There are some important sources we don’t get to hear from in “Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry,” Paul Goldberger’s blandly titled, generally astute, terrifically readable and disappointingly restrained new biography of Frank Gehry. Many of them are women. One especially notable absence is Anita Brenner, the architect’s first wife, whom he has long blamed for persuading him in 1954 to change his name from Frank Owen Goldberg to Frank Owen Gehry.
That particular omission isn’t Goldberger’s fault: Brenner declined to speak with him. (The divorce, as you’ve probably guessed, was not amicable.) Still, it’s hard not to wonder what she would make of Gehry’s assertion that she was “one tough operator” who essentially harangued him into making the switch, arguing it would make it easier for him to avoid anti-Semitism and build a successful career. (“If you knew Anita, you knew that I had to do it,” he says. “I had no way out. I was in a corner.”) Goldberger accepts that explanation at face value, writing without qualification that Gehry, a tough operator in his own right, “ultimately gave in, eager to keep peace with his wife.”
The most significant missing voice in the book, though, belongs oddly enough to Goldberger himself. The longtime architecture critic for the New York Times who later took the same position at the New Yorker, he is now a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. (He has also written several fine books, including “Up from Zero,” from 2004, on the rebuilding process at the World Trade Center site.) After a preface that leans heavily on the first person, in which he recalls meeting Gehry for the first time in 1974 at the annual convention of the American Institute of Architects, Goldberger largely removes himself from the narrative.
The book, Goldberger’s first biography, then shifts into a detached and smooth third person, relating the details of Gehry’s childhood in Toronto and the Canadian mining town of Timmins, his move to Los Angeles with his family in 1947, when he was 18, his studies at USC and the diverse and increasingly high-profile architectural output that followed.
The first-person Goldberger continues to show up every once in a while, but only in the footnotes. This produces the odd sense that Goldberger the critic is banging on a wall laid down at the bottom of each footnoted page by Goldberger the biographer, trying futilely to be let back into a book he was briefly allowed to control.
This is not just an issue of style or narrative structure; it gets at the heart of the limitations of “Building Art,” which is long on satisfying detail on Gehry’s career path and hugely complex personality and short on the sort of direct critical judgment that might shed useful light on why certain Gehry buildings (Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao) are masterpieces, destined to be studied a century from now, while others (the Experience Music Project in Seattle and the Stata Center at MIT) are indulgent and deeply flawed.
Early in “Building Art,” Goldberger introduces a reading of Gehry that will become a leitmotif: that the architect throughout his career has both hotly pursued and remained deeply wary of success — that from the beginning he’s been “an outlier who wanted in, but … on his own terms.”
That phrase perfectly describes the Gehry I have come to know since moving to Los Angeles in 2004. (I have known Goldberger even longer; early in my career he wrote me a couple of letters of recommendation.) Gehry, as “Building Art” makes clear, is not just an architect who values his independence above nearly everything else. He is anxious and nurses grudges the way great athletes do, as fuel. He has made a careful study of power over the years and he both mistrusts and figures out clever ways to hide his ambition.
Not surprisingly, given those decades of feints, dodges and “aw shucks” protestations that he cares little about fame or influence, Gehry, who is now 86, became deeply misunderstood — more misunderstood than any prominent architect of his generation.
At the heart of this misunderstanding — which has already deformed the debate over Gehry’s newest role, as the unlikely master planner of a remade Los Angeles River — is the notion that what he does is primarily sculptural (or worse, lazily decorative). Though Gehry has long been close to Los Angeles artists including Ed Moses and Billy Al Bengston, and though his buildings show the clear influence of figures as different from one another as Giorgio Morandi, Robert Rauschenberg and Gordon Matta-Clark, what gives his most accomplished work its vitality is mastery of some basic architectural skills.
If the buildings often come wrapped in sculptural packages, the rooms inside show a real sensitivity to human scale, light and the way the body moves through architectural space. They owe a greater debt to Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto, to name two of the architects whose work Gehry has studied obsessively, than to any artist.
As Goldberger writes, “Gehry buildings are admittedly not what would normally be called tranquil, but they possess the ability to evoke the same sense of well-being.”
Gehry’s creative intelligence, in fact, is fundamentally a humanistic one; this is what separates him from the contemporary architects he has been compared to or lumped in with over the years, including Thom Mayne, Wolf Prix, Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid. Like those architects, Gehry has sometimes relied on a vocabulary of clashing or dissonant forms. But his goal is different: not a sense of alienation and dislocation (as in Eisenman’s work) or a reflection of a deeply fragmented society (as in Mayne’s) but a difficult, clear-eyed sort of resolution.
Gehry the person may not be an optimist, but Gehry the architect very much is.
Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry
By Paul Goldberger
Alfred A. Knopf, 528 pp., $35