pushed him to let fly with his ideas. Gehry did. He wrapped the existing pink Cape Cod-style bungalow with a second structure of chain link, corrugated metal and glass. The original front door became part of the living room, the kitchen was paved in black top, stud walls were left exposed. The effect was to obscure the boundaries between inside and out, rejecting typical suburban smugness in favor of a more loosely defined version of urban disarray.

In the mythology that now envelops Gehry, the house marked the beginning of his idiosyncratic architectural language, one that served as both an apt expression of social fragmentation and a challenge to our high cultural values. As Gehry once put it: “My approach to architecture is different . . . I’m confused as to what’s ugly and what’s pretty.”

Gehry’s more conservative neighbors were not. “It’s antisocial,” one remarked at the time. But a parade of East Coast luminaries came to look, including artists Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenberg and Coosje Van Bruggen, sculptor Richard Serra, composer Philip Glass and, most notably, Philip Johnson, the aging dean of American architecture, who was then still a force in launching the careers of many budding talents.

Yet the success of the Santa Monica house hardly ensured that clients were more accepting of his aesthetic forms. After seeing the house, Christophe de Menil, daughter of the famed Houston arts patron Dominique de Menil, hired Gehry to design her New York townhouse. Gehry’s idea was to gut the entire brownstone and build two buildings, one for Christophe and one for her teenage daughter, inside the hollow shell, with a bridge connecting them.

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“I think she was afraid of it,” says Lubowicki. “We’d meet with [De Menil] and have all these champagne breakfasts on Sutton Place. Frank would be wanting to leave so much, but he couldn’t. He’d have to kind of perform for her. It was a really strange experience. He was pretty stoic about it until the end, when she finally said: ‘Listen Frank, I don’t think I need you anymore.’ So Frank and I left and got in a cab, and Frank started crying in the cab. It was torture. It was almost like a breakdown. I only understood later what he was going through. It was this kind of transition time of, first of all, not having any control over this thing, and it being in New York and being such a high-profile client.”

Despite the De Menil fiasco, Gehry would go on to design a series of remarkable houses over the next several years, some of the best on extremely tight budgets. Among his best was the Spiller house, where he created dramatic vertical interiors that spiraled up to outdoor living terraces. At about the same time, he began work on the Benson house, where he pulled the house apart into distinct boxes connected by bridges and stairs. In each project, Gehry used cheap materials, evoking the poor, the ugly, the lowbrow. The rawness of the materials and finishes also implied an incomplete work, as if the realities of the life inside were somehow in the process of being violently reshaped.

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In 1981, Gehry’s life took a turn that changed his relationship with Los Angeles. The nascent board of the Museum of Contemporary Art began searching for an architect to design a new museum building. Many of Gehry’s old friends ranked among the artists on the advisory committee assigned to recommend an architect, yet they favored Japanese architect Arata Isozaki.

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Gehry was devastated, and the choice gave full rise to his belief that the city would never appreciate his work. It also led him to renounce the local arts community, which had been a wellspring of ideas early in his career. “A lot of artists were involved,” Berta says. “He was very hurt. He stopped going to their openings. He only remained a friend with two or three of them who kept themselves away from that whole MOCA process. But in a way it was a good thing. What it did is it liberated him. He didn’t owe them anything.”

The resentment flowed both ways. In the view of some artists, Gehry distanced himself from their cultural circles as his career flourished. “Frank moved into another scene,” Bengston says coolly. “Maybe a more professional scene. He moved to where the money is . . . . And there was a degree of resentment. Ed Moses has always had a problem with Frank. He feels he brought him into the art world and mentored him and didn’t get his due respect . . . .” The split wasn’t merely on the social level, either. “Let’s look at it this way,” Bengston says. “There’s a lot of artwork incorporated into [Frank’s] work. None of it is from the West Coast.”

More pointed, if less personal, criticism came from the cultural critic Mike Davis, who saw in Gehry’s work an inwardness that belied his professed desire to engage popular culture. Davis saw Gehry’s early blank boxes as a form of “stealth architecture,” buildings that, through an aggressive form of camouflage, turned their backs on the communities they professed to embrace.

However Los Angeles viewed Gehry, his work increasingly drew acclaim elsewhere. In 1986, a spectacular show of Gehry’s models began touring the country, and soon after, Gehry won the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s most coveted honor. With the $100,000 prize money, he put a down payment on a Brentwood house for his mother and bought her a strand of pearls. As Gehry began garnering commissions for more prestigious public works, he also was beginning to experiment with more exotic materials and forms. His “dumb boxes” were becoming more sculptural, their forms more sensual.

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At Germany’s Vitra Museum in Weil am Rhein (1989), Gehry melded his disjointed structures into a more cohesive whole, with large rooms twisting upward around the building’s exterior. The forms, however, were becoming increasingly difficult to translate into working drawings. Those pressures eventually drove him to buy his first computer system, CATIA, a software program that had been used by French engineers to design the Mirage fighter.

For Gehry, what was most remarkable about the system was the freedom it suddenly allowed him. He could now build his exotic forms and plot them directly into the computer. He was easily able to produce working drawings that perfectly matched his models. Nowhere is that freedom more visible than in Gehry’s delirious design for a house for businessman Peter Lewis on the outskirts of Cleveland. Eventually, the projected cost ballooned to $82 million. It was never built. Yet for Gehry, it became a laboratory for radical experimentation. The shape and form of the house’s entry hall, for example, which looms over the project like the skeleton of a giant horse’s head, reappears as a conference room in Gehry’s design for the DG Bank headquarters, now under construction at Berlin’s Pariser Platz.

Gehry won the competition to design Disney Hall in 1988. As always, he took great pains to wed this building to its urban site. The building’s curved stone walls enveloped the hall’s cocoon-like interior, but they were more than a voluptuous aesthetic gesture: They allowed concert-goers to spill out into the urban landscape on curved exterior walkways or into a lush garden below. This building would embrace the community--and as if to ensure that, Gehry invited Mike Davis to work with him on the garden.

But after construction ground to a halt, Gehry was accused of creating an unbuildable design. The project’s billowing stone panels were ridiculed as a giant Kleenex box. While the project’s suspension was a blot on the city’s cultural ambitions, it branded Gehry locally as an irresponsible, self-absorbed artist. It is a charge that is as painful to Gehry as it is unfair.

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“I think the whole question of responsibility has plagued him since childhood,” says former Los Angeles Philharmonic Managing Director Ernest Fleischmann. “It is a constant theme: ‘I have done it responsibly. It can be done on time and on budget.’ There is a paranoia there about being persecuted. I understand it. He does sophisticated, elaborate things. He feels he knows how it can be done and done responsibly. I have found Frank to be right.”

The Guggenheim Museum building is a fusion of all of the differing values embedded in Gehry’s work and life: his obsessions with the post-industrial city and urban infrastructure, his love of art, his desire to create an architecture that reflects a resolution between the toughness of urban reality and the fantastic euphoria of creation. Of all of Gehry’s projects, it is the most trusting, the most open to the city. Museum-goers spill down the grand stairway into the museum’s belly, not upward to a monument. And once inside, the undulating vertical atrium lobby pulls them up to the galleries, where other views open up to the tough industrial landscape: the underbelly of a bridge, the sweep of the river and the city beyond. It is a romanticized view of the urban metropolis of Gehry’s dreams: a reaffirmation of the urban world of the working man.

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Back in his Santa Monica office, Gehry now worries regularly about how to retain that toughness and clarity in his work. If the contemporary city is quickly becoming a themed version of the industrial metropolis, Gehry seems keenly aware of the potential architecture has of becoming theme-park frivolity.

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Gehry has always insisted that he knows how to make buildings work, that he is sensitive to what is possible in the nuts-and-bolts experience of everyday life. “Look at his house,” his sister Doreen says. “He really lives modestly. And I find that astonishing. Most guys in his position I think would have gone out and built a big house. It’s very touching to me because I feel like he’s keeping his past intact through that house, that’s he’s not such a big shot after all. He’s just a worker bee.”


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