words Justin McGuirk
“Hey, that’s Frank Gehry.” Whispers and excitement spread through the crowd as a short, white-haired man in a black suit takes a stroll in downtown Chicago.
Gehry is trying out one of his latest creations, a pedestrian bridge that snakes across a highway towards the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, an open-air auditorium that he also designed for the city’s newly opened Millennium Park. With the stainless steel pavilion swirling up behind him, members of the public feel moved to step forward and shake his hand. What a wonderful building he’s given them and don’t they just adore his museum in Bilbao. Gehry is the picture of affability, even warmly thanking the person who thinks Bilbao is in Portugal.
America loves Frank, but Frank has his worries about America. “I’ve never been this scared in all my life about an election,” he says. “I’m coveting my Canadian citizenship.” But Gehry, who mentions that he served in the American army, appreciates that it is a day for national pride. With the Pritzker Pavilion, the world’s most famous architect has completed his first piece of publicly commissioned architecture in the US, and during the inaugural proceedings Gehry was as fulsome about that achievement as Chicago’s mayor was toothsome back. However, there’s still room for another rant – Gehry has just had the chance to air his views on Fox News and he’s on a roll: “Look at the front page of the New York Times today and this administration is clean on 9/11, clean on torture in that prison, clean on Halliburton – how do they get away with it?”
The day before his walkabout with the public Gehry is sheltering under his pavilion, with a heavy rain sluicing off the furls of its canopy. “Like my watch?” he asks. The digital display reads “4 past 4” in his own handwriting. At half past it reads “half past”. “The whole thing was my idea,” he says. The watch, which is also new and has just been released onto the market, is a perfect analogy of Gehry’s architecture. Time, like one of his buildings, is scribbled down instinctively and then digitised into a finished product.
Naturally, Gehry rejects such simplistic notions of his working practice. His sketches are infamous for their wild scrawl and he has come to personify the idea of the architect as artist – in his retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2001 there was even a framed sketch on a restaurant napkin. “I do think through my buildings in sketch form. I fantasise in sketch – it’s kind of a free association.” But, he explains, it is not a case of him handing over the drawings to his computer people to turn into buildings. There is a continual process of drawing and modelling, redrawing and remodelling, even beyond the stage when the detailed design is being worked out on screen. “I draw all the way to the end,” says Gehry. “And then even after the building’s done I draw. It’s just the way I think. New ideas come up, new ways of looking at it. You never turn it off, you know?”
Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t relax, but when he does he continues to sketch, only not buildings. “When I’m not thinking of anything I sketch chairs – I don’t know why. It’s like a cathartic thing I do.” Gehry has designed three series of furniture, first out of cardboard, then bent wood and most recently aluminium. “I’ve designed a few that people think are okay but they’re hard,” he says. The appeal, perhaps, lies in the fact that, functionally, the chair is so elemental and instinctive that he feels free
enough just to play with form.
As Gehry surveys the swooping folds of the pavilion, he seems slightly depressed. This is the first time he has seen the building completed. As a man who keeps tweaking a building’s design after it is built, he must be fairly critical of it when he visits it in the flesh. “Oh boy, yeah,” he says, gazing distractedly into the middle distance. But it is not the building he is unhappy about; he explains that he has just heard that a family friend has died, and it is weighing heavily on him.
He keeps looking around but he hasn’t yet formed his critique of the pavilion; he is still taking in the “miracle” of seeing something he sketched transmuted into steel. The only thing is, Gehry never sketched the pavilion, at least according to his office, which was unable to provide any drawings of it. It is certainly true that in the last few years Gehry has had to relinquish most of the hands-on project management. Too many jobs, too much travel, too much anxiety. But in this case the actual designing seems to have been done by his associate Craig Webb. It’s not clear to what extent Gehry’s designers are working from a tacit pattern book, but they are now responsible for architecture’s most distinctive brand.
Set against some of Chicago’s most distinctive skyscrapers, the pavilion is clearly something different, and it is clearly by Gehry Partners. That, surely, is what the city fathers of Chicago wanted, and to some degree what any of his clients must want: a Gehry. But there is no sense, Gehry insists, in which he is just giving people what they want. “I know there’s probably an expectation,” he says. “But I’m 75 years old, so my ways are fixed and my attitudes are fixed and I’m jaded. Sure, there’s been a slight revving up of the stuff but I don’t do it for that. My way of working is the same as it’s been for years.”
The Pritzker Pavilion was commissioned in 1999, two years after the Guggenheim in Bilbao made him the world’s most famous architect (although ten years after he had won the Pritzker Prize). By then, the words “Bilbao effect” had already entered the urban regeneration lexicon. Not that Chicago needed that kind of boost, but having Gehry’s name attached to the ambitious Millennium Park project was a significant stimulus in raising the $475million to pay for it. Gehry himself plays down the Bilbao effect and feels that it is a misrepresentation to refer to it in relation to his building. “The real Bilbao effect is not just one building, it’s a political and economic commitment to changing the feeling of a city,” he says. He cites the city’s new infrastructure: Calatrava’s bridge and Foster’s metro. It was the Guggenheim that drew the tourists – rather than a metro system – but Gehry understands the Bilbao effect differently from most municipal authorities hungering after an international identity. He sees it more in terms of local pride. “Now the kids don’t leave and go to Madrid,” he says.
Since Bilbao, Gehry has generated an enormous amount of press, much of it of a distinctly purple variety (a New York Times journalist wrote about the pavilion: “Its maw of curling steel looks like a celestial gateway to another universe”). He ignores most of it, particularly anything gushy, directing his attention mainly to the criticisms. These tend, rather predictably now, to paint him as an overblown form maker who rubber-stamps his trademark metallic sails regardless of context. But he is completely unfazed by that description. “My favourite one is the guy who thinks it’s not pure enough,” he replies, referring to the Princeton professor Hal Foster. “That the outside forms don’t relate to the inside. What do I think about it? I think that his arguments are intellectually flawed and baseless. You can’t cut those pure lines. They may be a word game but they’re not a reality.”
Such modernist tenets – that the outside reflect the inside and that structure be undisguised – have always been absent from the best architecture, Gehry argues. He takes as an example that paradigm of architectural purity, Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion. “The horizontal planes floating over the vertical planes cover up a contrived structure to make that effect. It’s not what it looks like. And if you start there then everything else … I don’t think it exists.” But how does he counter the argument that he is repetitive? There’s a quote he keeps up his sleeve for that, and he whips it out. “Was it Arlene Croce who said about Balanchine: ‘Yes, his ballets resemble each other but they don’t look like anyone else’s.’ You can’t escape your own language, right?” (This is the difficulty with 75-year-old figureheads: they’ve said everything before, and Gehry, albeit with an avuncular charm, slips easily into auto-pilot.) That evening, in a public seminar, Gehry raises the issue himself, pre-emptively perhaps, and again, in the city of Mies, the German comes to his rescue: “People think everything looks the same. Well, Mies van der Rohe all looks the same too.”
These days, Gehry Partners, which is based in Santa Monica, California, has more work on than ever. One of the partners, Jim Glymph, has been developing CATIA – the software the office uses and which is more specifically geared to designing, among other things, Mirage fighter jets – into a bespoke architecture drawing program. The program is the sole reason the practice has been able to get contractors to understand how to build its unconventional buildings. If, as Gehry hopes, it becomes required software in every practice, then he could become the Bill Gates of the architecture world. However, Gehry himself has no hand in Gehry Technologies. “I don’t use the computer,” he says. “I don’t even know how to turn it on.”
What Gehry concerns himself with, apart from design concepts, is people. He has a host of rich and powerful friends and admirers, many of whom approach him with projects that he has neither the time nor the inclination to take on. “I usually tell them the truth, you know, if I feel like I won’t be able to relate to what they want. And I do a lot of soul searching.” He is designing a museum of biodiversity in Panama against his will and chiefly because his Panamanian wife’s family forced him into it. “They want the Bilbao effect with one little building and I told them they couldn’t do it,” he says. But most of the soul searching, it seems, has been reserved for another project: his extension to the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem. “I know that it’s an impossible goal they’re trying to achieve,” he confesses. “They’re trying to make a building where people who disagree with each other and even hate each other will find a common ground.” While Gehry reveres some of those involved, like Shimon Peres, he cannot reconcile himself to the more hardline elements in the Israeli government, particularly as he empathises with the Palestinians. He met Arafat once, he reveals, and found him “impressive”.
Gehry grew up in a Jewish family – his father, a pinball machine and jukebox supplier, changed the family name from Goldberg – but he lists his religious beliefs as “None. Atheist. Zero.” He adds, in a reference to his Canadian childhood, “I know what it’s like to be beat up for killing Christ.” Something else that endures from his Canadian upbringing is his love of hockey. Gehry set up an office team to play in an over-30s league, but a back operation three years ago ended his amateur playing career. He did, however, just design the Hockey World Cup trophy, which will be presented to the tournament winner in Toronto this month.
Gehry, who counts National Hockey League players as well as artists, fashion designers and politicians among his friends, is no stranger to the society pages. It was even alleged recently that he had hired Brad Pitt as his apprentice. Gehry remains bemused by this. “Brad Pitt called me and asked if he could come visit me in the office. And he said, ‘I’d love to come work in a place like this,’ and I said, ‘You’re hired’. It was a joke.” Gehry did, however, show up to a meeting for the Grand Avenue urban renewal project in LA with a design team that included Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel and Pitt. But that was just “play”.
Gehry is designing a new house for himself, about which he says simply, “It’s torture.” But apart from that personal project and an apartment scheme in Brooklyn, which includes a quota of social housing, his projects are largely grand cultural affairs and commissions from private universities. In his early career, Gehry worked on designs for social housing. Does the former socialist never feel the need to do something more socially responsible? “I think this is socially responsible,” he says, gesturing at the pavilion. “I’d love to do social housing but the system doesn’t exist here in America. I can’t get rid of Bush – that would be the most socially responsible thing I could do.”