C California Style

The Frederick R. Weisman Art and Teaching Museum, Minnesota. PHOTO: Don F. Wong.
A design sketch of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 1991. PHOTO: Courtesy of Gehry Partners, LLP.
Nationale-Nederlanden building, Prague. PHOTO: Courtesy of Gehry Partners, LLP.

Master Plans

by C California Style

Ahead of his retrospective at LACMA, Frank Gehry sits down with C to discuss all the nuts and bolts.

Frank Gehry doesn’t like picking favorites among his buildings, but fans can choose their own—from Walt Disney Concert Hall to Spain’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao—when a sweeping retrospective of his work opens at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Sept. 13. In addition to spotlighting more than 200 drawings and 66 models, the show (on view through March 20) will examine his innovative use of software to digitally manipulate plans in 3-D. Here, the 86-year-old spatial mastermind—whose recent projects include the ethereal new Fondation Vuitton museum in Paris, a rippled 76-story tower in downtown Manhattan and a wide-ranging new plan to remake the concrete-encased Los Angeles River—opens up on the lay of the land. DEGEN PENER

L.A. is rapidly densifying. How do you think this will change its character?

Frank Gehry: L.A. has always expanded horizontally, practically since it was established. Wilshire Boulevard extends from the Pacific Ocean all the way to Downtown and that corridor is full of the most diverse group of people—economically, socially, racially. That kind of thing doesn’t exist in many cities. Densifying is a great thing and can only bring those groups more closely together.

What has kept you in L.A. since you arrived in the late ’40s?

I fell in with the artists pretty early on and they showed me a side of L.A. that was very liberating. We were all flying below the radar of the New York scene and there was a great freedom in that. We all experimented in our work and supported each other. They taught me how to trust my intuition.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall you designed opened more than 10 years ago. What are one or two of your favorite performances you’ve seen there?

Listening to the very first notes played in the Hall, before it was even finished, was probably the most emotional for me. A few months ago, I was crying after Mahler 6.

When have you been happiest in a work of architecture, whether one of your own buildings or someone else’s?

Ronchamp [Notre Dame du Haut in France] is a beautiful place that always brings tears to my eyes. I think it is a masterpiece.  

You’ve worked so extensively with computers to create your models. What’s been the most important contribution technology has made to your work?

Technology can do two things in the right hands: It can facilitate better buildings to be built and it can assist in the establishment of better communication and processes, which make the buildings cheaper to build. Some people think that my buildings are expensive and that I am not mindful of budgets—quite the opposite. Bilbao was built for $300 a square foot. The primary technology that we have used since Bilbao is CATIA, a 3-D modeling tool used in the aerospace and manufacturing worlds. Our process is therefore set up so that the fabricators and contractors understand every detail of what they need to build before they have to build it. We also use 3-D printing in the office to quickly model certain aspects, though those models, to me, are very sterile. My dream is to be able to do what Boeing did with the 777—build it paperlessly. I am working on that.

What was the biggest, most difficult challenge that you worked through in your practice?

The lack of people in the world who are really interested in architecture and the high volume of people content with mediocrity.

Do you have a project you almost built and still wish you had?

I try not to look back or waste time on regrets. I learn something from every project that I do, whether it’s built or not. However, having said that, the Corcoran Gallery of Art was a heartbreaker.

What is the best feedback that you’ve gotten from people who live in, or work in, or have experienced your work?

Every time I go to Disney Concert Hall, I get tons of people who tell me how great the building is. The orchestra and visiting soloist are always telling me how much they love playing there. On another occasion, I was in Cambridge and I decided to go into the MIT Stata Center that I designed. They have a student street with chalkboards and wipe boards that the kids can graffiti. [I thought] no one knew I was coming, but right in the middle of the chalkboard was a note that said, “FRANK GEHRY, WE LOVE YOU!” That was pretty nice.

You made your name in the late ’70s renovating a house for yourself in Santa Monica with such unconventional materials as chain link and corrugated metal. If you had to build a new home for yourself today, what would it look like?

I am building a house for myself. I worked on it with my son Sam and it’s under construction now. It’s got a lot of wood and is very warm with really nicely scaled rooms.