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Frank Gehry 'Always Wanted to Work Big' : After winning the Disney Hall design competition, he feels his long devotion to L.A. has been rewarded

December 18, 1988|LEON WHITESON

A: Brancusi. I have his picture on my desk. Lou Kahn (of Philadelphia). The Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. Artists like Claes Oldenburg, Ed Moses, Billy Al Bengston. One of the deepest influences has been Japan. When I was at USC in the late 1940s many of the professors had just come home from the Pacific war. They'd seen Kyoto and flipped. In the classical Japanese craft and aesthetic there is a willingness to work with the materials at hand, even if they're just bamboo and paper. And the episodic, unrigid way Japanese tradition organizes objects in space was a revelation to my young mind.

Q: How does this Japanese influence relate to your feelings about Los Angeles?

A: The supple and adaptive Oriental way of being fits the character of Southern California, which is chaotic, yet energetic, like a Mack truck rolling full speed down a freeway. You either let it crush you, or you jump aboard and hope to ride to glory.

Q: Are you always so full of bounce?

A: I wish. I tend to look for things to worry about, like my aging mother's health or the well-being of my young sons Alejo and Sammy. My boys are my passion and my recreation, I just delight in them. Every spare moment I get from working or flying to appointments on the East Coast, Japan or Europe I spend at home. Right now the boys are helping me design the interiors of a chain of small L.A. sandwich shops I've been commissioned to do. Alejo's dreamed up this great robot feature, and Sammy did drawings. My (wife) Berta is a rock for me, she jollies me along, endures my shtick, lifts me up when I'm down. She looks after the office finances, which would otherwise be a mess.

Q: Do you make a decent living as an architect?

A: Barely. Good design swallows up the hours, which consume the profits. I'm ecstatic when I end the year breaking even. It's a worry. Fear of financial insecurity is bred into my bones, maybe because I'm a child of the Great 1930s Depression. My dad was poor in Toronto, where I was born, and moved the family to L.A. in search of a better life when I was 17. We lived in a near-slum close to downtown. Such childhood miseries leave a mark.

Q: Who are your friends?

A: It used to be mainly artists, but in recent years I've spent more time with other architects. This never happened before. I felt like an outsider. Maybe I was just too competitive--some stupid reason like that. Now I especially enjoy the younger guys, like Mike Rotondi and Frank Israel.

Q: Why have you been such a major influence on the younger generation of designers in L.A. and elsewhere?

A: I don't see my influence on younger architects--but they do! Maybe it's a blind spot. My own work seems so personal, so intuitive, and so different from theirs. I fear giving birth to a new vocabulary of design cliches. That's the mark of a mediocre talent.

Q: Will you ever stop working, rest on your laurels?

A: Never. I'm hooked on architecture, with all its great disappointments and delights. Especially the delights.

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