Frank Gehry: “I am Very Fastidious About Budgets and Technical Delivery and No Leaks”
Audacious, Original, Sculptural. Frank Gehry is a Canadian American architect and designer whose exciting work has won him worldwide renown. In the interview Frank talks about his life, avoiding war, his career with the famous Guggenheim projects, a possible project in Israel, keeping budgets, importance of light and what he’s proud of.
LUMA Arles, Parc des Ateliers, Image by Clemens Van Lay, Unsplash
LUMA Arles, Parc des Ateliers, Image by Lucas Calloch, Unsplash
You are Canadian?
Yes. I am American as well.
Since 1962 you built your life in Santa Monica, a coastal city in Los Angeles, and have always worked in California since then. Has California been an inspiration to you?
It was what it was. It’s all I had. We were very poor and didn’t have much choice. From the age of 17 I worked as truck driver. I got accepted at USC, quite accidentally in architecture, and I did really well. Before that I had no passion to be an architect. I liked the idea of the lectures of Albert Nyberg the Finnish architect. It was serendipitous – meant to be.
Was it after school that you were influenced by psychoanalysis and sculpture and art and artists?
Psychoanalysis came much later. I graduated USC in architecture. I was interested in art as well and the architecture school shared the building with the art school. During my 4 or 5 years I was always trying to get the architecture and art departments to work together. I was not very successful, even though they were in the same building. There wasn’t much interaction. During the early period through my sister I met some folksingers from South Africa and their daughter was in the art department at UCLA. So we made a connection with the art teachers at UCLA. We did spend time together and did some projects with them.
Frank Gehry, later, after many adventures in Europe and Paris….
No. While I was in school I started to work part time for Victor Gruen. When I graduated I got drafted into the US Army. I was in 4 years training at ROTC (The Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) and they let me graduate without a commission into the Air Force. I wanted to fly. I had a cousin with a biplane and we used to do aerobatics. I was thrown out – I should have sued them but I didn’t – as soon as that was notified the draft board called me in for a fitness test to see if I was fit for duty in the army. I had a bad leg but the doctors said I could do something so I was drafted in and went on 20 mile hikes and my leg acted up and I was not sent to the infantry. I was sent to clerk typist school. Not very exciting. I was sent to the 3rd Infantry Division.
Were you in the war?
No. The Korean War was coming to an end. They sent me to an engineering company as a clerk typist in Fort Benning, Georgia. The Captain came in and said what else can you do? I said I was an architect. Can you make signs? I said yes. So they gave me a job to do basic signs for the men’s rooms and offices. I made them in a week and he said you have 3 months of sign making so do them over. So I kept making them. My leg was acting up so I went to the infirmary to have treatments. The doctor that gave me the treatments was three month from leaving the army and was going to Alabama to open a clinic. He asked me to draw up the plans for his clinic. The infantry division was going on manoeuvres in Louisiana and the Commanding Officer was a One Star General, a probably gay tight-assed guy, very authoritarian and pushy -. He called me in and said “Private Gehry, I am very proud of you for not complaining over your leg. The doctor says you should not go on manoeuvres and since you have not been complaining you can go to Atlanta and make day rooms. They transferred me to Atlanta. I got out of the army 3 months early to go to school. I went to Harvard to study city planning. It was not for me so they gave me a card so I could go to any lectures. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I met great politicians and scientists like Oppenheimer, the creator of the nuclear bomb. I left Harvard without a degree and went back to LA. From LA we went to France after a couple of years with my ex-wife and two little girls. I met a friend from Harvard, Mark Biass, and I had to work so I got a job in an office on the Champs-Élysées, 69 Avenue Champs-Élysées. There I worked with André Remondet and he gave me the freedom to work on a lot of projects for ten months. Then I went back to LA. I didn’t want to go back to Victor Gruen. I started to work with some designers on the Seattle Fair that was going on and slowly I got some work. In Santa Monica we built a building with some friends.
Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain, Image by Lucia Hernandez, Unsplash
Spruce, New York, Image by Matthias Oberholzer, Unsplash
You became very aware when you remarried bought a pink bungalow in Santa Monica and transformed it into a mythical house. Was this conversion bringing you much work from other people?
We only had $50,000! We were still living at the edge and starting my own practice in the house in Santa Monica paying $50 rent a month. There were two of, but we started to get some work. That was the beginning of my practice and we did some work with Jim Rouse. That was a great experience.
You built your house and one of your sons built a house for you where you live now. Since then you built many thigs, so many projects all over the world the majority of which are to do with art and music, museums and concert halls. Do you especially like to do that or was it by chance?
I like to do that. I am interested in classical music and jazz. As a kid in Canada I hired a jazz pianist and met Ernest Fleischmann who was working at the LA Phil. I worked on the Hollywood Bowl and won the Walt Disney competition against some formidable other architects. I won that competition and then a lot of good things happened and then a lot of bad things happened. With the Walt Disney Concert Hall for example these corporate Boards do not trust someone like me so they overboard you with expertise and ways that lead to nothing. It was a fight and we built it on budget: $207 million. I am very fastidious about budgets and technical delivery and no leaks. When IT came to Bilbao it was pouring with rain and they walked all around the building and they said: “Where are the pots for the leaks?” And I said, “There are no leaks.” On time, on budget and delivery as a building that can be used.
Frank Gehry, you used interesting materials such as stainless steel and titanium. Stainless steel and titanium facades were new in those days. When it comes to the Guggenheim in Bilbao the museum building itself is as important as the collection it contains?
It works for the collection it was designed for and it works so they are not complaining (laughs). I am always looking for the light, the responsive light. Since Minneapolis metal surfaces trying to capture the light and because it’s free. You don’t need decoration and it gives a humanized feeling. In Bilbao the budget was tight at $100 million. Stainless steel was the only thing I could afford but it rained a lot and the surfaces went dead on grey days. I had by chance put a piece of titanium outside my office in Santa Monica and it was golden in the rain. During the bidding process I put the titanium and the cost went down to below the stainless steel cost because the Russians dumped a lot of titanium on the market and that golden titanium light is one of the major assets.
Now you are finishing the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi. Is there a big difference between the Bilbao Guggenheim and the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim?
The final specification of materials is much different. It’s a different culture, 60 years old out of the desert. It is not formed. There is no specific language. Even if they have mosques with multiple domes we were not building a mosque but galleries. I made thirty models of different models of how the museum would work. When I was in Abu Dhabi I saw that people spent a lot of time under trellises in gardens having tea etc. I made a tepee like shape. I made ten and placed them in public areas outside the galleries. It was just intuitive. The Abu Dhabi group came to LA and looked at the thirty models and looked at the ones with these blue teepees and they said: “Mr Gehry you are a genius. You understand our culture perfectly – these blue tents are perfect for our aesthetic. The mosques have multiple domes and they are used to that kind of language. Accidentally I made a gesture they understood.
Now you are also opening a new building in Paris for Bernard Arnault and the Louis Vuitton Foundation and in Arles the LUMA building for Maja Hoffmann?
In Paris the client Bernard Arnault is very smart and very knowledgeable. A pleasure to be working with. He is very involved with me and my team. In France in the first two weeks you do the designs and then the beaux art experts expect you to make that building. I was not expecting that. We had three or four very sculptural models and he picked one and I didn’t realise when he picked them that was the building which required two skins for the building and this was a breakthrough with the Paris authorities. I showed the Mayor the glass version with a glass surround and the museum is inside in there like a greenhouse and then they approved of the height. So we had a two part building with an outer skin of glass. Arnault is a sailor as am I. We were interested in billowing sails and I tried to make that work.
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, Image by Reza Rostampisheh, Unsplash
MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Image by Meric Dagli, Unsplash
Museum of Pop Culture, Oregon, Image by Simon Goetz, Unsplash
Did you have similar problems in Arles?
No, Luma was different. Maja was open to jump in and we did some low rise and one with the tower. Forty or fifty models of variations with her. A different kind of collaborator. My clients are collaborators. In Arles the site is a Roman city with two large amphitheatres almost on the same street of this building. I took cues from the amphitheatres and the warehouses where they were doing photographic and art galleries. The building I was doing was more a centre, a book store, some galleries.
It is like a sculpture in the middle of this Roman city?
With all the buildings I was playing with the light. In Arles van Gogh made some great paintings, including “Starry Night”. There is a different kind of light to other places. We made the façade out of beautiful stainless steel panels – very reflective but not egregiously reflective – a soft reflection. The panels are separate panels and we could make them so they shift slightly. Reflections of light change all day long. The reflection and colour pattern changes all day until the night. As the light is disappearing you get the Starry Night sky colour. The light is there and I made it possible to see it the way that van Gogh saw it.
Light is very important in all your work, including the smaller projects such as the pavilion at Château La Coste?
I designed that project for the Serpentine Galleries in London when my daughter was dying of cancer and my son took over the project at the Serpentine and built the big wood pieces. I didn’t see it until way after they sold those pieces to Paddy McKillen and he took it to La Coste.
You build in Paris, in Korea, in Prague, in Germany, all over the world. How is it to work in many places even if you make a concert hall, or is it different to work in different places?
To work with Maja Hoffmann was a great experience. I respect her very much and she was completely involved in the project. Meeting Arnault and his family has been a lot of fun for me. Now I make handbags. I design anything!
From cognac to a cardboard chair at MoMA?
MoMA is not interested in my work, but they did my chair.
They say you are a deconstructivist architect. Are you?
I have no clue. I don’t relate to any of that. I get a client, a budget and a programme. I am a traditional architect and try to do a building that doesn’t leak!
This is an understatement. People visit your buildings to admire your style. What is your style?
I did a 76 story tower in New York. We have a relationship with French aerospace computers. We built that with no changeovers so we could afford it.
Why are there bubbles and nipples?
We wanted bay windows at forty or 60 floors. Bays of unobstructed view and kind of out in space. The shape of those folds is respectful of the Woolworth Tower which is a beautiful terracotta building. I made the bays on my building the same scale as the terracotta panels on the Woolworth. The top of the Woolworth has a golden dunce cap on it and I convinced my clients not to put a hat on theirs out of respect. The buildings talk to each other.
You were born in Toronto and now are building two big towers near your grandmother’s place. Is this a kind of Rockefeller Center from Frank Gehry?
I wanted it to be an ensemble and for there to be some community between them. They had two sites and a theatre on each site with world class productions and it is close to the concert hall and close to the lake. A lot of towers are built as rugged individuals but as two we could have an ensemble, a dignified expression. The Rockefeller Center is a place, not just one tower after another.
A great achievement in your home town?
The residential towers are built related to the markets. I am hopeful that they will be built, but as the markets are so volatile there is no guarantee.
Are you proud of all the many prizes and award you have been given?
Yes. I am proud of it but I don’t display it a lot or make a pronouncement about it every time I open my mouth. I like to work in creative insecurity and don’t get stuck on one thing I have done. I like the experience of working with my clients and I decorate their dreams.
Images courtesy of Hennessy. Masterpiece by Frank Gehry celebrates 150th anniversary of Hennessy X.O
Now you are financially comfortable and make many acts of philanthropy?
We have 27 schools in California and I do a lot of philanthropy. I was asked by the mayor’s office to look at the LA River because New York had built the High Line and basically put green plants on a rusty old bridge. The LA River is a flood control project.
We took it on, not being paid, and I spent the last seven years studying the LA River. We came up with an index of what the river must do for the city and what we could do with it. You cannot do what the dreamers want with its 51 miles. It floods, and if you take the concrete out the floods will displace a lot of communities, in the thousands. We studied the economics of people living beside the river. In the south of LA a lot of communities have no park space. They get fumes from the 710 Freeway and are getting gassed out. We asked if the concrete can’t come out can we put a park on top and so we are proposing that only for areas of the river that have no park issues. Kids have a ten years shorter life span there, this is a serious issue. The county appointed me as planner for the river. We are creating 40 acres of park where the need is great. The budgets are normal, in the 100s of millions not in billions. Within a reasonable range of cost for projects like this.
How many hours do you work?
All day long and in the evening and Saturday. I like to sail every couple of weeks. I have a nice sailing boat. I designed a boat for a friend and he put it in LA so we have access to it. And then I have a smaller boat I can sail with one other person and I have more fun with that.
Are you still close to the Jewish world? You changed your name from Ephraim Goldberg to Frank Gehry? Have you ever designed a synagogue?
I’ve always wanted to design a synagogue because I went to one until I was 13 and was Bar Mitzvahed. When I was growing up we had the Goldberg variations by Bach and I listened to them a lot. At UC there was a lot of anti-Semitism. I was kept out of an architectural fraternity because my name was Goldberg and I was Jewish. People said I should change my name which I refused to do. My ex-wife was pregnant and worried about a child being born Jewish. Under much pressure I agreed to do it. My wife was happy. My original name was Frank Goldberg and I have always been open about that.
Have you worked in Israel?
We are working on a building – a museum Tel Aviv that celebrates achievements of Jews around the world. I have a design in for that. Every time I was asked to Israel they have always found somebody else. They said they wanted to do a library in Jerusalem but within a month they found someone they thought better than me. The people they picked to do that did a building in China that had problems and my office took care of that.
How do you get new work?
We don’t do agents or marketing. I don’t get work that way. A lot of architects now seem do it as the way to get work and maybe that is the way to get work. God bless them.