He is grouchy, says a man who knows Frank Gehry well, when I ask him what to expect of my meeting with the architect. Grouchy, but sweet. I bear those words in mind as I am introduced to Gehry in the office of his Los Angeles studio, and explain in a super-polite way my role as the FT’s arts writer.
“So you know nothing about architecture?” he responds in a tone that does not, in all honesty, exude sweetness. I’ve picked up a few nuggets along the way, I say. “You are not going to call me a fucking ‘starchitect’? I hate that.” Objection received loud and clear, I reply.
Gehry, 84, is an architect of no little repute, whose achievements can safely be described as stellar. But his feelings over that seemingly harmless little word encapsulate a broader, and pointed, debate over his position in the pantheon of contemporary architects.
Gehry’s spectacular buildings – the most famous being the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles – are said by his critics to overwhelm the environment in which they appear. His signature style – call it “metallic-sensual” for short – is, they say, repetitive and disrespectful of local context. He designs buildings by scrunching up pieces of paper. He enjoys his celebrity, and his patrons enjoy the association with what has become one of the world’s leading cultural brands. Need a new museum? Call Frank Owen Gehry on the Starchitect Hotline. Colour supplement coverage and urban regeneration guaranteed, cultural credibility cemented.
All of those criticisms have always struck me as misguided, or malicious, or just plain daft. (The scrunching of the paper appeared as a joke in Gehry’s cameo on The Simpsons.) But that loaded epithet “starchitect” evidently stings.
“You know, journalists invented it, and now they use it to damn us,” he continues in his defensive overture to our talk. I love his architecture, I say with honesty, and in the hope that the discordant theme will blow over. I have loved it ever since I was assigned to cover the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in the autumn of 1997, and caught a glimpse of its gleaming, swishy elegance from the end of an insalubrious back street. It was the first time I had ever seen culture so clearly signposting the future: new century arriving fast, step right this way.
Mention of the Guggenheim has a mellowing effect. “Somebody told me, a political type, that that building helped to change the political climate in the Basque country,” says Gehry. “They wanted me to do the same for their country!” he says with a little laugh. (He won’t reveal which country.) “Once it was built, this separatist movement that was trying to find its own identity suddenly had its own icon. There was something to be positive about that wasn’t there before. That’s what I was told.” He sounds slightly embarrassed by the magnitude of the claim. “I never thought of it like that.”
He also had no idea that the “Bilbao effect” would become a global template for regeneration-through-culture. “I remember all these meetings, where people would talk about their hopes for a commercial uplift,” he recalls. “But it didn’t register as a possibility with me. I thought that these guys believed in the tooth fairy if they thought a building could do that.”
Gehry reels off the results of the tooth fairy’s intervention: hundreds of millions of euros of economic activity in the city, some 80 per cent of it related to the museum, which attracts about 1m visitors a year. “Then there is the social impact. Before the building, kids graduated from high school and left. Now there is a high enrolment in architecture schools.” A pause for comic effect. “I’m not sure that’s a great thing to have happened!”
Urban pride through architecture: it’s not such a novel idea, he says. “If you live in Greece, you are proud of the Parthenon, if you live in New York you are proud of the Chrysler Building. Here in LA we have the ‘Hollywood’ sign.” This is delivered so drily that I almost think he means it, until he gives himself away with another laugh.
What LA does have is the Disney Concert Hall, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last month. The building, widely praised for its acoustic fidelity, is improbably sparking its own Bilbao effect, helping to revive the city’s infamously nondescript downtown district. The hall is the home of the LA Philharmonic, whose president and chief executive Deborah Borda enthuses over Gehry’s intervention. “You can’t walk into this building without seeing an emblem of all that is right with this city,” she tells me as she shows me around. “When I saw people taking wedding pictures outside the building, I knew it had imprinted itself.”
Together with the orchestra’s musical director Gustavo Dudamel, the Disney Concert Hall is playing a key role in establishing a more serious cultural identity for LA. “People love the building and they love the orchestra,” says Borda. “Los Angeles has always been a place for free spirits. And that’s what Frank is. He is a successful free spirit, and some people don’t like that.”
An avid music lover, Gehry takes a personal interest in the Disney. “I go to it often – it is the one building in my life, other than my house, that I use, and I do a lot of work there, almost as part of the family.”
So taken is Gehry with Dudamel, leading light of Venezuela’s radical music education programme El Sistema, that he is designing a concert hall for the conductor’s home town of Barquisimeto. “It is so democratic, so socialist,” says Gehry of the impact of seeing El Sistema first-hand. “It is a major jolt of inspiration at a time when it is needed. And The Dude, God bless him, has more energy than all of us put together.” The concert hall commission is, he says, “kind of a dream project”.
Does that make it a more difficult project to work on than something to which he would feel less personal attachment?
He savours the question for a few seconds, and replies very slowly. “I am pretty rigorous. I don’t know if that is commonly known. There is this kind of notion around that I just make a form and jam everything into it. That’s far from the truth. For me the pay-off is always working with people, and making them happy. I feel like I’ve accomplished something. Maybe I was born to please!”
Does he see himself as a brand?
“No. People try to say that about me but I don’t think it is true. I don’t think I have repeated myself. I use metals, but in different buildings. You can’t escape your signature. A man who was considered one of the greatest architects of the 20th century, Mies van der Rohe, repeated himself endlessly. But if it’s good, it’s good.”
Gehry was born in Toronto as Frank Goldberg to Polish Jewish parents (he changed his name in the mid-1950s in response to anti-semitism), and he continues to refer to his religious heritage when discussing his work. “I grew up in a Talmudic household, and the Talmud starts with the question ‘Why?’ It is a built-in formula for curiosity, and curiosity is the lifeblood of creativity. If you are not curious, you can’t do anything.
“But another thing I took from the Talmud is Hillel’s golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you … And I apply it when I do a building. You have to have respect for the guy who is next to you. That’s very important to me.”
Nevertheless, his architecture is considered controversial, I say. Is there a part of him that enjoys the friction and the polemicising?
“No! I enjoy the interaction with the client. I am interpreting for them all the criteria that they give me, financial, practical, the deadline, and I try to explain the options they might consider. I am trying to enlighten them, so that they can reach a position where they can be critical and say, ‘No, no, no, I don’t want that!’ ”
But in truth, the world seems to enjoy saying yes, yes, yes to Gehry. Among the projects he has in the pipeline are another Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi; a memorial for the former US president Dwight D Eisenhower in Washington DC; a just-announced series of apartment buildings in London’s Battersea Power Station; and a new campus for Facebook in Silicon Valley.
Gehry takes me for a walk around his studio to discuss the works-in-progress. The atmosphere is studious, with an air of experiment: there are seemingly unrelated pictures and drawings attached to each work station. I can’t help noticing scrunched-up pieces of green paper all over the models. So he does use scrunched-up paper after all? “They are trees,” replies Gehry deadpan. No wonder he nailed The Simpsons.
The Eisenhower project is the one that is currently giving him the most headaches, with the former president’s family lining up against Gehry for emphasising the modesty of Eisenhower’s origins. “It’s complicated,” says Gehry. “It involves government, a historic figure who is no longer here and his family, who may or may not be serving his best interests. I think it is an honest portrayal.
“The people who oppose me want to deify him, but that wasn’t his personality. They say I show him as a hick from Abilene [the Kansas town in which Eisenhower grew up]. But he mentioned Abilene in many of his speeches. I point out to them that Abilene is damn near the geographical centre of America. It is middle America. This man comes from middle America, and to call him a hick is un-American!”
And then the tone of his voice turns suddenly weary: “I don’t know whether it will get built.”
He is sprightlier when discussing the Facebook campus, which is as unlike a trademark Gehry building as you can get: he shows me a long, sloping complex of structures with roof gardens and a library vibe. “It is a research facility, not something that needs to be an iconic building. [Mark] Zuckerberg came here. He is no art or architecture buff. He is a pretty focused kid, and he is doing well.” (I am getting used to Gehry’s laconic understatements by now.)
“We talked a lot about what he loves, and he loves walking.” Hence the gardens. “He’s an outdoor kid. That’s how he gets his exercise, that’s how he thinks.”
This is not a building that is going to get you into trouble, I say as we round off the tour. Gehry is still thinking about the client. “He loves the space. And it’s on budget.” I say that Deborah Borda described him as an incredibly practical man.
“I’m a good listener,” says Gehry almost plaintively. “I pay attention.”