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The Unbuilding of Frank Gehry

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“Starchitecture” is a glib neologism that reduces hard-won reputations and decadelong undertakings to little dabs of glitz. Gehry can hardly bring himself to utter the word, but the mere mention triggers a tirade revealing deep wells of grandiosity and resentment. “It suggests an egomaniac trying to flaunt his wares at the expense of the public. It’s an opportunistic journalistic trick. There’s so much bad stuff being built that people don’t address, so they fasten on the half of one percent that gets into uncharted territory for humanistic and idealistic reasons. There is ego involved; everyone has to have that, or they don’t do much. But architecture has always been a very idealistic profession. It’s about making the world a better place, and it works over the generations, because people go on vacation and they look for it. When I go to Bilbao, they want to touch me. If I were an egomaniac, I’d just move there.”

More than any architect since Frank Lloyd Wright, Gehry exerts a hold over the popular imagination. He has played himself in The Simpsons. Walt Disney Concert Hall, his Los Angeles masterpiece, appears on guidebook covers and in car commercials (“by the way, we don’t get royalties for that!”)—and on the History Channel’s hit parade of Engineering Disasters. The glare from the shiny metal roof heated up nearby apartments and dazzled motorists, a pretty innocuous goof. “They fixed it for $40,000,” Gehry says crossly. “I just sent some people over there with steel wool.”

It’s hard to avoid the impression that Gehry’s failures offer him a measure of comfort, a way to preserve his sense of outsiderdom. He was born Frank Goldberg, the son of a demoralized Toronto businessman who moved with the family to Los Angeles in 1947. Poor, Jewish, and new in town, the teenager was triply an outsider, and though he eventually got rich, changed his name, and became America’s preeminent architect, he still carries a brittle sense of exclusion. In Conversations With Frank Gehry, a book of interviews conducted by Barbara Isenberg, the architect lovingly recounts his humiliations: the conclave of L.A. artists that excluded him from a meeting about the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art; the Disney-family lawyer who vowed that no Gehry building would bear Walt’s name; a catastrophic evening when Dorothy Chandler declared that he would never build a concert hall, a waitress spilled buttered vegetables on his lap, and a dinner guest referred to a house he had designed as “that piece of shit.” He savors these indignities, as if they confirm a suspicion that the snobs are right to reject him. “Each project I suffer like I’m starting over again in life,” he says. “There’s a lot of healthy insecurity that fuels this stuff.”

The mention of the word “starchitect” triggers a tirade. “It suggests an egomaniac trying to flaunt his wares at the expense of the public.”

It takes a lot of love to overcome those doubts, and when he’s not getting enough of it, the architect can balk. In 2000, Gehry participated in a competition to design the Times tower, a joint development of the newspaper company and … Forest City Ratner. The Times’ then–architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp, wrote that Gehry withdrew his proposal before the competition had run its course. Gehry tells a different story: “They gave us the job. Then we were put in a room of construction guys from Forest City Ratner who said I had to be in New York for a meeting every Monday at 2 p.m. I said I couldn’t. I left that meeting and called the Times and pulled out. I sent them back their check.”

Besides being the world’s most laureled architect, Gehry has become the most detested. His critics are many and varied. John Silber, the former Boston University president and author of Architecture of the Absurd: How “Genius” Disfigured a Practical Art, directs a water cannon of contempt at the Stata Center at MIT, attacking it as the triumph of caprice over rationality. To him, leaning walls, glittery wrappings, and curvy surfaces are unjustifiably expensive, arduous to maintain, and infuriating to use. They violate the architect’s version of the Hippocratic Oath: First, make it work.

The exuberance of Gehry’s style has made it difficult for people to see his canny, spectacular deployment of interior space. In Disney Hall, even milling around at intermission becomes an exploratory experience. Wood-encased concrete pillars sprout massive branches, like geometric trees leading the eye to lower levels, up through skylights, and out the windows to the building’s alluring skin. In the auditorium, great sails of Douglas fir swoop down from the ceiling, and the organ’s wood-clad pipes glow above the stage. The audience wraps around the stage, virtually eliminating the distinction between good seats and bad.

Disney Hall boasts a form so unmistakable and alluring that photographs invariably present it as a freestanding sculpture against a neutral background. But Gehry has registered everything the setting has to offer—the trove of important buildings in the surrounding blocks, the ravishing but dilapidated Art Deco downtown at the foot of Bunker Hill, the mountains levitating above the distant haze. Disney Hall is not an orchid in the desert but the most beautiful piece in an urban puzzle. The hall spills its glamour into the street, at once sublime and unpretentious.


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