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I'm Frank Gehry, and This Is How I See the World

For the Architect Who Made Bilbao a Household Word, It's All About Freedom and Control

October 25, 1998|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

A short time ago, Frank Gehry boarded the jet of Vegas billionaire Steve Wynn for Bilbao, Spain. Wynn had hired Gehry to design a $1-billion hotel-casino complex in Atlantic City, and the two were on their way to see the architect's most lauded creation, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which had made him an overnight world celebrity. Gehry had brought along a series of sketch models and wanted to articulate his vision for Wynn's project. But the more Gehry pressed, the more Wynn ignored the scheme in front of him, offering alternatives of his own instead. By the time they landed, Gehry was unnerved. * The next day, Gehry recalls, as the two stood in front of the museum's now-famous titanium-clad facade, an ecstatic Wynn turned to Gehry and said, beaming, "Frank, I'm happy. I've found my architect." Gehry, however, was now skeptical. "I said to him, 'Steve, I don't think I've found my client.' " Weeks later, he walked away from the project--all $1 billion of it. * "He kept changing the rules," Gehry recalls. "And it scared me. I can't do it alone. I need to fall in love with the people, the client, the site. And building up that trust gives me a lot of freedom to explore." Then, after a moment, he adds: "I guess I'm more secure now. I'm not willing to put up with as much." * For Gehry, making architecture is often a painful psychological struggle, a balance between the competing impulses of freedom and anger that define his life. It is, ultimately, about control. He remembers designing a house long ago for a wealthy lawyer in Malibu. But the client, distracted by domestic troubles, showed no interest in joining in Gehry's vision. Finally, when the plans were complete, Gehry walked through his office and--his young model-maker trembling in fright nearby--smashed the model to pieces with his fists. He has never gone to see the finished house.

Since such early frustrations, Gehry has achieved what not so long ago seemed impossible for most architects: the invention of radically new architectural forms that nonetheless speak to the man on the street. Bilbao has become a pilgrimage point for those who, until now, had little interest in architecture. Working-class Basque couples arrive toting children on weekends. The cultural elite veer off their regular flight paths to Paris and London so they can tell friends that they, too, have seen the building in the flesh. Gehry has become, in the eyes of a world attuned to celebrity, the great American architect, and, in the process, he has brought hope to an entire profession.

That success has engendered an outpouring of awards and commissions. He is designing a vaporetto terminal for the Venice, Italy, airport; the DG Bank building on Berlin's Pariser Platz and, more recently, a research building at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that will replace the school's famed Building 20, where the Manhattan Project was born. It's a remarkable string of work. As Rem Koolhaas, the avant-garde Dutch architect who is now collaborating on a project with Gehry in Dusseldorf, Germany, remarked with undisguised awe: "It is amazing to watch Frank operate. He is always able to get what he wants."

In Gehry's mind, however, he has not. He has often complained that Los Angeles has never appreciated his talents. He thought his moment had finally come in 1988, when he was commissioned to design the Walt Disney Concert Hall. But the project was halted early in construction, with costs rising out of control, in part because the firm charged with completing the working drawings for the building, Dworsky Associates, could not handle the complexity of the design. Yet publicly, Gehry--then burdened with the label of a troublesome artist--got most of the blame. It was only two years ago, with the intensifying buzz over the success of Bilbao and the intervention of Mayor Richard Riordan and philanthropist Eli Broad, that the project was finally revived. Perhaps, if the building opens as scheduled in 2002, Gehry will get what he wants here, too.

*

Sitting amid the pleasant clutter of his Santa Monica office, Gehry looks out over a cavernous workshop of 120 employees, clustered in groups around study models, some the size of small cars. Nothing about the scene is neat. Gehry wears rumpled clothes; his gray hair is ruffled; his desk, tidied by a secretary, is in disarray soon after he arrives. On this day, Gehry is worrying about the Disney Hall's new exterior cladding. In an effort to streamline costs, he has agreed to change the exterior from limestone to metal, and, with the sun beaming down on him, he walks outside to watch the play of light on sample plates of titanium and stainless steel. He seems, for the moment, blissfully happy.

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