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Monday, December 14, 2009

"Award-Winning Architect", Frank Gehry interview on his life and work by Academy of Achievement


architect/artist: Frank Gehry
interview title: Award-Winning Architect
interviews compilation no: T-23
interview format: text
date: June 3, 1995 Williamsburg, Virginia
appeared in: Academy of Achievement
photo by:


Interview Details:

Award-Winning Architect

What first made you think of being an architect? What attracted you to this field?

Frank Gehry: My grandmother played with me on the floor with blocks when I was eight years old in Canada, and she got cuttings for her wood stove from the shop. They were like bandsaw and jigsaw cuttings, and they were odd shapes, and we used to play, make fantasy cities. Grandmother! So it was like a license from an adult to play, creative play.

Anyway, I didn't remember that until I was struggling and struggling with what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was a truck driver in L.A., going to City College, and I tried radio announcing, which I wasn't very good at.

I tried chemical engineering, which I wasn't very good at and didn't like, and then I remembered. You know, somehow I just started racking my brain about, "What do I like?" Where was I? What made me excited? And I remembered art, that I loved going to museums and I loved looking at paintings, loved listening to music. Those things came from my mother, who took me to concerts and museums. I remembered Grandma and the blocks, and just on a hunch, I tried some architecture classes.

Once you tried the architecture classes, did you take to it right away?

Frank Gehry: At first I didn't do great. In fact, I flunked the first class in perspective drawing, and it really got me angry. So I went back the next semester and took it and got an A, and then I had an architecture drafting class, which the teacher and I got along real well. He was an architect. At the same time, I was taking classes at USC, summer classes in ceramics and art, drawing, art design, and the ceramics teacher -- Glen Lukens at the time -- was having a house designed by Raphael Soriano, and Glen somehow looked at me and said, "I just have another hunch." He said, "I would like you to meet Soriano," and I did, and I watched how Soriano -- a guy with a black suit and a black tie and a beret, you know -- I mean, he was a really funny guy. But there was something about it that excited me, maybe the drama of it, maybe the theater of it, and he knew what he was doing. He was very Miesian. He did very stark things, and that all excited me. Based on Glen's recommendation, I took a class at night in architectural design, and I did really well. I was skipped into second year.

What school was this?

Frank Gehry: USC. That was the only architecture school at that time.

I couldn't afford it, but I made enough scholarships for architect school. Somehow I worked and got through. Then once I got in it, I was off to the races, except the first half of the second year, my teacher came in and called me in and said, "This isn't for you. You're not going to make it," and somehow I worked through that. And that guy works at the airport. I see him every once in a while, the teacher. I mean, he acknowledges his mistake, of course, but it's -- I mean, I just sort of kept going. It was dogged persistence once I got into it.

What was the turn-on for you? How would you describe it to somebody who doesn't know that much about architecture? What makes it exciting for you?

Frank Gehry: What got me excited in the beginning were the social issues. I come from a very lefty liberal family in Canada, and architecture looked like it was the panacea. You could make housing for the poor and make wonderful cities, city planning in the future and so on. That was the initial turn-on. That lasted me all the way through school, actually.

When I got out of school I hit the brick wall. You can't do any of that. It doesn't exist. You can't do it. There are no clients for social housing in America. There is no program, no nothing. City planning? Forget it. It's a kind of bureaucratic nonsense. It has nothing to do with ideas. It only has to do with real estate and politics.

I used to say, "I don't want to do houses for rich people." I always said that through school. "I'm just not going to do that." But I started to find some excitement in the forms, the spaces, being able to conceive of something and then see it built. The process of building, the working with the craftsmen -- or lack of craftsmen is more likely -- but trying to. It is an energy, and it is a mind game too, trying to get these people motivated. I guess it's like directing a movie. It's similar, except there's legal implications times jillions. But it's really exciting when you get to the level I am at now, where I have a lot of freedom.

I don't get a lot of projects, but I get enough, and when I do get them, usually people want what I am doing and egg me on to explore things, and that's exciting. Then the social thing comes to the back door. At the end, you get some power because of the work to then address the social issues, not in a global sense, but in your own environment, your own immediacy. So that is gratifying. It did come. You do get a little bit of power to say things and do things.

To make a difference in the world?

Frank Gehry: Make a difference in a microcosm, but in the world, we don't know yet.

You say you hit a brick wall when you got out of school. When did that change? What was the turning point?

Frank Gehry: I guess when I did my house.

Up until the point where I did my house, which was in the late '70s, most of the work -- up until that point I think, I thought of myself as an architect, as a service business. I was working on Santa Monica Place. But I hadn't had much freedom to really do things, and for the first time -- even though it wasn't a lot of money, we only had a budget of like forty, fifty thousand dollars -- I was able to do what I wanted, exactly what I wanted, and explore and play and do things, and I realized that I couldn't go back after that.

My office changed at that point. The clients that we were working with all left. The house, I finished it.

One of the major clients said to me -- the first Santa Monica Place -- said, "If you like this..." He was sitting in my living room. He said, "If you like this, then you don't like that." He was pointing to Santa Monica Place, and I said, "Yeah, you're right," and we shook hands and decided not to work together anymore, and we never have. That was the Rouse Company in Maryland. I liked them too, but it wasn't going anywhere.

You have to be a big risk-taker, don't you?

Frank Gehry: Yeah. It's not about making money. I think you stick your neck out a lot, but over time, you feel more confident.

My house was strange. I mean some of the things I did, like the chain-link fence. It wasn't about what people thought it was about. The chain-link fence, so much of that material is made and used and absorbed by the culture, and there is so much denial about it. I was fascinated by the denial, and I was trying to humanize it, so that if you are going to use it, at least use it, find some way to use it right or aesthetically more pleasing. Well, that backfired on me. Everybody thought I was making some kind of great "stick in the ribs" kind of thing about it. Also, the house was me trying to find my middle class self in a middle class neighborhood. How do I relate to this? I guess I am here. I am with them. They have their cars on the front lawn. They have chain link. They have corrugated metal. They have all these things, and how am I going to? So I dealt with it, but when I dealt with it, it was like the neighbors thought I was making fun of them, which I wasn't.

Your house created quite a stir.

Frank Gehry: It did, yeah.

Is it true that there was a gunshot in the picture?

Frank Gehry: Well, the police chief said it was architectural criticism. I heard two gunshots, but later he said it was some neighborhood stuff, and it was happening all over the neighborhood.

What was it that provoked this kind of reaction? Could you tell us a little more about what you did with your house?

Frank Gehry: I bought an old house, and I put a new house around it. I got interested in the dialogue between the old and the new and trying to sculpturally create a new entity, but that retained the qualities of the new as independent of the old. I set myself goals like that when I started. I kind of pulled it off. I also wanted it to be seamless, that you couldn't tell where it began and where it stopped, and that was very successful, and that was the power of it. In fact, critics would come in and would look at a rain spot on the plaster and say, "Is that on purpose or not?" They thought they were maligning me, and I thought that was just wonderful. That was exactly what I wanted them to worry about.

Recently, I had to remodel it again, because my kids are grown up, and we needed to. Now it's ten years later, and I couldn't be me as I was then. I couldn't tear the house down and start over again, which artistically would have been the right thing to do. I couldn't sell it, because it wasn't saleable. So I had to fix it, and once I started, it was like unraveling a sweater. What you see, if you go there now, is not seamless. You can see the old house and you can see the new house. I couldn't hang onto it. I realized I was losing it. In fact, I had a dream. I was hanging onto some parts of what I did in '78 for dear life, and I realized they weren't working with the new stuff. Some of this, because it was my house, I played out as we went. I don't do that often, but in this case, I did some of that.

I had a nightmare that a helicopter crashed into a Zeppelin, and the helicopter had a woman in a pink dress -- and my house is pink, pink outside -- flat against the hull -- and she came crashing down on me in the street, and I pulled my mother to safety. I realized when I woke up, that it was about my house, that I was losing it. It made me resolve that I could go forward somehow. I don't know why, it's kind of mystical. But I did. I cut out all the stuff that I was hanging onto, and after that, I slept. It was wonderful. Something was going on. It was a panic of losing something that I had really worked on, and now it's becoming something else, but it's not as good as it was. It's not. I know it isn't -- yet. It will be, I hope.

Mr. Gehry, that chair that you're sitting in is quite interesting. Is there something that you can tell us about that?

Frank Gehry: The nice thing is you can just pick a piece off and throw it away if you don't like it. I had made some chairs earlier, and they were shown at Bloomingdale's. I made them out of paper. They achieved some kind of commercial success and it scared me, so I stopped them, because I wasn't ready to be a successful furniture designer. I still wanted to be an architect. Somehow I thought that was going to end my life, so I stopped them, and I started making chairs that I thought nobody would like, and that's what these are.

What are those made out of? Is that cardboard?

Frank Gehry: It's paper. It's a honeycomb paper that is made as an in-fill between two pieces of metal or wood, as a structural panel.

How do you get your ideas? Where do you find your inspiration when you're designing a building?

Frank Gehry: For me it's a free association, but it grows out of a sense of responsibility, sense of values, human values. The importance of relating to the community, and all of those things...and the client's budget, their pocketbook, the client's wishes. But even within that there's a...

There is a range of creativity possible, and I think it behooves us to explore that envelope and push at it. It comes out of an intuition, or a learned intuition, I guess. You study a long time 'til you can do it. But it's from looking around you, it's from understanding what's happening in the culture, what's happening in the world. It's a really big picture. Because there are no real rules. If you look at the world around us, and you think of all these adult and intelligent people who have gathered together over the years to create the biggest mess. It always looks like that, whatever period. It looked like that when I was a kid, it looks like that now. And yet, somehow we muddle forward and make things. So out of that comes inspiration, believe it or not, and leads to ideas. For instance, I've been interested in the sense of movement in architecture. Well, who cares whether a building looks like it's moving or not? Maybe they shouldn't, but that's something that interested me. Maybe it comes from the fast society, the fast world around me, that I'm trying to make some kind of connection to. So I think you've just got to keep your eyes open, keep your ears open and understand what's going on. And then play with it, and move with it, and make your expression grow from that.

Your designs are considered unconventional and innovative. How did you find these forms?

Frank Gehry: Slowly, by doing the things I've already said, not the least of which is studying history. You develop a base of information. You look at what's around you, you take things in, you absorb. I think the most important thing is the people, finally, it's a human thing. It's how you interact with people and how you interpret their wishes and yearnings. It's intuitive. It's very difficult to explain why you do things, why you curve something. It becomes an evolution of thought and ideas. I feel like the picture of the cat pushing the ball of string. You just keep pushing it and it moves around. Then it falls off the table and creates this beautiful line in space.

I think creativity... I guess (Henry) James wrote that it was like poking around in a deep well with a big stick, and every once in a while you would pull this stick out and something was there. These ideas are not easy to describe. They're easy to rationalize after the fact, like the sense of movement is easy to rationalize, or certain materials, or certain constructs, and shapes, and forms. But basically, I am trying to make buildings and spaces that will inspire people, that will move people, that will get a reaction. Not just to get a reaction, but to get a positive reaction, hopefully, a place that they like to be in. My greatest thrill is to still be friends with the clients and people that helped me make these buildings.

Do you think that society curtails individual imagination? And if so, why?

Frank Gehry: I don't think it does. I think it's wide open. You curtail your own imagination if you do it. Certainly there are constraints: budgets and politics and sites. Gravity is a constraint, finally. But those are, to any artist, manageable.

Every artist confronts a series of issues that are constraints. Those constraints are then turned by the artist into a positive force, to make something, make their mud pie, whatever it is. I think we learn to do that. I had a house recently with no constraints, and I had a horrible time with it. I had to look in the mirror a lot. Who am I? Why am I doing this? What is this all about? What is the social relevance of this? There was none. Finally, the owner gave me a quote from Oscar Wilde. I can't remember the quote, but it was in essence that everything didn't have to be relevant, that you could make a folly, and that there was some value in that. I lived on that for a while and made the so-called folly, which he's not going to build anyway. I think we turn those constraints into action.

You've spoken about what you hoped to express in a given building, a feeling of movement for instance, but how do you reconcile that with the fact that people also need to use those buildings?

Frank Gehry: They wouldn't get built if they didn't respond to the programs. In one case it's the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Another is in Toledo, Ohio, it's an art school. All of these buildings have very strict functional programs that have to be honored, and met and explored. I look at these programs, and many times question them, and try to present the clients with opportunities they haven't thought of. That involves them in the process. So at the end, a building is a product of working with the client.

One is in Czechoslovakia, Prague, on the beautiful river. It's adjacent to a 19th century building. Even though it has its own body language, it fits very well into the form of the city. I think the function is like the budget, you have to respect it, honor it and deal with it. And if you disagree with it, don't do it.

Has working in other cultures influenced you in your architecture?

Frank Gehry: I'm very concerned with that issue today (1995) in Seoul, Korea. I'm doing a museum on a very tight urban site, surrounded by half a dozen of the worst high-rise towers I've ever seen, the worst copies of American commercial architecture. But on the diagonals, the site looks at the mountains and looks at some shrines and temples. One of the shrines, Jongmyo, which I'd never heard of, has got to be at least in the top ten buildings ever built on this earth, and not many people know about it. It's an extraordinary building, and it's within view of my site, just like these others.

How do you fit in contextually? Even though the bad buildings are there, they're built, they're by human beings, there has to be a certain accommodation to them. You can't ignore them. So this is kind of an American image transplanted, and yet there is this landscape and these beautiful shrines. How to make these connections? And sitting right next to my site is a palace, a one-story Korean palace. And a 19th century two-story building. It's not very good, but it's protected building. All of these elements, I'm trying to gather them into my head and use them in some way. And then this building, as a museum, it has a function, it has galleries, and will show international art, so it has an international requirement. Then you get into all the requirements of showing art in galleries and so on.

In the end, the historic elements of the culture, the strengths of Korea, at this point I think have to do with gardens and landscapes, because most of their buildings were torn down by invaders over the years. How to recapture, how to understand, culturally, the needs of this community that needs to find a pride in art again, because it was destroyed for them. They're trying to search for that. So I'm looking at all of those things for this building. Will I succeed? I don't know, but I have to be interpretive, I have to bring all of those elements in: the history, the current, the present, the chaos.

How soon might we see that building?

Frank Gehry: Well, I'm presenting it in a couple of weeks. If they like it, we might see it. But if they don't, we won't.

Have new technologies and computers affected your work, and how?

Frank Gehry: I try very hard to get the energy of the idea, the first idea, the drawing, and that character to the finished building. And I hate all the computer images that I've been confronted with, from the beginning until today. However, since I've gotten involved with buildings that have shape to them, that are very difficult to describe to a contractor, to a builder, I've made a relationship by some circuitous route, through IBM, to the people in France that make the Mirage airplane, Dassault. And they have a software, or a program, CATIA, for making airplanes, that allowed us to describe steel structures and curved structures in a way that demystified them for the builder, so that they weren't afraid and didn't superimpose fear costs on the project. We've been very successful in that, and I think it's turned the tide. In other words, most architects and contractors are in mortal battle from the day they start. The contractor is scared of the costs and losing money, and the architect is pushing to get his or her dream to fruition, and they're in conflict. And I found, through this funny gadget, that the architect can become the master builder, can become the leader, can direct the project, and the contractor likes it. They would rather be the child in the equation than the parent. They'd rather have the conceiver take a parental role. So it's through this technology that I've found, in the few projects now, that it's been very possible to change that relationship, in a positive way, for everybody.

Does working with computers make a difference in terms of two-dimensional and three-dimensional thinking?

Frank Gehry: I don't like the computer, except as a gadget to explain myself to the contractors. But I did, in the course of working with it, get into trying to design on it, even though I hate the imagery. I likened it to putting my hand in the fire and seeing how long you could keep it in there before I pulled it out. So I would sit at the thing. It took about three minutes to four minutes before the fire got too hot and I'll pull it out.

But in doing that, I did design a form that I never had before. It looked like a prehistoric horse's skull. It was interesting. I think it is possible. I think it's just a training thing, if you're aware that you're putting your hand in the fire for a few minutes...

What can you predict about the future of architecture?

Frank Gehry: I hang on to democracy, sort of, even though it's not perfectly practiced, that this has changed the game a lot. And you see a lot of architects, a lot of ideas being more accepted. There are more all-star architects today than there were when I was a kid. There are many different kinds of work, signatures in work, and we do co-exist. I like Bob Stern's work a lot. So we can be different, we can co-exist. We're going to have to find ways to make cities that express that. They can't be the historical, idyllic 19th century model anymore, because we're not living like that anymore, and our world isn't like that. We're finding ways to move forward, while learning from the past. You don't ignore it, you don't destroy it, but you build from it.

I think pluralism is the most optimistic. There are now many ideas, many possibilities. How do you bring that together into a new city form?

What role do you see yourself playing in that?

Frank Gehry: You just do your work, and if somebody likes it, they like it, and if they don't, you don't try to sell them on it. I think that most of the world wants to live in the past, and I think it is going to catch up with us at some point, and I don't know when that's going to happen. Maybe it's my fantasy. Maybe I want it to happen because I'm tired of it. I think we should start living in the present in trying to deal with it. It seems like it would be much more positive.

I think the blurring of the lines between art and architecture has got to happen. I don't think these categories are working very well. I am finding the crossover much more exhilarating and much more interesting, and the collaboration much more interesting. In architecture, I don't think you can build Rockefeller Center today. It represents a different politic, a different ethic, a different idea.

The grand monument kind of thing?

Frank Gehry: It just represents the power of the Rockefellers, and I see it breaking down and becoming much more pluralistic, which leads me to collaboration. I think that our politics suggest that many ideas could coexist, and the richness of ideas coexisting interests me, and it's led me to collaborating with other architects, with other artists, and I find that exhilarating and very fruitful. Things happen. I just collaborated with Philip Johnson and Claes Oldenburg and his wife and Richard Serra and Larry Bell.

On what project?

Frank Gehry: On a house, which the guy isn't building.

He's not building it after all that?

Frank Gehry: No. No. It's very painful when these things happen, but when you do houses, you are dealing with emotion at some kind of high pitch. So I never expect much, but this one got pretty good. It was like a chess game. I had the biggest piece of it. It was my project. I brought them all in, and Philip had a little guest house, and he made his move on the guest house, and then I would play against him. It was like a chess game, and he is so brilliant, this guy! He could preempt my trajectory. He would get me just before I made the move. And then Claes had done stuff before that had seeped into my head through the binoculars and stuff like that. So some of the shapes, after the fact, I could recognize were coming from way back somewhere. Those shapes turned on Richard Serra to do a new kind of piece, which came out of the house. So there was this play happening. When you see the whole package, you can see the energy. If it was built, it would be really clear. We all can feel it. We can see it, and that's kept us going. That's pretty exciting. That's really taking the best people you can get and upping the ante a lot.

There's a sort of stereotype image of the architect as an autocratic egomaniac that we see in movies and in novels like The Fountainhead. You seem like the antithesis of that.

Frank Gehry: Yeah.

In the real world, what personal characteristics do you think a person needs to be an architect?

Frank Gehry: Well, I think there are all kinds of architects. So one of the problems is the schools supposedly create architects like me. That's the whole thrust, and not many people can do it. I think the educational thing has to change a bit, so that you allow different kinds of architects to evolve, because when you get in practice, you need all these different skills. It's not something you can do yourself. I think that having an open mind about collaboration with people is important. If you are the Lone Ranger, it's a little bit harder, I think. I think that the iconoclast that you suggest, The Fountainhead, is hard to exist in the context of our politics now, in our world. There are a few people that try it and get away with it, but the people that do it, I don't see them producing what the guys who used to do it did. So it's a pose. It's not real.

You have to be a collaborator, don't you?

Frank Gehry: I think you do.

I think you have to be a collaborator on lots of levels. You have to be willing to be a leader in the collaboration. You have to be able to work with the clients and inspire them to more than they -- I mean, usually when they come to me, they are ready. They want to do something special. Even the Disney Hall thing, they carved out a real free path for me. Even today with all the troubles, they're not really hitting at the design as the flaw. I'm 66, so you get to a point where you get some powers and some credibility -- it took a long time -- with certain people. It's not with everybody. The U.S. Government won't hire me. They laugh.

It sounds like patience is important too.

Frank Gehry: Patience, yeah. But hanging on, being relentless, just never giving up, I guess that's patience, and having a vision. You've got to know where you want to go with it, and how to explain it.

I used to think that the explanation robbed the essence out of the thing. It was sort of, "I didn't want to take this." There is a feeling of that in the art world or in architecture, but I discovered that the more I could explain myself, the better it was in terms of the relationship with the other people, and that even when I became very intuitive and I didn't know exactly where I was going, I could analyze it for somebody and tell them what I thought I was doing and where I thought I was doing it and how it fit into the history of my work. So I think in my case, I find the clients very important to the equation.

Can you tell us a little bit about what students should be thinking about, if they're interested in going into architecture. Should they be doing a lot of math courses?

Frank Gehry: I think there are a lot of ways to be an architect, and math is certainly an important part of it. But there are a lot of different areas in architecture, and the schools have a tendency to develop a certain kind architect -- trying to make the stars. But all of us need a lot of help from a lot of different kinds of people. First of all, you have to love architecture. If you love it more than anything and you want to be part of it, then you find your particular niche or your way of dealing with it. It may not be the same way I deal with it, it may be working with research in planning and housing. It may develop into materials research. It may be in graphics as it applies to architecture. It may be in the presentation of architecture. There are so many parts I can enumerate, but I think it's a broader field.

I suppose you can't be thinking about being an artist and also thinking maybe you'd like to be a lawyer, or a doctor, or something as well. You've got to be committed.

Frank Gehry: A nine-year-old kid came to my office the other day. He was doing a paper for his class on architecture. And he said, "How do you know when you want to be something, like an architect? How will I know?" And I said, "What's your favorite thing?" This just popped out of me. "What is your favorite thing that you do?" And he said, "I love the sleepovers at my house when I can stay up late with my friends." And I said, "Okay. When you love architecture more than that, then you'll know it's the right thing."

You make it all sound pretty daunting.

Frank Gehry: It's an awesome thing to come out and look for a way to make a living, and to get into the world. It looks awesome, and it's huge, and some of us do things now that make us look so smart, like we've conquered it. But it just takes baby steps. You start a little bit at a time, and it grows, and you can do it. We're just normal human beings, and we did it, so you can do it.

You came to this country from Canada, and I wondered what kind of image you get when you think of the American Dream.

Frank Gehry: It's the same as the Canadian Dream, I think. The American Dream is about freedom, free expression, melting pot, ideas, exchange of ideas. That's my American Dream. It's very naive, I think, but I hang onto it. I'm scared of the guns and stuff that's going on.

But is there still a possibility of that dream?

Frank Gehry: Well, if you look at my career, I'm realizing an American Dream. I'm having a great time. I'm certainly appreciated by enough people to make it worthwhile. I feel good, and I'm getting to act out a certain game or whatever you want to call it, and I think it is contributing something to the world. How important it is, I don't know. I don't have any illusions or visions of grandeur about it.

And you call yourself an architect!

Frank Gehry: Yeah!


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