Finn-Olaf Jones Official Website: Articles and Stories
  home | click here for articles | contact
Sep 17, 2007
The Starchitect: Frank Gehry - ForbesLife

Gehry House

As he nears his 80th birthday, Frank Gehry shows no signs of slowing down.

They don't hire me to do boxes.-- Frank Gehry

Prepare for big shiny, curvy buildings coming to a city near you. Cranes will rise in Barcelona, New York, Jerusalem, Las Vegas, Abu Dhabi, Paris and other world centers to construct glass sails, wavy monoliths, bristly multiheaded towers and other alter-the-skyline-forever structures designed by a spectacled, white-haired 78-year-old working out of a bullpen with cardboard furniture in West Los Angeles.

It's been a decade since Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum--"the greatest building of our time," according to the late Philip Johnson--embedded Bilbao on the cultural globe. And it's been four years since Gehry built the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the oft-cited tipping point for downtown L.A.'s renaissance. Now everyone wants in on the fun. "I used to travel a lot, but at this stage clients tend to come to me," says Gehry with typical understatement. "Fame was unexpected. Maybe if it happened to me in my 30s it would have warped me."

Gehry's ever-expanding list of new projects should win him even more fame-- and notoriety from his detractors, who variously complain that his buildings privilege spectacle over functionality, or that they're ill-suited to their surroundings. Critics will have plenty to argue over in the coming years, when even Disney Hall might seem like a comparative Mickey Mouse affair: There's a 47,000-square-foot cloud of glass housing a museum suspended above Paris' Bois de Boulogne; a roller coaster of a medical research building for downtown Las Vegas; a museum in Jerusalem that looks like a dismantled turbo-jet; and the Atlantic Yards, Brooklyn's $4-billion "city within a city," where 22 acres of towers and a sports arena may do for Brooklyn what the Rockefellers would have done for Manhattan if they'd been better connected.

It seems written in curving steel that Gehry's increasingly ubiquitous twisting, bristling and arched forms will be recognized as the stylistic signature of our era, just as we recognize the period of Wright, Wren or Michelangelo. Gehry's revolution, which is barely two decades old, has been far more instantaneous and global than anything these other architects saw in their lifetimes. But then again, Gehry does work next door to Hollywood.

Enter through a concrete lobby in an anonymous building fronted by corrugated sheeting a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean in West L.A. and suddenly you're in a hangar-esque space where some 200 acolytes toil at desks and tables constructed from the same cheap red plywood used for packing cases. Sitting in a shacklike office in the middle of this quarry- of-a-hundred-cathedrals is Gehry himself in a black T-shirt and jeans. "Sorry, I didn't get around to shaving this morning," he says by way of introduction--even he seems to be a work in progress.

Rising above all the cheap 'n' cheerful decor like a vision of Valhalla are two dozen gleaming models of The Very Big Things to Come, including several versions of Atlantic Yards, which, as with many past Gehry projects, is getting plenty of opposition in the form of lawsuits, protests and editorials. "Mega-blocks that are prime examples of bad urban planning" is the assessment of local City Councilmember Letitia James.

"I think the community around there is looking at what they've gotten in the past, the boxes, and they're saying, 'Oh, God,' " says Gehry. "But hopefully once they see that this is something really very different they'll be content. It'll certainly be a much more fun place than they've got now."

Fun. For all the fancy talk academics and critics use to describe Gehry's output, there's a simple truth to his work: Most of his constructions engage the man on the street. And, as anyone who has ever seen a classical music hater hanging out in Disney Hall's labyrinthine roof garden, or kids ogling Gehry's 22-foot glass fish at Minneapolis' otherwise sterile Walker Art Center, or tourists photographing each other under the giant binoculars straddling the entrance to Gehry's Chiat/Day office building in Los Angeles, fun trumps function in the public imagination.

And yet something serious has happened. This guy has exploded the dull forms that have crowded our cities and had induced us to accept lazy, boring or preciously minimalist constructions in the name of art and economics. With Gehry, we get to wave adieu to what Tom Wolfe memorably called the "Rue De Regret" of International Style German workers' cubes and replace our yawns with a little shock and awe.

"A very small percentage of what's built is real architecture--something where there was an intention to make something beautiful in the most optimistic, humanistic way," says Gehry. "Most buildings are just built as boxes for money laundering. They have nothing to do with architecture.

"I like buildings under construction better than when they are finished because there's a kind of immediacy, a feeling of process, and it's accessible," he continues, glancing up at his studio's exposed ductwork and hanging insulation. "Maybe it was the casual nature of growing up in a Canadian mining town where there was nothing precious about housing, and where there was all that visible industry that makes the process more interesting than the completion."

Nearby is a pile of concrete samples littering the floor beside the Mickey Mouse dolls and other bric-a-brac. "I'm messing with a new kind of concrete," he says, handing over a trellis made from what I would have sworn--even after handling it--was wood. What does he plan to use if for? Gehry doesn't yet know. Experimentation seems to be a constant.

"I'm not doing another Bilbao or Disney Hall," says Gehry. "That wouldn't be fun. I look at doing something completely new, like building underground in Philadelphia." He shows a model of the neoclassical Philadelphia Museum of Art with a subterranean expansion of galleries that looks ready to give the above-ground galleries a run for their sunlight. "This provides a whole new challenge for me. How do you do a building that has passion without being able to see it?"

This talk of passion coupled with all the curvy and angular lines could lead one to suspect that there's a certain randomness to Gehry's structures, exemplified in an episode of "The Simpsons" in which Gehry builds a concert hall to mirror a crumpled piece of paper he finds on the ground. However, designing, financing and building these revolutionary structures takes a business and design discipline worthy of Henry Ford.

"I'm not some grand vizier in my office doodling," notes Gehry. "When I work with a client like Bruce Ratner [developer of the Atlantic Yards], who is very involved with the same things I think about when I design--art, music, sculpture--our discussions on the project are very visceral. How much will this cost? Will it be done on time? That's why I have all the computers."

Computers? Gehry is famous for not touching them. His office doesn't even have a laptop. But wander over to the corner of the studio and behold a large computer annex that looks almost like a trading floor--it's part of Gehry Technologies, a separate 60-employee company that oversees design and construction processes for Gehry and outside clients. Gehry's designs, for all their perceived playfulness and even recklessness, are about as spontaneous as the Nuremberg Rallies.

"The tools to be master planners are right here at our fingertips," says Gehry. "You push a button and you can see what all the current construction costs are in Iowa or wherever else you want to build. I drove the technology because I knew that whoever had the most information controlled the game."

And yet Gehry goes through more models than the Rolling Stones. "We'll build one, think it over, make some adjustments on the computers and then build another one," says Gehry. "We build 50 or 60 models before the actual building."

Over in the corner sits a model of the one building Gehry can't seem to finish: his home. "I have been working for five years to build something on property I bought near the Marina, but I don't know if it's ever going to be done. It's horrible. I feel too comfortable in my current house."

For the past three decades Gehry has been living on a quiet residential street in Santa Monica, in a 1920s Dutch Revival home transformed into a cubist hodgepodge of chainlink fencing, sheet metal and glass wedges--it's the first place that got the classic "Gehry treatment."

As usual, Gehry faced strong opposition at first. "My neighbors hated it. They thought it was destroying their property prices. They've all since moved, and I now have more appreciative neighbors. I really don't know how to leave it."

Not that he seems to crave luxury. When he invites you to share his lunch with him, he beckons one of his assistants to mix an extra packet of chocolate protein powder with warm water in a Dixie cup. Ten minutes later, lunch over, Gehry is getting visual nourishment, stooping over the model of the basketball arena for the New Jersey Nets proposed for the Atlantic Yards. "Look at this," he says excitedly. "Someone walking on Flatbush Avenue will look inside and be able to see the scoreboard. This will be fun for local kids or anyone who can't afford a ticket."

This may be the era of Frank Gehry, but we're all invited.


back to top