What’s Frank Up To?
Frank Gehry, the father of "architecture as art," is still building his dreams by Annie Gilbar / illustration by Mats Gustafson
He’s been called the prophet of architecture. I know him as Frank. Thirty years ago when I was a cub reporter, I wrote the first story about him that appeared in a “popular” magazine—meaning not an architecture magazine. I was (and am) married to an architect, so I knew something about design and building, but I was not prepared for Frank.
Then 49, he was an architect who had courage and dreams but made no money. Most of his buildings were just designs on his office walls. I remember sitting in his newly converted home—then wrapped in chain-link fencing, with asymmetrical walls and a kitchen floor that had actually been asphalt. His design was totally unfinished but somehow intuitive. I said to him, “Frank, what are you thinking?”
It’s been a long time since anyone has asked Frank what he’s thinking—we have seen him grow to be the champion of unforgettable, groundbreaking, dramatic design that has changed the face of architecture worldwide. The Frank I know has not changed much. He is still open and articulate, unafraid but always worried, unassuming but totally confident and still eager to share new visions. It’s just that the money, finally, comes easier now, and the acclaim and awards are constant.
I used to tell Frank he creates—on some planet I have never visited—buildings that are far and away heart-stopping. Today, many millions have visited Frank on his planet. On these pages, we show an array of Frank’s latest efforts—most of these images have never been seen. We caught up with him as he was returning to his hotel from the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, exhausted. He had arrived from receiving the Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement in Architecture at the 2008 Venice Biennale and had been meeting about plans for yet another huge project.
ANNIE GILBAR: Are people still asking “What are you thinking” when it comes to your new designs?
FRANK GEHRY: Not so much anymore. They do sometimes think I will repeat myself, and they don’t want to be number two. That’s strange, because I never repeat myself. Believe it or not, I haven’t been called to do a concert hall since Disney Hall.
When you started Disney, I came down to your office and saw the models you were building with your hands, with straight pins holding the pieces. You said that without the computer, there was no way you could design them.
The computer allows you to demystify the message—it gives contractors a clear picture of what to build. It makes it precise and allows you to get realistic bids. The steel bids for the Guggenheim Bilbao were $18 million under budget, and that’s because of the computers. You also save in the construction process—the 3-D technology allows you to avoid the conflicts of the different crafts. This way, you prevent a plumber coming along and hitting a steel beam. We have started a separate company, Gehry Technologies, with this imaging, and we are training people to use it in China and throughout the world. It’s attracting big savings.
Years ago, many of your designs were not built.
I didn’t have the credibility. But once I was able to do Bilbao, that problem disappeared. Bilbao was constructed for $300 per square foot in 1997, which was kind of amazing. The Disney Concert Hall was a very reasonable $215 million in total construction cost. That compared very favorably with other halls.
I hear people are dancing on the roofs of your buildings?
That’s something I never imagined. Noémie Lafrance, a choreographer, asked if she could dance on the roof of the building I did at Bard College. She brings her choreography and my architecture together. When you think of the movement in the curves of my buildings—dynamic, soaring, kind of freeing—dancing on them makes sense. We are helping her get permission to dance on Disney Hall and Bilbao. I think it’s beautiful.
Is there anything on your wish list you haven’t done?
I haven’t done an airport. I’ve always wanted to do a hospital, a cathedral or a synagogue. But I don't go after them. I wait until they come to me—I have a superstious thing about that.
You are superstitious?
I don't solicit for a job. It's better if someone decides they need you. The relationship is better, and it leads to a better building.
When I think back to when you and I met, there were certain materials associated with you—the chain-link fence and the titanium skins and stainless steel. Are there any materials that are inspiring you these days?
I am working with Gary Winnick, CEO of iCrete, who has a method of using concrete that can reduce the carbon footprint by 40 percent, depending on the specifics of the building. It’s stronger and cheaper. We are using it on the 76-story Beekman Tower in New York City. It’s an amazing concrete.
I think of your designs as ephemeral, very light and feathery, so associating you with concrete is so different.
I'm using it structurally. There is a lot of potential with concrete mixtures and colors, and you can put fiber optics in it so it can transmit light, making it translucent. A lot of people are doing it. There are many interesting products in concrete that will be pretty incredible in the future. It will be used in things like countertops, baseboards and cladding.
You were the first architect I knew who had a passion for designing products—fog tables, cardboard chairs, fish and snake lamps and now this enormous jewelry project for Tiffany. What else are you thinking of doing?
We work on chairs, tables, furniture and lighting—that's always an interest. Tiffany came to me to design the jewelry—the tableware and dishes spun off from that. They’ve got bowls and candlesticks that look like rocks. Artist Tony Berlant has prehistoric rocks he has collected that inspired this collection of rock faces.
Let’s talk about Meaghan Lloyd, one of your rising stars—I have never seen you rely so heavily on another architect to work with you so closely.
Meaghan was my student at Yale in the masters class, and at the end of the year, I got an honorary doctorate, so I graduated with her. Meaghan has been with our office for eight years. For the last two, she has been my “chief of staff.” It works incredibly well with her. She’s very talented. You will hear about her in the future.
Tell us about Bono and the RED Pop-Up store.
Bono and the Edge came to my office to see what I was up to. We spent some time together. I found the Edge to be very engaging and lovable. We have stayed friends. Bono and Bobby Shriver, partners in the RED campaign, asked me to do a pop-up store, and I couldn’t refuse. It’s got me excited about this kind of stuff I’ve never done before.
Are there architects out there you admire nowadays?
Rem Koolhaas, Paul Lubowicki, and in L.A., there’s Greg Lynn and Koning Eizenberg. Kevin Daly and Michael Maltzan started with me.
How many people do you have in your offices?
Now there are about 165—we were up at 220, but that was huge. Gehry Technologies has 100-plus people, with offices all over the world. And, as you know, I don’t even know how to turn a damn computer on.
What happens when you walk into the offices after all these years? The fact that you are a lion among architects—are you overwhelmed?
I just come in. I’m Jewish. I worry about work, about managing things. Mostly, I just work.