ISSN: 1705-6411
                                   
Volume 7, Number 1 (January, 2010)

A Master Builder in a Virtual Age

A Review of Barbara Isenberg’s Conversations with Frank Gehry. New York: Knopf, 2009.

Dr. Gerry Coulter
(Bishop’s University, Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada)

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1. Frank Gehry & Associates. Interactive Corporation, New York (2007)

I finally realized that the Guggenheim in Bilbao was the type of object made of complex compositions, a building established using elements whose modules are all exposed, all the combinations expressed. …[Frank Gehry] He’s wonderful – it really is marvelous – the Guggenheim …starts with a creative model that is already virtual, we descend from virtuality to reality, in any event, towards real existence – with the difference that, unlike information technology, or mathematical modeling, in architecture, we end up with an object (Baudrillard, 2002:49).

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2. Gehry. Guggenheim Bilbao (1997)

As with Baudrillard or Derrida there is a good deal of misinformation in the popular press concerning Frank Gerhy. In Gehry’s case many media outlets have tended to portray him and his architecture very differently than more careful analysis leads us to view his work. How often have we to read that his titanium clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is a rusting hulk before a writer learns that titanium does not rust? We read dozens of accounts of how he has no concern for context and is obsessed with form over function before we find a story where the writer bothered to study Gehry’s work to find the opposite to be the case. Matthew Teitelbaum, director of the Art Gallery of Ontario (where Gehry has recently completed a major museum overhaul), has recently pointed out, against such myths, that from the earliest stages of the project, Gehry “insistently asked” about the museum’s needs and programming (246).

Gehry is one of a handful of architects (Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Tadeo Ando, Santiago Calatrava, Herzog and de Meuron, and a few others) who can select the projects he prefers from the many opportunities which arrive in his office. More than any of the other leading architects today Gehry understands himself in the tradition of the master builder and one who works best with a thoughtful, patient, and creative client.

If you already know a good deal about Frank Gehry, even if this knowledge comes from reading his many interviews over the past twenty-five years you will discover many interesting incidences in the life of Gehry from Isenberg’s book length collection of sixteen interviews with him. Among the ironies of this book is that Isenberg has worked for many journalistic outlets (including Time, Esquire, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and London’s Sunday Times). Isenberg proves herself to be an intelligent and sensitive interviewer with a deep knowledge of Gehry’s career and work. The interviews take an approach which seeks to probe many less worn paths concerning his work and this series of interviews is an enormous success. Gehry, who can be difficult if he feels the interviewer has not done sufficient homework, is at ease with Isenberg much the same as he was with director Sydney Pollack in his documentary film Sketches of Frank Gehry (2006). Since Isenberg’s interviews were conducted after the making of that film, she presses beyond many of the questions and issues it raises and seeks to clarify others which emerged partially in the film.

Isenberg shows herself to be a thoughtful and resolute interviewer who succeeds in pressing Gehry to discuss issues and experiences he is reluctant to address or has spoken little of before. The only place where she fails to probe him at a deeper level involves the Strata Centre at MIT because Gehry cannot say much about the project which remains entangled in litigation. We do learn that he enjoyed the many hours of discussion with the buildings academic occupants (he calls them “geniuses”) and that Noam Chomsky does not like Strata. In the two dozen or more interviews of Gehry which I had read prior to Isenberg’s, the interviewers tended to not press Gehry into uncomfortable terrain and to move away too easily from potentially interesting discussions where he was reluctant. Rather than move to the next question Isenberg probes Gehry’s memory and asks him to describe his memory of various projects and events surrounding them. Some of the memories are painful ones such as experiences of anti-Semitism which played a role in the name change from his birth-name Frank Goldberg (the name change is something he shares in common with two architects he deeply admires – Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn).

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3. Gehry. Strata Centre, MIT (2003)

The most important thing to emerge from these discussions in my view is a deeper exploration of Gehry’s philosophy. Gehry, who conceives of himself and operates in the tradition of the Master Builder, carefully explains how good architecture is the product of a lot of frustrating and difficult hard work and thought. He is concerned to make a unique contribution to architecture and to keep abreast of changes in the field. Gehry has continued to grow and his work continues to evolve in his 80s. “We’re living in a world that just keeps constantly changing and evolving, and my sense is that it’s important to responds to that change. Otherwise you lose your relationship to the dynamic of it” (257). As for other innovative architects he is fond of Zaha Hadid because of her “presence, with a very personal point of view, and the guts to go and duke it out in a so-called man’s world… I trust her. I believe in her” (268). Here, in his assessment of another major architect, Gehry highlights precisely the things he most values in his own approach.

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4. Jan Vermeer. Young Women With a Water Pitcher (c1662)

Isenberg’s interviews draw out many specific examples which better illustrate important aspects of Gehry’s art-sensitive approach. For example, it has been well documented that Gehry has been closer to artists than architects and fancies himself to be something of a sculptor in his approach to architecture. Isenberg probes with Gehry some specific examples of artistic influence appearing in his work. In response he often describes how one aspect of a particular painting will come to mind as he is struggling to find a solution. By way of an example he explains his solution to the problem of the roof for Maggie’s Centre, a cancer treatment centre in Scotland. Here Gehry achieved his solution from the woman’s long pleated collar in a Vermeer. This sort of insight into his process marks one of the many interesting passages in the book where he describes how art often works as “a trigger” for him (160; see also Coulter, 2010).

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5. Gehry. Maggie’s Centre, Nine Wells Hospital, Dundee, Scotland (2003)

Another very interesting aspect of Isenberg’s interviews is the way in which she constantly presses Gehry to discuss his process (which is closely linked to his Master Builder philosophy). Repeatedly, Gehry takes us inside his process which conceives of a building from the inside (its function) progressing outwards to its exterior form (169). I think this is one of the two most misunderstood aspects of Gehry’s work and Isenberg did well to make it one of the major themes in the interviews. She also allows Gehry many opportunities to discuss the protracted process he undergoes (often six months on one project which he may lose in the end to another architect) to contextualize a building. When he gets the context right for a project he says he feels like a child in a candy store. Context can be  an especially daunting challenge for Gehry given the novelty he has sought for his buildings exteriors since the Guggenheim Bilbao. In many cases Gehry’s contribution to the context is a challenge to previous models of architecture already present nearby. This is where many of his critics go astray with the expectation that sensitivity to context means making a building which looks and feels like those already present. If Western architecture had taken this path we would all live in places which look like ancient Athens. As in his Disney Hall which sits next to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, there is often one specific element, a turn in the roof in this case, which embraces its neighbor despite the fact that Gehry may not like the neighboring building very much (Gehry also points to this feature in his film with Pollack, 2006).

The picture of Gehry which emerges is one in which we find him to be a very different architect than the one we often meet in popular press accounts of him. This should not, I hasten to add, be taken a Gehry’s own propaganda, but rather, a sincere effort to discuss his philosophy and process. The Chandler-Disney interplay is an example of how, in his architecture, Gehry, like most top architects, is highly sensitive to the “play between spaces” (6). Indeed, if architecture is to be understood as “frozen music” then it is the play between spaces that are its most important aspect just as the silences between notes prevent music from being merely noise.

Among the many interesting aspects of Gehry’s life we discover in these interviews is that he needs a certain amount of clutter in his workspace and some theoretical unknowns to be at his most creative. This is an aspect of his life which we also see in Pollack’s film but is not discussed there. In Pollack’s filming of Gehry’s office we see that Gehry often hangs pictures on the wall with the frames overlapping one another. Isenberg’s discussion also takes us into spontaneity which Gehry says is very important aspect of his process (61). We also learn that he likes to work on multiple projects simultaneously because often the search for solutions in one may lead to innovations in another (164). 

The interviews take us through Gehry’s life from his youth in Ontario, Canada to his rise to success in Los Angles. Gehry likes Los Angeles “because it does not labour under the burden of history” as do so many places (28). People from one of his stops along the way, Timmins Ontario, probably won’t find many passages to warm their hearts. We also learn something of the architectural business climate in which he was socialized. He could have worked in the office of Richard Neutra as a young graduate if he had been willing to work there without pay as was the practice in his day. Especially interesting exchanges with Isenberg involve Gehry’s time in the U.S. Army and his student days at Harvard.

The Gehry which emerges from these interviews has traveled a very difficult road in his life. In terms of influences we learn (26 ff.) that Frank Lloyd Wright played a significant role, as did Le Corbusier (43), and Philip Johnson’s thought on the single room (155). One need only look at the use of natural lighting in the interior of his Disney Concert Hall to understand the influence of Louis Kahn which he also mentions (50).

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6. Gehry. Disney Concert Hall (challenging its modernist context) (2003)

We also learn interesting background stories to his many projects such as his important early Danzinger Building (50), his own house in Malibu (65, 85) and his interactions with very well established artists long before they were famous, including Robert Rauschenberg (50). We gain further glimpses in the interviews into his feelings about architecture in the US vs. Europe (80), especially his work on museums in Europe (102-104, especially Bilbao 132, 137, 149, 153), the importance of the fish shape to his designs (127-130), and his thoughts about missing and remaining outside of postmodernism (130), and public housing (203), although a good deal of this ground has been covered elsewhere by other interviewers previously. A story concerning Jeremy Irons and a motor bike ride I will leave to readers to enjoy (218). We are also taken inside of many of Gehry’s ideas concerning design including the work he has done in recent years for Tiffany (193).

Baudrillard’s sympathetic reading of Gehry’s use of technology are confirmed by the discussion concerning the use of aerospace design technology – the CATIA System – which his office has pioneered in computer assisted design. Importantly, and as Baudrillard recognized in his assessment of Bilbao – Gehry does not work with the computer to make the building – that comes out of a process of perhaps fifty or more hands on models and hundreds of sketches. Gehry uses the computer to take his virtual model into a real building in a way which translates his innovative design down to seven decimal places so that he can demonstrate cost certainty for the client and for contractors. Against the grain of our current tumble into the virtual, Gehry is leading architecture from the virtual to the actual (singular) object.

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7. Gehry. Interior, Disney Concert Hall (2003)

I think Gehry put so much time into these interviews with Isenberg because he trusted her intellect and because, at eighty and feeling he is nearing the end, he wanted to set the record right from his point of view. Often in the interview’s we learn that his public image, although much battered, remains important to Gehry (200). He describes the fiasco concerning the Disney Hall’s metal clad exterior, which heated up its surrounding environment by ten to fifteen degrees (it made many top ten lists of architectural disasters of the decade), as being the result of a client winning out over the architect. Gehry wanted to Disney Hall exterior to be made of stone but having seen his museum in Bilbao he says, the clients had to have metal (232). Gehry saved the hall and its neighbors by having its surface sanded.

In these interviews Frank Gehry emerges as a man with a very big ego and the wisdom to learn from his mistakes. Like most highly successful people he not only possess the ego but the ability to temper it to the occasion without compromising in his work. “I’m ready to walk away at any point that they’re not going to have respect for the way I do things” (215). He takes his Sunday’s off, finds TV basically junk, and deeply appreciates silence and how difficult it is to find anymore. He never expected to become the most famous architect in the world – he never presumed anything he says (v).

On just about everyone’s list of the most important contemporary architects we find Frank Gehry. Isenberg’s interviews are a very worthwhile read for anyone who does not know his work and still an interesting one for those who think they know it well. “Wing on wing” is a term yachters use to describe two full sails complimenting each other. Gehry says he only saw this shape in the front of his Disney Hall after it was completed. Given how well he and Isenberg interact I think it is a fitting term to sum up these valuable interviews as well. She allows him to talk at length and from these discussions we gain genuine insight into how this “master builder” works and how he has not surrendered his principles to make solid objects for a virtual age.

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8. Frank Gehry in his offices

Gerry Coulter is the founding editor of IJBS.

References

Jean Baudrillard and Jean Nouvel ([2000] 2002). The Singular Objects of ArchitectureUniversity of Minnesota Press.

Gerry Coulter (2010). "Form, Function, and Context: Frank Gehry". Forthcoming in Euro Art Online Magazine Number 11, (January 2010): http://www.euroartmagazine.com

Sydney Pollack (2005). Sketches of Frank Gehry. American Masters (USA).


© International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2010)

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