Below: Gehry Partners' office in Marina del Rey, CA.
© Vladimir Paperny. Click on images to enlarge.
Interview with Frank Gehry
December 16, 2004
The Russian version of the interview was published in Architectural Digest Russia.
VP: You have once said “Ronchamps humbles all of us.” What has Le Corbusier achieved there that you feel you have not in your buildings?
FG: He worked out his vocabulary through painting. Ronchamps took him seven years of work and I don’t know how many models, lots of them. So he was able to refine and distill the building to almost perfection and still maintain some kind of immediacy. You cannot achieve this kind of distilled essence in the course of normal building process with clients. This was a once-in-a-life-time opportunity, he got it and he made the best of it. He set an example and raised the bar for all of us pretty high.
VP: Where do you think you came closest to this ideal?
FG: I don’t think I ever did. Well, the first iteration of my house had a complete sense about it. I didn’t realize it at the time. I only realized it when I had to remodel it, and to destroy it; only then I knew how tight it was. But that didn’t go through the kind of process that Corb did for Ronchamps. I think I achieved something like a perfect sketch. Each thing I did afterwards was negative to the essence of what I had in the first one.
VP: Every time I drive by your house I see that it keeps changing.
FG: I live in it. I have to change it because a have a family. Each iteration was done not as a whole, it was done in pieces. I couldn’t possible maintain the level that it had had.
VP: How did you feel when your neighbors had negative reaction to your house?
FG: That was only about real estate values. They were worried that my house will bring the value of real estate down, which didn’t happen. They are OK, they sold their land and they’re gone.
VP: Did it bother you at that time?
FG: What was I going to do? Tear it down? I talked to them…
VP: Was there a lawsuit?
FG: No. They didn’t understand it, that’s all. They though it was strange and it would put people off and my neighbors wouldn’t be able to sell their land for as much as they wanted to.
VP: You were very famous in Europe for a very long time but you didn’t have any major building in the US for quite a while. What is there about the US that prevented you from being accepted right away?
FG: Every country does that to their talented people. They always think it’s better from another place. Historically, for architecture, art and music, Europe has been more advanced, on a higher cultural level.
VP: Is it still the case?
FG: I think so. America is still pretty young. Europe was more open to what I was doing, more accepting, realizing that it was not dangerous. Here my work was considered threatening.
VP: Do you have any regrets that so much time has been lost, that 20 years ago you could have been building what you are building now?
FG: No, I don’t have any regrets. I am happy. I am not a person who sits there thinking what could have been, what might have been. It might have been better for architecture but might not have been better for me. Right now it’s much better.
VP: Does the fact that you live in Southern California affect the way you think as an architect?
FG: My new house cannot be built in New York. The old house couldn’t be built in New York. The idea of the new house could be built in New York but not the house itself. I run into the same situation when I build in Germany. There are regional things I have to respect.
VP: But the Germans probably see your work as a splash of Southern California.
FG: Do they? It’s their problem. But I don’t think it’s true. I am well received at the Humboldt University in Berlin, with the city planning people…
VP: I didn’t mean that they perceive you negatively; I just thought they would probably associate you with a certain visual culture.
FG: But I have worked in so many different cultures, the fact that I am from Southern California doesn’t really matter anymore.
VP: When we talked last time you said you loved designing furniture because you see the results immediately. With architecture it takes time.
FG: Seven years.
VP: With the Disney Music Hall it took more than that. You won the competition in 1987. Then you had to make a lot of changes. Then some people blamed you for the escalating costs.
FG: Oh, that’s just too long of a story! The competition had a set of consultants, an acoustician from France. The criteria for the building were given by those people. When the competition was finished they started over again, they brought a new consultant so that the character of the building changed. I was just responding to the new program that kept changing. The program kept changing, not me. The reason it failed was not what I did. The building was complicated, and they gave the drawings to another architect who was not competent to do it. So he failed.
VP: Who gave the drawings to another architect?
FG: The committee, the client.
VP: Who was the other architect?
FG: I can’t… I don’t want to… Anyway, he failed, and the press blamed me because they didn’t know and they didn’t take time to find out. The project got resurrected after Bilbao. When Bilbao was built the same people said: “Oh, he can build that.” So then they came to me and said: “Now we understand, you can build it, so we want it.” And that’s how it went on again. And the cost overruns are not true. The first cost was 100 million dollars. 18 years later it doubled because of the economy. It had nothing to do with me.
VP: I remember your open letter in LA Times to Eli Broad where you said: «When you hired me to design your house, then fired me and hired another architect to finish it to save money, you thought it was OK. It was not. I took my name off your house. Now you are trying to do the same thing with the Disney Hall». Finally, the conflict was resolved and you shook hands with Mr. Broad…
FG: We are friends now.
VP: Would you design another house for him if he asked you?
FG: (nervous laughter) Probably I would. He is OK. It was a misunderstanding. He is a control freak in his work. And I am a control freak in my work. We are control freaks for different things.
VP: His thing was money?
FG: Not only that. His thing was a business-oriented organization. It was money but it was also about efficiency and clarity and guaranteeing completion. His perception was that somebody like me was ephemeral, which isn't true. If you saw the way this office was run! He misunderstood me and I misunderstood him. It happens a lot in projects like this. The cultural leaders in a town presume that they know how to do stuff — just because they are there, they are successful business people — and quite often it's not the case. And he said, after, that he made a mistake, he apologized.
VP: But the story doesn't end there. Now we have the sun reflection issue.
FG: Oh, just read this paragraph! There are other buildings in downtown that have worse reflection.
VP: I personally think the whole thing is ridiculous.
FG: So, don't make it an issue. Ignore it!
VP: OK, but it's interesting that there is another issue with Claes Oldenburg's sculpture, some say it takes away from the building. Is it going to be built?
VP: My next question is about the interior space vs. the exterior space. Because sometimes you work almost as a sculptor there shouldn't be any conflict between interior and exterior, one should be a continuation of the other. But I've read a few critical remarks…
FG: You read the wrong stuff!
VP: I try to read everything. They say that the Disney auditorium is beautiful but…
FG: That's Joseph Giovannini who... Forgive him; he can't help it. OK? It’s just one guy. It's not an issue, just like the shiny metal. I showed him that if you take the Barcelona Pavilion, you know the Barcelona Pavilion?
FG: The roof slides across the wall. And it looks like somebody just laid it there. If you go inside and examine the details it's not pure. But it looks pure. Nobody can be that pure. There is a different program for the outside and for the inside.
VP: I think it's my favorite building in Los Angeles. So, it's not me…
FG: No, but you should dismiss those kinds of idiocies.
VP: I will.
FG: I was presented at Columbia a few weeks ago, and this guy, Joseph Giovannini, was in the audience. The dean of Columbia [school of architecture, Mark Wigley] got up — and I didn’t even know about the article — he got up and talked about that issue and said what an idiotic thing that was to be talking about. And I couldn’t figure out why he was bringing it up. I found out later that he had just read this article and Joseph was in the audience.
VP: Did he respond?
FG: No. Off the record… (makes a gesture that, in my interpretation, shows that Joseph Giovannini is not mentally capable).
VP: You can say it. This will be in Russian, so he will not be able to read it.
FG: No, he is a nice guy.
VP: Louis Sullivan said «form follows function.» In your case, form follows what?
FG: Well, I think that every building that I have done grows out of program, budget, context and all of that stuff. I don't think you can escape it even if you want to. If you take the various elements, I call them the bone structure of a building — not the structure but the sense of the spaces and all that — if you are going to survive in architecture you can’t get very far from that. Because getting far from that has a cost implication. The further you get away from that the more the building will be evaluated on efficiencies. The fact that I am still standing and still doing buildings means that I have been respectful of those issues. Does form follow function? In a sense it does. Not in the purist's sense. I've read Sullivan many times. What he meant, I think, is that the end of the building does come out of some kind of relationship to its use. There is a kind of simple reasonableness to that. However, I saw a cathedral in Arnum, Holland, that now is used as an art museum, and it's very successful, so it doesn't really mean anything. It just so happened that the cathedral is built, the town is not interested in religion, they are interested in art, so they put the art in there.
VP: It happened a lot in Russia under the Soviet rule. Churches were converted into workers' clubs and warehouses, and they worked. And now they are converting them back.
FG: Into churches? Too bad.
VP: I still doubt that if you and Richard Meier are given the same program, the final results will be even close to one another.
FG: I agree with you. I think that's true. Richard has his language and I have mine.
VP: So there is something else, other than the program.
FG: It's just that we have different priorities, and how to enclose space… I think his is a more expensive than mine.
VP: Well, the Getty is definitely more expensive than Bilbao.
FG: Bilbao is $300 a square foot; Getty was four times that. And his houses are expensive too.
VP: But that should surprise everybody, because he is using more traditional materials and more traditional building methods.
FG: I shouldn't talk for him but that kind of architecture spends more money on the details. That costs money. I tend to be a little more casual about that. Which would make him not like my work.
VP: I am sure there is mutual respect…
FG: You know what I am saying. People who are very detail-oriented would not understand what I am doing.
VP: People in Russia know a lot about Frank Gehry the architect, they would love to know more about Frank Gehry the human being. Can you tell us a bit about your family?
FG: My family came from Russia. My grandmother came from Lodz. My mother was born in Lodz. My grandfather was from near there but the border changed all the time. They spoke Russian and Polish when I was a kid.
VP: Did you speak any of those languages?
FG: No. I think I can understand a little bit but I lost it. I've been there once, in Saint Petersburg. I went to meet with Piotrovsky regarding Hermitage.
VP: There were many foreign architects who tried to do work in Russia, Eric Moss, for example. Unfortunately, there was a huge gap in expectations and visual culture, he was basically humiliated and rejected.
FG: Is Perrault doing the building now?
VP: Supposedly, but they haven’t started.
FG: I know Gergiev. He played at my Concert Hall. I had dinner with him.
VP: Considering this not very happy relationship of foreign architects with Russia (and it goes back a few centuries), if they asked you built something on the Red Square, would you go?
FG: (laughing) I don’t know. It’s kind of far to go. Some years ago, maybe ten years ago, they inducted me into their academy, and I have no record of it. I’ve asked them to send me something but I never got anything.
VP: That’s kind of typical.
FG: They named me, Venturi and Philip Johnson.
VP: Apart from being from a Russian family, you have some attachment to Russian art, you worked on the Avant-Garde in Russia show for LACMA 25 years ago, you admire such artists as Tatlin, Malevich, Rodchenko. So, if you go back and do something there, what do you think you can bring to Russia?
FG: I would try to do a good building, that’s all.
VP: Can you tell us something about your own family, your wife, your children? With your extensive traveling you probably don’t see your family very often.
FG: My wife works over there, my son works here. I see them all the time. I am married to a girl from Panama, Bertha. I come from a Jewish family, though I have no religious ties anymore. I haven’t had any religion since I was 13.
VP: But you were bar mitzvahed, weren’t you?
FG: I was, but that was the end... I have two boys with Bertha, one is 28 and one is 25. The 25-year-old works here, he wants to be an architect. The older one is a fine-art painter. I have two daughters from a former marriage. They are 49 and 50. They live in New York. One works in publishing, the other in computer graphics. I am 75, my parents are not around anymore, and probably I won’t be either.
VP: That will happen to all of us eventually.
FG: Yeah, but when you get closer you are more aware of it… I travel a lot, that’s true. We are doing more work in New York then we used to.
VP: Do your wife and sons travel with you?
VP: I have only one question left. The image of a fish — it could be seen in many of your buildings, furniture, lamps — has mixed symbolism. On the one hand fish is a symbol of Jesus Christ, on the other, people associate it with gefilte fish. What about fish that is so attractive to you?
FG: There is a history that I’ve told a million times. When post-modernists started doing historic references, I said once in a lecture that I was giving that if people really had to go back, why didn’t you go back to fish that existed 300 million years before men. So I started drawing it as a symbol of my anger with post-modernism. And then it started to have a life of its own like things do. It has nothing to do with gefilte fish. It has nothing to do with Judaism. It has nothing to do with Catholicism or Jesus. It’s just an image. I was trying to look for a way to express movement in architecture, which artists have done through history in various ways. I made some fish sculptures, which expressed movement, and I was encouraged by that so I continued to explore it.
VP: But I heard the interview you had given at the opening of the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis where you’d told a story how your grandmother would take you to a Jewish market in Toronto to buy a carp for gefilte fish. She would put the fish in the bathtub and you would play with it…
FG: Oh, Gosh, this happened to every Jewish kid, it’s not just my story. My grandmother would put the fish in the bathtub and I would sit on the toilet and play with it.
VP: So there is a gefilte fish symbolism in your fish after all.