Frank Gehry, inventing the future

Frank Gehry, inventing the future
Architect Frank Gehry, creator of L.A.'s Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, and countless other iconic structures, stands in Disney Hall. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

He's an architect, not a psychic, but Frank Gehry can see into the future in part because he's the one creating it. Fresh off the opening of his floating glass ship of a museum in Paris, the indefatigable Gehry is at work on the Grand Avenue project across from his signature Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown L.A., an arts education program for California schoolchildren, cooperating on an authorized biography, and — well, just look at the floor of his vast West Los Angeles studio. There are enough models of projects to keep him adding to the world's architecture for years to come. Gehry hit 85 this year, spectacularly, with a birthday party in Bilbao, Spain, a city whose fortunes were reinvigorated by his 1997 Guggenheim Museum. Bilbao named a bridge after Gehry. An even better gift might have been letting him design it.

For the Louis Vuitton Foundation museum in Paris, did technology catch up to your vision?


We pretty much work in the front lines of technology, and maybe we push it a little bit. We play, we take some risks and explore some things that maybe haven't been explored before. The Paris building is unique because it's two buildings — it's a solid building with a glass dress on it, let's say. I'm hoping we'll be able to play with art between the two, like if you hung a banner behind it, you could read between the glass [and the rest of the building]. In France, historically, the cathedrals had sculptures on the [building]. I wanted to do that there. The curator isn't ready yet.

In L.A., there's Disney Hall and the Grand Avenue project; do you want another piece of the Los Angeles skyline?

I am so superstitious, I would never say I want a piece of it. It's crazy, but I don't — I wait until it happens.

One thing we can't seem to create or grow is a public gathering place, like Times Square.

We're such a car city — you've heard this before. We're just so dispersed. I've always thought Wilshire Boulevard is a linear downtown. It didn't grow that way because Buffy Chandler and other interests built the Music Center downtown. Disney Hall, for me, should have been built at the Wadsworth Theater on the Westside, and the cathedral, I thought, should have been built at MacArthur Park. And MOCA should have been built where LACMA is, so there started to be a linear city, and Wilshire Boulevard would have been the place.

Much of L.A.'s architectural creativity is in homes, not grand public buildings.

I don't know that government has any buildings that would get me excited except for our old City Hall. But going for really high-level architecture is rare anywhere in the world.

That's why I got in trouble the other day; I gave the finger to a guy. I'd just gotten off a plane [in Spain]. I was there to get an award. I was tired and I got a call that the press conference was in 20 minutes! They put me on a podium, lit me up, wired me up, and the guy gets up and says, "Mr. Gehry, what do you say to people who say your buildings are weird?"

It was like Dr. Strangelove — I wasn't going to do that, but I just looked at him and up came the arm. What I said was I believe that 98% of the buildings built in the world weren't very exciting. I didn't say architecture was s---. Every city kind of looks alike.

Is a least common denominator at work?

I have a theory about denialism. I think we deny that's happened.

When I did the chain-link stuff, everybody thought I was crazy. I was exploring denialism. Chain-link is ubiquitous, and everybody hates it. So I started to look at how you can make it lovable, how you can make it pretty. I did it at Santa Monica Place on the garage. A friend of mine used to make fun of me about chain-link. I visited his house, and in his yard was a tennis court with a chain-link fence around it. He could see it from his bedroom, his living room, his dining room, his kitchen. I said, "I guess I've converted you. You see chain-link from every room in this house, so you must love it." That's denialism. He wasn't seeing it.

It's a metaphor for the city; it's the same thing. We're not seeing it as a bunch of ugly buildings.

Do you want to design a whole community, a way for people to live, like Le Corbusier or Paolo Soleri?


When you trained as an architect in the '50s, you're trained to have that mindset, but I never did. That's antithetical to democracy; democracy is really freedom of choice for everybody. I don't want to give up democracy for architecture. Democracy creates a certain kind of chaos, a collision of thought that's interesting to explore. Take it as a positive. It's not going to change.

It's not that I wouldn't like to design a city. I have ideas, maybe like the garden city programs in the early 20th century. It doesn't happen that much any more.

When does the "shock of the new" turn into an accepted aesthetic?

I [told] Charlie Rose, "Look, when Matisse started doing the cutouts, I thought, poor old man, that's so stupid." And now the cutouts are beautiful. I was a Matisse freak, then all of a sudden he started making those paper dolls. That's the end of his career, right? So look what happened. I've had some of the same experience. Like Disney Hall when we showed the models, people were saying it was broken crockery, all that crap. At Bilbao, they threatened my life because they didn't understand it. Now they love it.

Did people begin to expect that as the "Frank Gehry style"?

Yes; I ignored it. I couldn't repeat it, so I didn't. Now sometimes I consciously do but it changes; everything changes if your tentacles are out for what's going on around you. New client, new place, new time, technologies change; there's quantum leaps in technologies.

Do potential clients look at a design and say, "That's not Frank Gehry enough"?

I get that. Stupid, isn't it? We do what we do. I think in the end there turns out to be enough Frank Gehry.

You were asked to design an Eisenhower memorial in Washington. It's been controversial, and the design has gone through myriad panels and commission. Is that a problem inherent to public projects?

It's a problem with government. I'm a liberal; I'm not anti-government, but if you work for the government under contract — one more project, I'd probably join the Koch brothers!

It's difficult. [Rep.] Darrell Issa [R-Vista] helped me get it through. He came here, saw the [design], did his homework. He understood that I was flexible. He was worried that because of the pressure on me I was going to lose [the project], that [it] was not going to be realized in a way that would be worth doing. And he went to the commission.

Do any critics ever make you think, oh, they have a point?

Oh, often. I won't change something if I think someone's trying to mess with me and they don't understand, but if it's somebody I respect and find relevant, I certainly will look into it.

Your projects require a big cast of characters. Does collaboration work for you?

Yes, all the time. I like the people — they stimulate me. They ballpark things for me, get the important statistical stuff, then we start working intuitively. I lead this little team and they respond. It's a magic trick!

A film of [jazz musician] Wayne Shorter showed a guy setting out the music stands and the drums and Wayne comes in and the guy says, "Hey, Wayne, what are we going to practice tonight?" And Wayne says, "You can't practice what you ain't invented yet."

It's the same with any creative thing — you operate intuitively, you explore intuitively, you can't predict where you're going to go.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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