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GRAND DESIGNS : Frank Gehry, Prophet of 'Cheapskate' Architecture, Makes a Bid for Permanence

May 03, 1987|ELIZABETH VENANT | Elizabeth Venant is a Times staff writer.

FRANK GEHRY OFTEN draws when he flies, in the time between lectures, meetings, interviews and dinners, in the spaces left in a life that, increasingly, is as crowded as a curio shop with the symbols of accomplishment.

Consider his latest collection of honors: This month, he will be inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, which counts just 12 architects among its members. In June he will receive awards from the American Institute of Architects for his Norton House in Venice and for the Computer Science / Engineering Research Facility at UC Irvine. And a retrospective exhibition of his work, mounted by the Walker Art Center of Minneapolis, has been crisscrossing the country since last autumn and will arrive at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art next February.

So, aboard planes, in the ice-blue calm of high altitudes, Gehry sketches his ideas--making squiggles that become architectural commentaries on the temporary, pop-art nature of American culture and on the rambunctiousness of Los Angeles.

Coming into prominence in 1972 with a line of cardboard furniture, Gehry created a populist building vocabulary of plywood, chain-link and corrugated metal. His imaginative juxtapositions of gritty industrial materials in ordinary residences eventually came to define a sort of Southern California architecture that is marvelously creative, though somewhat lightweight and quirky.

Increasingly, however, Gehry is garnering commissions that are larger, more commercial and removed from Los Angeles. Shifting away from inexpensive materials suited to his staple of low-budget clients and the mild Southern California climate, he has begun experimenting more boldly with shapes and spatial relations, using such sturdy stuff as stone and lead-coated copper.

His newest works don't read as buildings at all, but as abstracted sculptural objects. And, for the first time, he is struggling to translate those abstractions onto a large scale. Frank Gehry is dreaming about making magnificent towers.

Implicit in this new work is the expectation that these buildings will be around for years. Putting his sketches aside on a flight between Los Angeles and Chicago, the architect of the here and now addresses the issue of permanency.

The materials, he makes plain, aren't the point. "You can build a house out of beer cans or marble or chewing gum." Nor does he care if his buildings last. "I don't need that for my ego. If the ideas are worthwhile, they'll be properly represented. They've got books and photographs."

Architects, he says, have a responsibility to the present: Nostalgia is the "garden path to complacency," and there may not be a future to build for. "It may be that in the next 50 years, preserving the planet Earth ain't gonna work and you're gonna get on a spaceship and go someplace where you can't preserve the past. And who will be right then? As they say, one nuclear bomb can ruin your day."

He lets out a short, tragic laugh.

"Sure, it would be better if architecture lasted. But it's not in the cards. Land is going to become more valuable, and it's going to become more expedient to tear buildings down. It's a throwaway culture."

Isn't that capitulating? "What choice do I have?" he asks. "I don't feel omnipotent, so I can't and won't take on the task of solving all the world's problems with one little building."

He pauses, considers, doubles back. "I'm trying to build something that will be beautiful and interesting for a long time. But I don't have clients who have that kind of budget. So I make do."

But if he did have such clients, would Frank Gehry be tempted to build a monument with the permanency, say, of a Notre Dame Cathedral? Gehry pulls at the edges of the airline tablecloth and says with unexpected urgency, "That's what I want to do. I'd love to do a Catholic church."

He stops. Then, flicking a quick, mischievous grin, he adds, "Personally, I prefer Chartres."

FOR THE QUARTER-CENTURY he has been in business for himself, Gehry, 58, has been rattling the tenets of architecture. In a kind of commandment of the profession, 19th-Century critic John Ruskin exhorted: "When we build, let us think that we build for ever." Against this, Gehry has put forth architecture more as a one-night stand.

Nevertheless, he has won plaudits from the architectural Establishment. Cesar Pelli, the respected former dean of the Yale School of Architecture, calls him "one of the few people who are making the most interesting architecture in the country and the world today," and even detractors admit that he is important. "I don't think he is controversial anymore," Pelli says. "Anybody who matters has accepted him."

But Gehry's acceptance has been based principally on the artistic value of his work, and, critics say, his projects are more works of art than functional spaces.

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