in a conversation with Vladimir Paperny
Reprinted from "DA" Magazine, No. 5, Moscow, 1996
Vladimir Paperny: You don't seem to stay within one discipline, you switch from architecture to furniture, then to lighting fixtures, then to drawings. Are these different activities or one?
Frank Gehry: One. It's all one. I like furniture because it happens faster, so the turnover, the gratification is quicker. Buildings take a long time. But furniture is pretty difficult too. I want it to be one thing–the structure and the decoration to be one idea.
VP: Can you put yourself into one of the categories that are in use today such as Modernism, Postmodernism, etc.?
FG: I don't know. I don't relate to it. I feel very strongly that you should live in the present and try to make some contribution for the future. I don't like the idea of living in the past. I am pretty conventional; I think that you should learn from the past, make your work in the present and hope it lasts into the future.
VP: So you don't have any problem with the International Style, you don't fight with Modernism?
VP: Do you think you are doing the same thing that, let's say, Le Corbusier was doing?
FG: Yes, I do. In fact, him more than anybody else. The only difference is that he was a painter, and I am not. He painted his ideas and I work in models. I am more of a sculptor type. Although, I love painting. As a matter of fact, most of my ideas come from painting. I hang stuff all over the walls–you can see it. I can't buy the originals, so I go to museums. I would fall in love in a painting and I spend months understanding it.
VP: What's the transition from painting to architecture? In painting you deal with a piece of canvas, and architectural ideas are three-dimensional, they take place in space.
FG: Ideas I get from painting are three-dimensional. The Renaissance painting of Madonna with a Child is architectural. It's similar to having a smaller element, such as a pavilion, in front of a larger building. To me, all these ideas are interconnected.
VP: There are elements in your work that apparently do not come from traditional architecture or painting. You use materials that people normally associate with industrial construction. This must come from something else.
FG: It comes from living in the present. It comes from what's available in the present. If you have no money to build expensive stuff, what do you do?
VP: But there are people who build expensive stuff.
FG: Yes, but when I did all that, I did not have clients who could afford expensive material. Now I do.
VP: So it was just a necessity, it was not an artistic statement?
FG: It was. But it was consistent with what I was experiencing at that time. Now it changed.
VP: So, you are not using cheap materials anymore?
FG: I am but not the same way. I can't stand still.
VP: I understand that you don't like labels, such as Modernist, Post-Modernist, etc. But still, how do you define yourself? How do you think you are different from other contemporary architects? Let's take Peter Eisenman, for example. Are you and him doing the same thing?
FG: His work is generated from a different place. From verbal constructs, structuralism, post-structuralism, Derrida, philosophy. He loves to talk about those things.
VP: You mean he is more cerebral?
FG: Yes. But it leads him in the end to the same thing. When he does the work he does it like I do. He is just playing to a different drummer. That's what good about this period. After the Modernism, after all the "isms," we now have pluralism. We have a lot of good architects today, compared to the time when I came out of school. Then we had only four: Le Corbusier, Mies, Alto, Kahn. And Frank Lloyd Wright, so it makes it five. There is more freedom to do things. Because there was no money after the war. Also, there was a movement, like in Russia. They were all together. We don't have it here. We never had that spirit.
VP: You mean that even in the 1920s there was no avant-garde movement in America?
FG: I don't know. I wasn't around. I would say that in my lifetime I haven't felt this spirit of belonging to a movement. I have camaraderie with, for example, Claus Oldenburg. We worked together on several projects.
VP: Do you have any personal feelings about the Russian avant-garde?
FG: Very much so.
VP: Any particular name that comes to your mind?
FG: Malevich, Tatlin.
VP: What's your relation to them, is it influence, continuation of a tradition, a point of departure, rejection?
FG: I am sure it's influence. It went into my head somehow. Because I looked at them. Years ago I designed the Constructivist show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I got to spend a lot of time with the materials. One of the reasons I do those shows is because I get to look at the materials myself. There were 600 pieces–costumes, models. We recreated the set for the "Death of Tarelkin." So, I spent some time with it. I got to know it better. I think the Russian avant-garde was a major influence on the 20th century art.
VP: Most of them were painters. Very few of them had any training in architecture. They came from Fine Arts.
FG: I guess that's why I like them.
VP: But your background is not Fine Arts. You graduated form an architectural school.
FG: But I was in Fine Arts before. For two years. And I always felt more at home there. The architects don't interest me very much. I am more interested in painting and sculpture. I have never taken the leave, so to speak. I do buildings, but...
VP: One of your first buildings was Lou Danziger 's house on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood in 1965. How did it come about?
FG: His best friend was a friend of mine. They were graphic designers. They were going to build a studio and they wanted to design it themselves. They needed somebody to help them, so they asked me. After a while they realized that I could do it better than them, so they disappeared. They made a few models that were pretty interesting–as a starting point.
VP: Lou Danziger was a very influential graphic designer. He and Paul Rand were the ones who created the American graphic design tradition, which is still alive to some extent.
FG: Yes, and then he quit. Right after we built the house. He wanted to build the studio so that he can hire some people and expand, but when it was finished he decided not to do it. So he put in a pool table and he became very good at playing pool. The best pool players in the world would come to his studio and play.
VP: Was it the influence of your design?
FG: I don't know.
VP: When you design a building, do you start with a model, with a pencil sketch?
FG: I start with sketches.
VP: Are these sketches just tools for conveying an idea or pieces of art? In other words, do they represent the process or the end result?
FG: They are not the end result. I keep them now because sometimes they look very much like these buildings.
VP: Are they ever published?
VP: But not as art pieces? Nobody has published a book of Frank Gehry's drawings without any reference to the buildings they represent?
FG: Claes Oldenburg's wife is going to publish one. She is going to make a show first. Probably in Europe. Americans are not interested in that kind of things.
VP: Do you work in many different countries now?
FG: Yes. Switzerland, Germany, France. We are finishing a building in Prague now.
VP: Were you ever approached by somebody from Russia? Would you be interested in doing something for Russia?
FG: The Russians have come here. I think it was the head of City Planning. They had terrible looking business cards. I still have them in my file. Look. It's so sad.
VP: I see. These are cheap laser prints on cheap paper. You should like them, they are very minimalist. They use what was available just like you did.
FG: Come on, you know what I mean.
VP: I think I do.
FG: And then I was elected to the Russian academy–with Robert Venturi and Philip Johnson. I never heard from them again. They were supposed to invite me to the ceremony. But they have no money. I would like to go but they say it's not safe there.
VP: I think it's exaggerated. It's not any worse than downtown Los Angeles.
FG: My grandfather came from Russia.
VP: What part of Russia?
FG: I don't know. Probably from the Polish border. My mother was born in Lodz. My grandparents used to speak Russian. But mostly Polish. I remember going to Russian picnics. We lived in Toronto. Once a year the Russians would have a party, and my grandfather would take me there. They would dance the "kazatski," drink vodka. I liked it.
VP: What's the single most important think the Russian readers should know about you?
FG: They should know that this is the guy who loved architecture.