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The Unbuilding of Frank Gehry


A few weeks after that conversation, Ratner scrapped six years’ worth of design work. Pleading financial straits, he fired Gehry from the whole project and replaced his arena design with a graceless Cow Palace knockoff by the journeyman stadium-builder Ellerbe Becket. To judge by early renderings, the new offering isn’t simply inferior; it’s insultingly bad. Yet Gehry has served Ratner well. His involvement helped strong-arm the city and the state into delivering tax breaks, permits, and the power to evict holdouts. It helped beat back opposition, secure $400 million in naming rights from Barclays, and win over the architectural press. Ratner didn’t just toss Gehry into the drink; he betrayed the city, blighted a neighborhood he promised to transform, validated his opponents, and blew a colossal opportunity to bring great architecture to a city that badly needs it.

On a Saturday morning in Los Angeles, a handful of young designers huddle in Gehry’s vast studio, a former BMW operations center near Marina Del Rey. Even on a weekday, the warehouse would feel roomy: The staff is about half the size it was a year ago. “I haven’t felt abandoned by New York,” Gehry says, and it’s true that his troubles have come from all over. He turned 80 in February, and the world paid tribute, but it’s still been a tough twelve months. In November, a major project in Brighton, England, was canceled. A few days later, the architect’s daughter Leslie Gehry Brenner died of uterine cancer at 54. The following month, Atlantic Yards and a downtown–Los Angeles redevelopment plan both foundered. Within a year, the firm lost nearly 100 employees. Gehry has even fired Gehry: After spending years designing a new house for himself and his wife, Berta, in Venice, California, he recently dropped the plan. What’s left of the firm has plenty of work to do, notably on a sprawling Guggenheim Museum branch in Abu Dhabi. But the boss has been thinking about what Gehry Partners, LLP, might look like without Frank Gehry.

He ambles distractedly about the studio in khakis and a stained T-shirt, while several designers glue together a scale model of a modest New Orleans house commissioned by Brad Pitt’s foundation. The room is strewn with models, ranging from basic assemblages of colored blocks to elaborately finished miniatures. On one shelf, a model of a tower engages in a cartoon striptease, twisting, stretching, and trying on an assortment of skins.

His teams work in three dimensions from the first. “The models represent the essence of the functional requirements,” Gehry says, in his soporific rumble. “They have to be truthful. They can’t tell a lie. You can’t do fluffy stuff. Sometimes some designer crumples a piece of paper into a model. They think they’re pleasing me, but it just pisses me off.”

At the Guggenheim retrospective in 2001, that profusion of miniatures crackled along Frank Lloyd Wright’s ramp in a chain of linked epiphanies. The heart of the show was the Peter Lewis House, its forms like vital organs that kept morphing over a decade until it had traveled so far into the realm of the imagination that it was never built. Or most of it wasn’t: Gehry eventually recycled an entry hall shaped like a horse’s skull into a conference center for a German bank. Sometimes, it’s the most straitlaced clients who want the wildest designs.

The Guggenheim exhibit highlighted the museum’s doomed East River expansion and the fantastically successful Bilbao branch. Bilbao is Gehry’s touchstone: In conversation, he circles back to the titanium cloud every few minutes, proudly describing the transformative effect his museum has had on the Basque city, and taking a grumpy swipe at the pack of new museums it unleashed. He rejects the standard story line of his career: that the project rocketed him to worldwide fame at 68, and brought him a cascade of opulent commissions.

“You’re buying into the fairy tale,” he protests. “Bilbao opened in 1997. It was only ten years later that I was asked to do another museum. A lot of other people got work because of Bilbao.” The “Bilbao effect” refers to the power of a flamboyant new cultural building to invigorate the local economy. But the phrase could also describe his paradoxical challenge: How do you satisfy clients who come for similar explosions of innovation? How does Frank Gehry compete with “Frank Gehry”?

The problem is encapsulated in a pair of leechlike terms: “icon” and “starchitecture.” The first refers to a building that bewitches the eye and forces the environment to adjust. Used approvingly, it suggests a work so powerful that it will never be taken for granted. Applied pejoratively, it implies a lunge for momentary wisps of attention, offering little in return.

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