Interview with Frank Gehry | The Plan
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Interview with Frank Gehry

Frank Gehry

Nicola Leonardi - You have designed many museums, theatres and public spaces. This has brought you into contact with artists, sculptors, musicians and intellectuals. You yourself are much more than just an architect - I see you as a 21st century “humanist”: artist, sculptor, designer and thinker. In your view, how do “the arts” relate with each other in the widest sense?
Frank Gehry - The arts are inspirational to each other, I find, and in my early years I was very close to the Los Angeles Art Room. They were my kind of early support system when I was doing my initial work. I love art - I have a collection. They are quite truly relationships. I lived with classical music. My mother played the violin; she took me to see her concerts when I was a kid. All my life, I have listened to music though I’m a dilettante, not a musician. I can recognize a lot of pieces and different composers. So I was attracted to those people as well, and got to do work with the LA Philharmonic for many years, meeting many great musicians, and had the opportunity to have dinners, share ideas and develop a relationship and a taste. I grew up in Canadian high schools so Canadian poetry and literature were very much part of my early training, and I continued to be interested in it…not so much now. I read novels. I used to; but I’m surrounded by books. My wife reads two books a week and she remembers everything, so we have the opportunity to talk about it: it’s something more than a common passion. As I get older it’s harder to sit down and read, I don’t know why. I listen to music a lot.

N. L. - How does the whole creative process of a project come about, and how do you work and interact with your team?
F. G. - The process is fifty-fifty with the client. The client needs budgets, programmes… the driving forces. My colleagues work with me, understand my thought and we work intuitively in response to those things. So it’s hard to explain; it’s an intuitive inspiration. I was trying to explain earlier how you go to Abu Dhabi where you’ve virtually got no context, and how you create a context in your mind, without having the ability to get to know these people personally, because they do not invite you to their home. So it’s like feeling your way in the dark, trying to find out who they are, what they stand for, what they like, and intuitively responding to it. It has worked out very well. It’s some kind of interesting miracle, I think, it turned out to be something they liked. How do you get there without any discussion? But there wasn’t. I think my colleagues here know how to work with me and we try things together: They make models of ideas for me. It’s a “little-bit-at-a-time” process; it’s a slow thing, but we work within normal schedules. We are very proud of being able to work on budgets and develop buildings that are economical. I think people don’t understand that about my work. Somebody who is not trained looks at these buildings and thinks they are more expensive, but they are not. And technically, I spend a lot of time on details - people don’t understand that when they look at my work. They don’t understand what I’ve done.

N. L. - You started a unique way of designing architecture. Was this a process developed gradually over the years, or were there any particular moments that marked a turning point in your approach and led to the next step in your development?
F. G. - I think that all processes have been evolutionary, and I do not think mine is unique. I think, I guess because of my experience, I work much faster now than I used to. I’ve trained my team to work faster too, because I’ve got impatient.

N. L. - You and your practice make me think of the architects of the past, when they were, almost philosophers, overseeing their workshop-laboratories. Do you think future architects will retain this broad perspective or will they be forced to specialize as has been the case with so many other professions? And, how do you see yourself?
F. G. - I’ve just given a talk about that. I think architecture is a service business, in service to something. Scientists too are in service to humanity. I think we are all in service to something, and if you focus on that, then it’s not complicated. You don’t get drawn into esoteric discussions about what things are, what they mean - which are interesting as word games and intellectual puzzles and things like that, but in my work I find it difficult for me to go there. I don’t talk about envelopes and skin and philosophy… Philosophy is much simpler for me: it’s just getting it done, making it work. But I’m interested in all the other stuff; I read some of it. It has an interesting, entertaining, provocative side, but on the sidelines of the process of making a building.

N. L. - Those who view your work as perfect examples of “3D virtual architecture” would be very surprise to find out how much manual work goes into your project-development process. What’s your take on the use of modelling and 3D-graphic design, and is this part of your process?
F. G. - I use 3D modelling in graphic design, not for presentation like the next generations do. The fact is I don’t like the images of the computer. I find they lose the entire coordination; they have no feeling either. I use 3D modelling to articulate details, to give precision to the production, so they can build it. This is what I use it for… and to take more responsibility for the process, not to give it to anybody to do for you, but to follow through the details all the way to the building’s finish, so we keep it in-house and work with all the subcontractors. I think we take more responsibility than the normal architectural process now. All good designers do what I’m talking about. They have to take more responsibility. So I feel more like my friend Frank Zappa.

N. L. - How do you see the future? Will it be web, digital and 3D computer graphics or paper and scale modelling - or a new mix of all these?
F. G. - I think, as in all history, somebody will figure out how to use the computer and make relevant the images and things - maybe, without drawing. I believe it will be a paperless design and construction process, like the 777 airplane, which was built paperless. I think from the production standpoint it’s going to be paperless. It’s quicker, much more precise, better for the projects, saves money, saves collision of trades, saves change-orders. It’s crystal clear. The construction industry, when they get the data, they know exactly how to build it. It eliminates misunderstandings. What we are doing with our tech company is pioneering the idea of getting the architect back in control. But to make art out of it, to make it into beautiful spaces and use the 3D as the design tools. I think it’s inevitable: a Michelangelo will come along. So far there are few people, like Greg Lynn, who are starting to. So it hasn’t happened yet. It’s pioneering, but it will be inevitable.

N. L. - What’s your approach to client relations? How do you live the relationship with your clients? How much of the design process do you share with them? Do you let the client get involved in your creative design process? And, how much do you listen to them?
F. G. - We let them into everything. We show them everything, and we listen to everything. And our clients will tell you that.

N. L. - The Guggenheim Bilbao, one of the most avant-garde and provocative architectures ever built, turned a declining port and former industrial city into a world tourist site, and at the same time reinstated architecture as a major cultural driver. Did you expect such a result? Did you foresee that your architecture would trigger urban and economic renaissance?
F. G. - No, I did not. They asked for that though. They did it; the client saw that… they were precisely asking for that. I remember they asked that of the Sydney Opera House too and the Sydney Opera House delivered: so there’s a precedent. We’ve had a lot of good luck because the same thing happened with the Disney Concert Hall, the Millennium Park in Chicago, and I hope with the Beekman tower we are doing now in Downtown Manhattan: the Beekman is a generator of income, of revenues for the community, not just for the developer.

N. L. - Talking about the Millennium Park. It has changed the way Chicago interacts with its lake - and you have been very involved in this urban transformation. The design for a playground in Battery Park, Downtown Manhattan, is another example of architecture and urban design as a form of art to be “used”. How do you look at the relationship between architecture and urbanism?
F. G. - I think that urbanism in the 19th century and before then was easier, because there was a consensus that we don’t have now. As democracy has brought more freedom, there is more freedom of expression; there’s more individual expression, more individual choices. It’s broken down the singularity of the 19th century city into a collage of many pieces and parts, differentiations - and most are not very good. The concepts of city building, the concepts of Le Corbusier, and José Louis Sert haven’t really been usable for our time. They are not useful now, because they are too big. So I think, what I see happening is that we do one building at a time, like Bilbao. When the Guggenheim Bilbao was built there was a nice character to the lot - differences. That’s all changed now; it is not the same as when I built the building. The context has become muddy; it’s almost a little bit of a disillusion. The city has had too much success with one building… I don’t know what they did. The city doesn’t hold together anymore. Before it was a coherent image and then they had my little flower in the middle, but now…it’s more like a typical chaotic city. So it will probably go through a period like that for thirty years or so and then somebody will come in and fix it.

N. L. - Copycats or epigons have always been a problem. In your case, it could be said that Gehry is almost impossible to follow. Many have tried though, and will continue to do so but the results can be awful. Is this because of a lack of humility that makes so many architects try to follow such a difficult path? Is it on account of a lack of sensitivity? How would you suggest young architects find “their own way”?
F. G. - Be yourself, and care about what you do and care deeply, because if you don’t care, nobody else will, and that care will come out in your work. And that’s all you need to do. Los Angeles, Friday August 13th 2010

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