Frank Gehry’s brilliance

Image of Edwin Heathcote

“It’s all because of The Simpsons.” I’ve just asked Frank Gehry whether he’s still crumpling paper to design his buildings. “It was never about crumpling paper. That was just on The Simpsons. It was a joke.”

Gehry’s already grumpy. He’s not feeling well. He’s determinedly, prolongedly stirring a glass of what looks like green tea. He’s avoiding looking at me. In a black T-shirt and jeans he looks, not surprisingly, tired, a little hunched. We’re sitting in the newly restored, candy-iced rococo ballroom of Venice’s Ca’Giustinian, where he’ll be launching his designs for a new arts centre. I’m trying to get him to talk. His PA looks on sympathetically. I’m not sure whether the expression is sympathy for me or for him. Perhaps both.

The crumpled paper has got him going, though. So – where do those extraordinary, seemingly wilful shapes come from? “This is going to sound presumptuous,” he says, wearily, but now at least looking me in the eye, “but you wouldn’t ask Picasso about his line. It’s an informed line. I’ve been doing this shit for years – I understand budgets and floor areas, I understand engineering and what can be done. It’s intuitive but informed, it’s not crumpling paper like on The Simpsons.”

Just appearing on that famous comedy show, of course, is a sign of how famous Frank O Gehry is. He has been credited, or perhaps burdened, with the hefty expectation of being able to turn a city around. His Bilbao Guggenheim, that swirling, sculptural mass of titanium, is venerated as an almost mythical act of regeneration, a landmark building that transformed a city from grey post-industrialism to a cultural tourism destination. It is, through no fault of Gehry’s, the model aspired to by every stupid icon ever since: in a recent Vanity Fair poll, it was voted the building most admired by other architects. But he’s never quite repeated the feat. The Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which was designed before the Guggenheim but completed later, has not transformed downtown Los Angeles. Neither, thank goodness, did his “Fred & Ginger” building in Prague transform that city, although it was the first star building of the post-communist era. And his Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum in Seattle went nearly as far as The Simpsons, presenting a kind of theme park parody of his own style.

But, as the ice begins to melt, or at least the tea begins to cool, Gehry starts to scroll through images of buildings on his BlackBberry, and his mood seems to pick up, almost indignant, as if the implication is that his best work is behind him.

There is a strikingly slender 70-plus storey skyscraper in New York, an auditorium for the Basel headquarters of Novartis, the Lou Ruvo Centre for Alzheimer’s sufferers in Las Vegas and the building that is being billed as the sequel to Bilbao, the new Guggenheim on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island. He flits from the Guggenheim to pictures of the Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul. “You see,” he says. I don’t, yet.

“This is why they liked the design in Abu Dhabi, because it smells like this [he points to the mosque], it’s not symmetrical but messy.” He stops – “no, don’t use the word ‘messy’.” But I do, deliberately, because Gehry’s career kicked off with some wonderfully anarchic structures of corrugated metal, plywood and chicken wire, ad hoc materials that seemed to kick the purity of California modernism in its regular, gleaming white teeth and that are still among the most inspirational buildings of the modern age.

“When I was young,” he says, “I was hanging out with the pop artists, [Jasper] Johns, [Robert] Rauschenberg and the others and they were making art out of trash and people were responding to it. When it came to building my own house in Santa Monica, though, the builders were used to doing tract houses – standardised, low-budget projects – and we just couldn’t get the craftsmanship. So instead of reacting against the lack of skill, we worked with it and that’s how I built my house, in 1978.”

He talks fondly of his youth in a working-class district in Toronto. “I come from a leftish background, what I supposed you’d call socialist. My mother’s family was in the garment industry which was heavily unionised and that’s still in my DNA, the idea of modesty in materials and expression. I still believe that the most expressive buildings are the least expensive. As a practice we don’t self-promote, we don’t have pictures taken of our buildings, I don’t want to get holier-than-thou but I still want to do good things.”

But from his ad hoc house to Bilbao was a big step. What happened? “These artists were asking me how I’d design an art gallery and I said, of course, whatever we did shouldn’t interfere with the art. They said, ‘You asshole, you’re talking down to us, we want something to work with, to kick against.’ That’s how we came to Bilbao – the artists like it; the public likes it; the only people who don’t like it are museum directors and curators.”

Gehry is about to bring that industrial approach to an unlikely place, the heartland of the Provence beloved of the Impressionists, Arles. Since 1970 the city has been as well known for photography as for Van Gogh and the annual festival has outgrown the city’s scattered venues. Gehry’s Parc des Ateliers is sited in a complex of derelict works structures. “It’s a surprise but there is this industrial region in Arles, raw and tough. So we’ve developed these aluminium blocks.” He points to some fiercely coarse towers that look like some mongrel blend of giant scouring pads and crushed cars; cubes which will clad the towers. “It’s a military material, used to disperse blasts in vehicles.” The working models of the design are stuffed with crumpled cardboard. It is described in the literature as “a multi-purpose cultural park”, which sounds delightfully non-specific and contemporary. But it also looks like an interesting project, providing Gehry with the solid industrial background to work with and against. The most striking element of the scheme is a pair of mini-Provençale skyscrapers, expressively scribbled in Gehry’s characteristic sketches and modelled in crumpled cardboard.

Gehry has a “regular guy” persona, which is unusual for an architect in his position. He entirely fails to justify or intellectualise his architecture, which can be endearing (amid a worsening international torrent of the spurious post-rationalisation of wilful forms) and frustrating (he remains, in fact, one of the sharpest and most critical minds in architecture).

“Can you imagine,” he asks, “that Marge [Simpson] had to teach me to say: ‘Frank Gehry, you are a genius’? Do you know how difficult that was for a reformed, psychologically restrained Jew to say?”

He managed it in the end.

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