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Matters of the art

September 11, 2003|James Verini

On a recent afternoon, The Times sat down with Frank O. Gehry at the offices of Frank O. Gehry Associates, tucked into a quiet industrial neighborhood off Jefferson Boulevard, to discuss the architect's career and the city of Los Angeles. Gehry is known for occasionally being reticent in interviews, and indeed on certain subjects, such as his favorite buildings in L.A., he had little to say. On other matters, such as the progression of his own style, he was more expansive.

Times: Who were your favorite Los Angeles architects?

Gehry: I loved (R.M.) Schindler because there was a directness to his buildings. An honesty, an accessibility that was very exciting for a young architect. I went and saw him. He was very hands-on, always on the site. I never met Richard Neutra. He was aloof. He didn't care what the young people were doing. Frank Lloyd Wright I would never go see, because his politics were -- they put me off.

What L.A. buildings amazed you?

Anything that anybody built at that time was amazing to me. That they could put an idea on paper and get it built -- that was amazing enough.

How is designing for L.A. different from Bilbao or Berlin?

There's a freedom here. People think L.A. is alienating. All that space. But for a creative person it's nice. The New York School, they're always looking at each other. 'What's he doing?' But here you don't have that. It's given me breathing room to become myself. And here you can design with sticks [inexpensively].

When did you realize that "sticks" could be your aesthetic?

It just happened. I was trained by a perfectionist. Every line had to be straight. But the projects I was doing necessitated doing it on the cheap. Then I looked at [Robert] Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. They were taking detritus and spreading it on a canvas and making images that people thought were beautiful. So I thought, 'Well why not go with the flow, take what you can get.' So I got this wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am construction. I turned it around and began to see it as a good thing.

What did people think?

The artists were my support group. They liked it. Not the architects. The other architects thought I was crazy.

Does L.A. act as an inspiration?

I think inevitably that would have to be true. You grow up professionally in a place and develop a relationship to the world through the aspect of that place. It acts as DNA. You can't escape who you are.

Have your ideas become more complex?

When I got into institutional architecture, I couldn't work cheap anymore. I wanted to break down the big scale, but I had to figure out a way to make it more finished. Disney Hall is the most finished building I've done, in terms of conventional details. It had to be for the acoustics ... I make them more complex now to break down the scale -- so it's not so monolithic.

Is there any one driving idea behind the concert hall?

It's built for that moment of truth when the conductor raises his baton and the music begins.

Of your L.A. buildings, what's your favorite?

The Sirmai-Peterson House. I haven't been there. The owner, the woman, won't allow anyone to go there.

Which of your buildings are you not proud of?

Santa Monica Place. It's so different from how I wanted it.

Some say your new work has more to do with you than their context?

People say a lot of things. What do you do -- make a quiet little brick box? I wish they would just say if they liked it or not. In our profession people talk about things like context and responsibility to explain boring work. I take great pains to be contextual. But I also take great pains not to talk down to the people and make a boring, nothing building.

-- James Verini

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