Gehry on L.A., art (and Gehry)

NOT THE MET: Gehry calls his Guggenheim Bilbao “an antidote to the Metropolitan Museum syndrome.”
NOT THE MET: Gehry calls his Guggenheim Bilbao “an antidote to the Metropolitan Museum syndrome.”
(Guggenheim Museum Bilbao,1997. Photo by ©David Heald, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York)

In “Conversations With Frank Gehry,” Los Angeles writer Barbara Isenberg talks with the Pritzker Prize-winning architect, who’s behind such iconic buildings as Walt Disney Concert Hall and Guggenheim Bilbao. They cover his life, pivotal career moments, including the competition for Bilbao, and influences. Following are exclusive excerpts from the book, published by Alfred A. Knopf, which goes on sale Tuesday.

Is there a Los Angeles style of architecture?

Los Angeles has an incredible light and a forgiving climate. You don’t have to use double glazing, and you don’t have to think about snow loads and snow conditions. The further south you go, the more open you can get. But the generation after me is working all over the world, like I am, so we’ve had to adapt to other climates. I had to adapt to a northern climate in Bilbao.

Do you take a Los Angeles sensibility with you?

It’s not so contrived. You just go for the bigger picture, I think. At least I do.

Do you ever think about how your professional life might have been different had you stayed in Toronto?

Los Angeles is quite a different city from Toronto. The Canadian psyche is much more conservative, quieter, laid-back -- or at least it was when I lived there. L.A. when I got here was brash, raucous, frontier. Carny business. The movies. The development was vast and rampant. Whole neighborhoods seemed to spring up instantly in desert locations. It represented a kind of openness and freedom because it was risk taking somehow. There was an edge to it. Some of it was greedy and awful, and some of it was positive and moving. But it represented a kind of energy and resourcefulness, a willingness to try things. I think if I’d stayed in Canada as an architect, I wouldn’t have grown up with the sense of freedom that I got out here. There’s a lot more freedom because Los Angeles doesn’t have the burden of history.


When did your relationships with artists start being important to you?

From the beginning of my adult life, I always related more to artists than to architects. I found it easier and more exciting to be with them. When I was studying at USC, art and architecture were taught in the same building, Harris Hall, and some of the classes were in the same rooms. So the entire time I was at USC studying architecture, I was exposed to the USC art program. Because I had been a member of the art program, I kept trying to bring the two groups together. It was like they were on two different planets, and I could never figure that out. So I lived this kind of double life while I was in architecture school. Which I guess is what I continue to do.

When I finished architecture school, I liked Kahn and Corbusier and other architects, but I still felt there was something more that the artists were doing. They were pushing into a visual language, and I thought that if a visual language could apply to art, which it obviously could, it could also apply to architecture.

During my year in France, I spent a lot of time looking at Romanesque churches and Romanesque paintings, and the way they fit with the architecture. The architecture and the paintings were at peace with each other, and I’ve always looked for that. The only artist of our time who I found did it with success was [nineteenth-century Mexican muralist José Clemente] Orozco, and you see it in the orphanage in Guadalajara, Mexico, where Orozco’s paintings hold their own with the architecture. Diego Rivera’s paintings didn’t play as well with the architecture. The buildings were more powerful. Orozco changed the balance -- his paintings were as powerful as the architecture.

There’s long been discussion of art versus architecture in your work.

There are some artists who are offended when you use the word “art” for a building that has toilets in it. So to support their narrow-mindedness, I avoid use of the term. But history has acknowledged that Bernini was an artist as well as an architect, and so was Michelangelo. It’s possible that an architect can also be an artist.

Do you think of buildings like Walt Disney Concert Hall or the Guggenheim Bilbao as sculpture or architecture? They’ve been called both.

I’m not comfortable using the word “sculpture.” I’ve used it before, but I don’t think it’s really the right word. It’s a building. The words “sculpture,” “art,” and “architecture” are loaded, and when we use them, they have a lot of different meanings. So I’d rather just say I’m an architect.


So you agreed to participate in a competition?

If it was not a drawn-out competition. I said it’s just too hard, and you waste too much money otherwise. This was a three-week competition. They gave each of us ten thousand dollars, and it cost me forty thousand to do it. But we won.

What were your thoughts about Bilbao itself at that point?

Well, I liked Bilbao. I liked the industrial feeling and the surrounding of green, so even though it’s a dirty, messy industrial city, it has this forgiveness. The thing I’d like to say about it is that from their standpoint, in hindsight, I was the most conservative choice, even though visually it looked like I wasn’t. I was the wild card. As it worked out, had they picked another design, they wouldn’t have gotten the public recognition they’ve gotten.

Juan Ignacio Vidarte, the director of the Guggenheim Bilbao, told me they wanted a building like the Sydney Opera House, which would provide a visual identity and transform the city of Bilbao. How did he and his colleagues express that desire to you?

They said just that: they wanted a Sydney Opera House.

And your reply?

I said, “Well, that’s a big order. I can’t guarantee anything like that. But I’ll do my best.”

What led you to design an entrance with wide stairs going down into the museum rather than going up, the way they do nearly everywhere else?

Gehry reaches for his drawing paper and pen.

You have a city at one level, a river at another level, and you’re building a three-level museum. If you came in at the middle floor, which is the logical thing to do, you’d have to go up and then down. It would ruin the flow of the museum, because you’d want to see it all in sequence. Sometimes it can work that way, but I thought the river was so beautiful and such an asset that I wanted to make it part of the entry experience. I decided that if you could go down to the river level as the entry point, it could be spectacular. Plus, you’d come in and the atrium could be higher. From an architectural standpoint, it felt better doing that.

It’s rarely been done because it feels like you’re going down into the basement, so it’s a push to get somebody to do that when they’re building a fancy building. But we made the entry steps like a big amphitheater, and that’s what convinced them that it would work.

It was an interesting problem. All these decisions that seem obvious today weren’t obvious at the time. It was a push to do that. There were a lot of questions. Lots of discussions. It was a big deal. But we dogged it through and made it work.

You made another unusual choice in the way museum galleries come off the central atrium rather than lead one into another. My guide at the museum, Maria Bidaurreta, said it had to do with your notions of democracy. She said you felt that nobody should be forced to go a certain way in a museum.

I probably did say that.

Could you elaborate on that idea?

It was sort of an antidote to the Metropolitan Museum syndrome, where you go in, get lost, and you’re there for a few hours with no relief. I like the idea of going to a museum, seeing a section of it, then coming back to the center. You could branch out again, as well as be able to go in a continuous fashion around the central space. In this case, I also wanted to have the central space open to the city so that whenever you came back to that central space, you had different views of the city of Bilbao around you. It made the experience interactive and seeing art interacting with the city made sense to me. The city is a living thing, and the art is inspired by living. It’s kind of interrelated.

We just did that at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, too. It was one of the things that [AGO Director] Matthew Teitelbaum wanted. A lot of museum people have picked up on that. It does work. It helps with museum fatigue. And it gives you options. So, in a sense, it is democratic.


Do you have a favorite time when you’re working on a building?

Yes. It’s when I have the plans and the scale right for both the neighborhood and the project in block form, before I make these curved shapes, before I do anything. When I get to that point, I feel comfortable that this is where we’re going to go, and the next move is just to finish the detailing, materials, and character of the shapes. It’s what I call being in the candy store, because that’s the fun part. It’s also the most scary part because it’s the unknown. I start sketching and trying things until, all of a sudden, something emerges that becomes interesting and I sort of follow it. But it’s intuitive. It’s not preconceived. I don’t have an exact plan of action, and I always feel like I’m leaping off a cliff.