Master of his own design: Conversations with Frank Gehry, rebel architect

Canadian-born Frank Gehry has been called the greatest architect of our time. And yet he's still a rebel in his field. A complex and engaging man, who's been open about his disdain for the media, gave IDEAS producer Mary Lynk a rare chance to talk with him in California.
American architect Frank Gehry. (REUTERS/Benoit Tessier )
Listen to the full episode54:00

Canadian-born Frank Gehry has been called the greatest architect of our time. And yet he's still a rebel in his field. His sensual, sculptural buildings reject the cold minimalism and glass boxes of Modernism, and the ornate flourishes of post-modernism. Gehry, now 88, became famous in his late 60s, when his extraordinary design for the Guggenheim Museum became a reality twenty years ago in Bilbao, Spain. A complex and engaging man, who's been open about his disdain for the media, gave IDEAS producer Mary Lynk a rare chance to talk with him in California. This episode is part 1 of 2-part series, and delves into Frank Gehry's need to maintain humanity and emotions within his designs. Part 2 airs Tuesday, July 10. **This episode originally aired October 6, 2017,

Frank Gehry on why creatives must take risks. (videographer Andy Hines) 1:18

Meeting Frank Gehry

(Andy Hines)
Frank Gehry's office building is located in a nondescript corner of Los Angeles, California. It's not one of his more daring designs, looking more like an industrial warehouse—the type favoured by artists. But it also inspires a feeling of anticipation, starting with the huge, two-storey sailcloth curtains that hang over the entrance.

Going through them is like entering a wizard's lair. First, you walk into a large courtyard featuring funky modern chairs and tables scattered around. To the right is reception, where I have to sign a non-disclosure agreement, promising not to tell the world about the fantastical models and working designs I'd soon be walking past.

This architectural firm is buzzing with projects. Scattered throughout are people, mostly younger, designing on computers mostly. It feels electric, creative and ultra-cool.

On the walls are several nods to his birthplace. Even though Frank Gehry moved to LA when he was 18, the walls charmingly boast signs: "I am Canadian".

Tucked between contemporary art, drawings, architectural models and photos—famous Frank with equally famous people—are a slew of framed jerseys of hockey legends, including Matt Sundin, number 13 and a photo of Maurice "the Rocket" Richard, number 9.

And there's a large Canadian flag, tacked up on the wall, more in the style of a first-year dorm room—which again, in the workplace of such a master designer, makes it retro-cool.

A while past our scheduled appointment, Frank eventually shows up. He's short, with arresting light blue eyes, wearing dark pants and a black t-shirt. He looks more like an architect now at 88 than he did for most of his career, when he wore disheveled clothes, awkward aviator glasses and a thick moustache—looking more like an accountant than a world-class architect.

I can feel he's sizing me up. We'd met once before, but he can be cagey and cranky with journalists. He's infamous for having flipped the middle finger at a press conference. But after a couple minutes of wary observation, he becomes warm, engaging and is quick to laugh. I found him to be an innocent flirt with a razor-sharp mind, and yet I also picked up a sense of hovering volatility, that his mood could easily turn dark.

(Andy Hines)
But the deepest impression he leaves you with is that he's deeply curious, thoughtful and constantly questioning the world around him.

It's a habit that informs his work, as he tinkers with his designs right up to the end, much to the irritation of some of his clients. Frank recalls the design process of Seattle's Museum of Pop Culture, which was funded by billionaire Paul Allen.

"And I told him I was going to continue working on would evolve and other things would happen to it. I don't think he understood that process, it's something a lot of clients don't, it's not unusual, that they think, wow this looks great, let's build it, and you know it's just the first sketch. I'm too guilty to do I have to struggle and suffer."

Frank Gehry has had to struggle and suffer for much of his life: from a difficult childhood that he's tried to come to terms with in life-long therapy sessions, to being a perpetual outsider in world of architecture.

He's a rebel artist who shuns conformity, no mean feat in a field defined by movements and conventions—a field that some purists even refuse to call "art". But it's precisely the artistic process of design that compels Frank Gehry at nearly 90 to come to work every day.

We're calling this two part series: Master of his own design: Conversations with Frank Gehry because that's exactly what they were: conversations, more lateral than linear—and perhaps that's fitting, as Frank Gehry has never met a straight line that he hasn't been tempted to bend.

It also seemed fitting to be sitting across from him on armchairs that he'd designed, ribbons of sensually curved plywood (which won him Time Magazine's award for best design in 1992), to discuss what compels this rebel architect to blaze his own magnificent trails away from the pack. 
– Mary Lynk

Frank Gehry, called the best architect of our time, on the nature of architecture. 0:42

Frank Gehry lives in Los Angeles. His company is called Gehry Partners, LLP. Also heard in the program – American scupltor, Richard Serra

Web Extra | Frank Gehry talks about a building that movers him to tears
Frank Gehry talks about a building that moves him to tears (videographer Andy Hines) 0:59

Web Extra | Frank Gehry on the question of mortality

Frank Gehry on the question of mortality 2:03

Related websites:

Further reading:

  • Frank Gehry, Frédéric Migayrou (Editor), Aurélien Lemonier (Editor), Prestel Publishing, 2014. (Catalogue created in conjunction with the exhibition Frank Gehry, first held at the Centre Pompidou, Paris.)
  • Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry. Biography by Paul Goldberger, Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

**This episode was produced by Mary Lynk.


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