With his 91st birthday (on February 28) a month away, the architect Frank Gehry has made few concessions to life in his tenth decade. Standing on the mezzanine of his vast Los Angeles studio, looking down on a panorama of model neighborhoods, six-foot skyscrapers, and blocky mock-ups as if it’s some dollhouse-scale Gehryland, he clearly relishes the sense of inventiveness and bustle. He takes the occasional Saturday off, but he’s mostly omnipresent, marching up and down the stairs from the studio floor to his office and library and keeping a close eye on the dozens of designs destined for sites on several continents. On his docket is a new Warner Bros. headquarters in Burbank, a mixed-use complex on Grand Avenue in downtown L.A. (across the street from his masterpiece, Disney Hall), a master plan for the Los Angeles River, an apartment tower at Hudson Yards, museums in Taiwan and Tel Aviv, and an art-in-the-schools program called Turnaround Arts.
Has your involvement in the practice changed at all?
We’ve developed an interesting business model over the years. It works to everyone’s benefit, including our clients’, and that means everyone gets paid, everyone gets bonuses and raises. That’s important. A lot of my friends don’t run the office enough like a business, so they struggle, and they take jobs in China, where you don’t get paid. I won’t take a job unless we get fully paid and we like the people.
You won’t work in China?
I had a bad experience there, so it would be hard for me to feel comfortable going there to do a project.
Is there anywhere else you won’t work?
We’ve been asked to do stuff in Saudi Arabia. I went there a couple of times, and they tried to be nice, but it was somewhat insulting. They offered me lots of projects, and they said, “Pick a project, you design it, bring us the design, and if we like it, we’ll pay you.”
Is that the only reason you won’t work in Saudi Arabia, because it’s hard to get paid?
I have my own opinions about the politics, the Khashoggi thing, but I don’t want to make a big thing about it. I don’t want to get into a political thing where I knock MBS. Some of my friends are working for them.
Jean Nouvel took a lot of flak for the way construction workers were treated on his Louvre Abu Dhabi, and he said there was “no problem.” Zaha Hadid said the workers who died while building the stadium she designed in Qatar were not her concern. Your Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is finally starting construction soon, after many years of delay. Is this an issue for you?
Yes. We have a human-rights lawyer who represents us there. We made that a condition of our work, and the client agreed. We haven’t built anything there yet, but we’ll monitor that.
So the business model is to be very well known, do a lot of work, and get paid for it?
We don’t have publicists, like many of my friends do. Michael Ovitz 35 years ago said, “Let me be your agent.” I said, “What would you do?” He said, “I’d get you work.” I said, “Architecture’s a gentleman’s profession. You don’t do that.” Today, everybody’s got one. Did you know that? Adjaye, BIG. I’ve heard Rem is with CAA. The culture has changed.
You have the luxury to let the work come to you.
But it wasn’t always like that, and I haven’t changed the way I work.
Do clients come to you wanting another Disney Hall or Guggenheim Bilbao?
Some do, yeah.
And have you moved on? Are you doing stuff that’s really different?
I hope so. I think so. I’ve always been interested in playing with the light.
In Bilbao, you get a lot of rain and clouds, so I chose the titanium because it glows on gray days. I think about it like painting; the façade changes color with the day. So for the Luma arts-center tower in Arles, France, I wanted to explore that idea further, and the client was receptive but it had to be cost-effective. We tested a lot of different metals, and we figured out a way to make a pixelated mountain out of five-by-three-foot steel bricks that are microdeformed.
Each metal sheet is deformed in each dimension, so you get a slight waviness?
Right. You’re not really conscious of the deformations, but when the light hits it, it does things. Now we’re doing a museum of medicine on the campus of the China Medical University in Taichung, Taiwan, and I wanted to use the same metal — not in blocks but free. I’m hoping that’ll be a different kind of painting, and I’m excited about that.
What makes a project exciting for you?
I love doing concert halls. I love classical music. How do you make a building communicate? How do you make the stage conducive to interaction or the orchestra share what the audience is feeling? It has to do with scale, materials, placement of details.
Have your thoughts about how to achieve that changed since Disney Hall?
Classical music has changed. While I’m changing, they’re changing. At Disney Hall, they got rid of the orchestra pit to save $3 million, and now they’re desperate to have an orchestra pit because they’re doing operas like Tristan und Isolde, and it never quite works. We did Don Giovanni there — we put the orchestra up on top so the singers could be on the stage, and it made it difficult for Dudamel to conduct them.
Concert halls need to be able to do a lot of different things now. The Pierre Boulez Saal we did in Berlin was a gift to the Divan [the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, co-founded by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said]. It’s only 700 seats, so it’s easier to make it more intimate. We flew a balcony overhead, floating, and the acoustician said it wasn’t going to work.
Now he wants us to do it again every time. It does something really exciting to the relationship [between audience and performers], which I never expected. Sitting in that balcony, you feel very close to the stage.
I’ve heard that’s your favorite among all your buildings. Is that true?
No, I can’t say that. What’s your favorite child? Disney Hall would hear that I said that! I like them all. But I have a special relationship with Berlin because of the program Daniel and Said started to bring kids together from all over the Middle East, including Israelis, to play music. I traveled with that group to Argentina for a couple of weeks. They all look alike, they’re friendly all day long, and they play music so beautifully together. That was special. Barenboim is a powerful musician and a great thinker.
I was thinking about your relationship with music and with visual art —
They’re the same.
Are they, for you?
I don’t play music and I don’t paint, but I always thought architecture was an art and I try to practice it that way.
What does that mean to you, specifically?
Architecture is intuitive. It’s humanly expressive. You’re putting yourself on the line. You start out not being understood, and you keep going because you have to. And it’s harder to explain.
Another thing about classical music is that it’s hard to assimilate in one hearing or even in several. I think you could say the same about your buildings. It’s not possible to look at Bilbao, say, from a single vantage point and understand how it works. There’s no one image that helps you understand the building.
Yeah, that’s true. I never thought about it that way, but I agree.
But architecture is so slow, so mediated, and so expensive. To get from an initial sketch to a fully realized building it can take decades, thousands of people, and hundreds of millions of dollars. How do you protect your original impulse through that whole process?
I succeed a lot in doing that. I like figuring out how to take tightly budgeted commercial projects and turn them into architecture. I’ve always done this. We managed to do that in New York with the Spruce Street tower.
Technology now allows us to do towers with curves. That was unheard of before. We opened the door. We were building it within tight budgets, and the computer allowed us to build the [Spruce Street] tower with no change orders on the skin. It had a humanizing factor. Here, the skin creates a sculptural ensemble with the Brooklyn Bridge and the Woolworth tower, which is a beautiful building, an icon of New York, with a little funny hat on it. The first thing we did was we got a local architect who does all the really low-end developer stuff to do a scheme of the most economic building that would fit the program. We made a model and showed it to the developer, and he said, “I don’t want to do that!” And I said, “No, we’re not planning to do that, but let’s talk about it.” So we started making models — we’ve got 100 of them out there. I wanted to do a metal skin, and I wanted to fold the metal façade so that I could create bay windows. I had no clue how I was going to do it. I was thinking about Bernini’s sculpture of Santa Teresa, with all those sharp, edgy folds. Michelangelo folds are softer, and they would have been easier, but I thought Bernini folds would be better for this building. We met with the fabricators from Italy and worked with them for two years, and we came up with folds that are the same scale as the terra-cotta panels on the Woolworth Building. Buildings next to each other should talk.
Your best-known works are the house you built for yourself and the buildings you’ve done for large institutions. But it sounds like you have gradually come around to working with developers, even though their projects come with a lot of constraints.
When I started out, I separated the office into the part that was doing developer work to pay the bills and a smaller part for what I really wanted to do. We built the shopping center here [Santa Monica Place, which opened in 1980 and was demolished and rebuilt in 2010], and the president of the Rouse Company came to see me at my chain-link house and he said, “Frank, do you like this? You must, since you built it for yourself. Then you can’t possibly like the things you did for us.” And I said, “Well, that’s not as good.” And he said, “Then stop.” We had two big projects for them in the works, but I looked at him and said, “You’re right.” That was a Friday night. On Monday, I came in and said we’re not going to take this work. I let 40 people go. That was hard.
Now, with the reputation, with having Bilbao earn so much money, there’s more respect for that point of view. When I’m talking to developer types now, like the Burbank guy, I know that I have to work within his parameters. He has to get rent and meet the needs of Warner Bros. But he’s bought into the idea that we can add value. It’s not as sculptural as Bilbao — an office building doesn’t need to be — but it has some heart. It’s a chance to do something that’s used by a lot of people, and if you can raise its level beyond what they usually build, that’s good. There are a few developers I can do that with. The rest of them go to Gensler.
I get that you’ve gradually accumulated enough power to carry your original idea through to completion, but I still don’t get how that works. Even before you get to the stage where you’re wrestling with developers, there’s the iterative process within your office, right?
We build tons of models. I don’t work on the computer. I don’t even know how. I have a hard time with that thing. My way of searching is to have a dream — a fantasy, I guess you’d call it. You start to explore and build models to see if you can achieve it, without knowing that you can.
Can you give me an example?
The Eisenhower Memorial. The site [on Maryland Avenue, between 4th Street and 6th Street, in Washington, D.C.] is terrible and doesn’t measure up to a guy like Eisenhower. It’s not on the Mall, there’s a lot of traffic, and it’s up against several not-so-great buildings. I was studying tapestries at the time of the competition, for some reason, and I thought we could figure out how to build one [on an architectural scale]. The problem is that the Department of Education looks out on the site and a tapestry would have blocked their view, so you had to be able to see through it. I had no idea how we were going to solve that. Nobody knew how to do it.
So I showed the project to an artist who’s worked with me over the years, Tomas Osinski, and there’s nothing he can’t do. You throw any project at him and he’ll go and make it. He wove metal wire by hand so that you could see through it. And I said, “Yeah, that and a quarter will get me a phone call. You’re going to weave a half a mile of this?”
So he invented a knitting machine to make it with stainless steel. He got it approved by the government: They shot a chunk of missile at the mock-up and it didn’t break the welds. You need a 200-year guarantee on the welds. And now it’s being built. So you don’t know. If you knew where you were going, it would be less interesting.
Most of the time, though, it’s not binary. You go over thousands of decisions with your team and with clients, and there are always trade-offs. So how do you know which aspects you’re willing to give up and which sacrifices will erode the core of your design?
If you have one idea, then everything’s got to be done that way, because if you compromise, then it’s not the same thing. Take a Richard Meier building. If it’s not white, then it’s not Richard Meier. My work’s not like that.
Meaning that, because it’s so complex, you have more room to compromise?
I don’t think of it as compromise. I think of it as flexibility. If the client said, “We don’t want it white,” I’d say, “Okay, we’ll come up with another color.”
You have a lot of opportunities for flexibility.
Sure, but you also have to know what you’re shooting for. You have to keep your eye on that.
Are there concessions you regret making, anything you would do over?
Sure, there are things I would do differently. Well, it’s not so much that I would do anything over, it’s that you learn from every phase. In Bilbao, the first time I saw those curves in the rain, glowing warmly, I cried. Once I learned that the metal could express an emotion, I looked for other ways of doing that. I’m trying to capture a feeling.
A feeling? Wow. I mean, as challenging as it is to protect an artistic concept all the way to completion, keeping an emotional impulse alive for all those years must be that much harder.
Well, I never said I make things easy on myself.
Or on others! The whole construction industry is based on standardization of practices, so how do you ensure that the craftsmanship and execution come up to your standards?
That’s one reason we developed Gehry Technologies. The system we created means that everyone can read off the same 3-D files and see exactly how it has to be done. Instead of the contractors taking our designs and figuring out how to build it — then we have to do change orders if they get it wrong, which costs money — this way we can show them exactly how to build it and stay on budget. When I did my first fish building in Barcelona, the Italian fabricator called and said, “I can’t build this.” Then we sent him the 3-D files and he called back and he said, “Perfetto.” I’ll never forget it.
It’s ironic that you don’t use a computer yourself but you effectively created a tech firm. And the software has had two distinct kinds of impact: on the practicalities of construction and on the architectural imagination itself.
Here’s the game. Someone says, “Hey, guess what. We’re going to build a new concert hall” — or a new cathedral or whatever — “and we just hired Frank Gehry!” Everyone starts saying, “You can’t do that, it’ll break the bank.” I get that all the time, but it’s not true. We use the tools to develop a process that has cost control built in as we design. And we test ideas constantly. At the end of the day, a plain box building costs X, and a building with some humanity in it costs X plus 15 percent. But that’s everybody’s premium, not just Frank Gehry’s. It’s not an ego-driven premium. It’s a reality of making buildings with some sense of humanity. I would put our process up against anyone in the field in terms of cost control.
You’ve shared that process and the technology with other architects, haven’t you?
I called together an open forum of architects in New York. We explained what we were doing and how we were doing it, and we offered to train them in the software. They’ve been slow to accept it, and they’re missing out. Developers and contractors have taken it over, but architects should be the ones in control.
Let’s talk about your relationship with your colleagues. A few years ago, you were quoted as saying, “98 percent of everything that is built and designed today is pure shit,” and the accompanying photograph showed you at a press conference with a raised middle finger. I’m not sure I would disagree with you, but what did that moment do for your reputation?
You have to contextualize that. That was in Spain. I had just gotten off a plane, I was tired, I went up to my hotel room to take a nap, got undressed and into bed — and the phone rang. They said, “We’re so sorry. There’s been a mistake — could you come down to do an interview right now? We have a room set aside.”
So I got dressed and went down, and the room was filled with reporters, and I was on a podium with all kinds of lights and recording devices. A hand went up, ten rows back. And the person said, “What do you say to your critics who say that your buildings are showy?” I looked at him and my right hand was shivering. I felt like Dr. Strangelove. My arm just went up, and there it was. I felt like I had to explain it, so I said, “Why would you ask that question, when 98 percent of the built environment doesn’t even aspire to architecture? Showy? It’s different. I think you’re asking an insulting question.” And I left it at that.
Later that evening, I was at a cocktail party with the King of Spain, and he hugged me and said, “Thank you for doing that.”
The architecture world has waged so many aesthetic wars during your lifetime, but I don’t hear people talk about style much these days. I know a lot of architects who proudly claim not to have one. Yours is pretty distinctive, though.
Yes, it is, but I don’t know that it’s a style. It’s a personal expression. I don’t consciously think about creating a style that people would follow. I’m trying to respond to time and place with the God-given abilities I have.
There are stylistic trends you’ve objected to, though.
The postmodern thing got exaggerated. It was a moment when nobody knew quite what to do. Modernism was becoming colder and colder. It was like Malevich. He did the black square, and he didn’t know where to go from there, so he started doing dresses. That’s how it felt to me. The world had come to a standstill aesthetically, and we were so focused on getting things done, getting people housed. Then all of a sudden, the coldness, the inhumanity of buildings — that lifeless feeling — hit a rock. And, like Malevich, turned to decoration. Because that was easy.
But we’re not in that period of decorative postmodernism anymore.
No, I think we’ve come out of it now.
Thanks to your fish?
Partly, yeah. I decided the fish was the model for the future of architecture because it expressed sculptural movement.
Why a fish, though?
This was my thinking: We live in a time when everything’s moving very fast. Is there some way to express that movement in architecture, so a building’s not just static volumes?
I didn’t intend to use the word fish, but I got pissed off at a conference where all my architect friends were becoming postmodernists and I said, “Why do you have to go back to anthropomorphism and Greek temples? Why don’t you go back 300 million years all the way to fish?” And I started drawing them and I realized you could express movement and connect with people rather than making a lifeless thing. I’m stuck with the fish thing, but I’d rather do turtles now and go slower. When architecture becomes developer driven, it’s hard to be an artist. But slowly, they get it. Bilbao earned 4 or 5 billion euros. You put that on the screen, and they say, “Holy shit!” So architecture does make a difference. People respond to it, and they make more money.
Let’s get back to the question of context. Sometimes you’re working with wonderful urban surroundings, but just as often you are creating a new context. The part of Bilbao around the Guggenheim is completely different from the way you found it.
You know, they love me there. They called and said they want to name a bridge after me. They weren’t asking me to design it — they got a local architect instead — just to put my name on it. But, you know, the urban planning around it isn’t that good, and the buildings by [Rafael] Moneo and [César] Pelli aren’t their best.
Maybe it’s not easy to be at your best when the context is a Frank Gehry building. Diller Scofidio + Renfro had to deal with that when they designed the Broad right next to Disney Hall.
Now you have to deal with that, with the Colburn School and with the Grand Avenue project, also right near Disney.
Grand Avenue’s a pretty tight developer budget, and I didn’t get everything I wanted. But it’ll be okay. I’m hoping to revisit the streetscape there. Disney Hall was under construction, and they said, “Thank you very much, Mr. Gehry, now bye-bye.”
What did you want to do that didn’t happen on the street?
There was supposed to be an artwork in front. I hoped it would be the big bow tie by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, but the board didn’t like that. Then it was going to be a Richard Serra: two huge steel plates standing up right in front of the building. Can you imagine that? He hates me. He blames me for killing the idea, but actually I accepted it. I said okay, then the board rejected that, too. So we never got a work of art out front, but I’d like to revisit that.
The developer of the Grand Avenue project is Related. Do they get you?
I guess so, because they asked us to do a tower at Hudson Yards, too.
When I think about all the projects that seemed like they might have happened but then fell apart — Atlantic Yards (later renamed Pacific Park), the Guggenheim in lower Manhattan, the New York Times headquarters — it makes me wonder if New York somehow never quite understood you.
When Atlantic Yards died, that was painful. In the whole 2008 disaster, after they canceled the thing, I was having dinner with Bruce Ratner [then the CEO of Forest City Ratner, which was developing both Atlantic Yards and 8 Spruce Street] in Brooklyn, and from there we could see my tower [8 Spruce Street] going up, but it was still just a stump. And Bruce said, “I think that may be as far as we’re going to get.” Later he discovered that it would have cost him just as much not to build it as to finish it, but for a while there it looked like we were done.
Let’s talk a bit about the influences on you and the influence you’ve had on others. You’ve often spoken about how important Wright, Louis Kahn, and Le Corbusier were to you early on as well as the impact of painters and sculptors in the L.A. art scene. Do you keep absorbing new influences?
As I’ve gotten older, I get focused inwardly more. I do try to keep up with what’s going on, but it’s not as intense as when I was younger.
When you talk about your architecture, it’s usually in personal or pragmatic terms — “Here’s the program, here’s what I was looking at, how I reacted” — but rarely in theoretical terms. You’re suspicious of the academic world, aren’t you?
I think they’re suspicious of me. Years ago, I was at a conference at Princeton to celebrate Michael Graves. They got together a bunch of architects, and each of us had 15 minutes to present our work. So I get started, and two minutes in, Robert Maxwell, who was the dean of the architecture school, has his hand high in the air. He interrupts me in the middle of my talk! He says, “Mr. Gehry, do you have nightmares?”
I ignored him and just kept going. Afterward, they cleared the stage for a conversation between me and [art historian] Irving Lavin. We had gone to Europe together and looked at all this Romanesque architecture, and so we start talking and pretty soon we’re getting into all this theory and history. And Maxwell’s hand shoots up in the air again. And I said, “What is it this time?” He says, “Mr. Gehry, I’d like to apologize.” It was because I was talking to Lavin: Now I was okay. I was in the club.
But also your work is so idiosyncratic; you’re not part of a movement. There’s no school of Gehry.
Still, a lot of architects have come through your office and gone out on their own. Do they wind up with some commonality, some Gehry DNA?
I hope not. I don’t think so. I used to kick them out after five years so they wouldn’t get stuck doing my thing. I don’t do that anymore, but I’m also learning from them. Some of the people we have here are out ahead of me.
But are they channeling you?
I don’t think so.
I guess what I’m asking is how much does the firm’s work and future depend on your daily presence?
You mean am I going to retire? I wouldn’t know how.
*This article appears in the January 20, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!
When it opened in 2003, it had cost $284 million. In 1913, Kazimir Malevich decided to make a painting of nothing. The result was Black Square, which over time has become more firmly grounded in physical reality thanks to the crackle of the pigment on its surface. If you accept the museum’s figures, its total economic impact on the region — direct and otherwise — is now up to 6 billion euros. The Grand, a $1 billion complex containing an apartment tower, a hotel, a shopping and dining center, and a public plaza, is under construction and scheduled to open next year — basically, a mini Hudson Yards. As a young man, Gehry was so steeped in the aesthetics of Frank Lloyd Wright that when he was in the Army, he designed a general’s field latrine in his style. But “Corb is my lightbulb. No. 1 on my hit parade,” he told writer Barbara Isenberg, adding that he visits Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel every year: “It makes me cry … It’s almost perfect.” The architect and longtime Princeton professor, who died in 2015, was a leader of the postmodern movement, advocating for a contemporary, often playful reinterpretation of historical styles. That approach made him popular with the Walt Disney Company, which hired him to design hotels and resorts.