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Frank Gehry started off building cities with his grandma

World renowned architect Frank Gehry is comfortable talking about his work but when asked about his early days, the 91 year old pauses. "Now you're gonna make me cry." In a wide-sweeping conversation he recalls the roots of his curiosity, and they days when he's build wood block cities with his grandma.
At 91, architect Frank Gehry is still dreaming up and working on new projects. "There's always something new to chase after, some new corner to turn around and go around." (Mike Blake/Reuters)

It's pretty easy to spot a Frank Gehry building: all curves and glass and movement.

He'll tell you his designs — from the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles — "speak" to the buildings and environment around them. But to the onlooker, they clearly stand apart. 

In the latest episode of More with Anna Maria Tremonti, it also becomes clear that Gehry sees his buildings as a way to bring people together, and sees his own role in life as much more than an architect. In a wide-sweeping conversation, he traces his craft back to the days when his grandmother would encourage him to build cities out of wood blocks for the fire — an act of imagination he's adapted for students of today. 

The following excerpt from their conversation has been condensed for length and clarity. Find the full interview here or on your favourite podcast app.

As I listen to you I hear that you are so much more than an architect. That you care about more than the building of buildings.

I do, yeah. Well I grew up that way.

You know my grandfather used to read Talmud to me. I don't think he was sellout religious. He was just interested in the philosophy. And Talmud starts with the word "Why." It's about curiosity. And I think that is really important. You've got to be curious. 

Buildings are backgrounds for activity but the activity has to be a life, a thing. It's got to be more than just making money. It's a cultural thing and it brings people together to talk to each other, live together, work together. So, just the building alone is not that relevant.

Do you think that most architects understand that? Most people?

Not most. I don't think so.

Although architects tend to be idealists. They start out very idealistic. They want to make the world better. Most of the architects I know and work with have an idealistic base. They're trying to make a better world. 

People pass in front of the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Museum at dusk in Bilbao. (Reuters)

How important was your family life in creating the man who you are today? Those early days when you were a kid.

Okay, so now you're gonna make me cry. Well my grandparents were great. My grandmother brought the wood blocks home for the fire, for the wood stove. And she would throw them on the floor and make cities with me.

And I don't know why she decided to do that. Architecture wasn't in any part of our family at that time. So that was an important memory.

My father was not educated at all. He probably didn't even go to school. He was living on the streets in New York — Tenth Avenue. His father was a tailor who came from Russia and is actually buried in Toronto. And his name was Frank Goldberg. So there is a Frank Goldberg buried in a cemetery in Toronto — that's my grandfather.

Anyway, so my father ... had a heart attack at 49. He lost everything. And his brother moved him to L.A.

We got here and we were very poor because he had lost everything. But he became a truck driver and I became a truck driver. I was 17 or 18. Now, after he's gone — he died at 63 or something like that — I've seen evidence now that I find in some of the things he left behind, that we never looked at really until recently, and it's pretty clear that he had an artistic bent and that that's what he liked doing.

He would paint toys for people. He would make things. I remember him drawing with me but he never got to see what I started to do. By time I was an architect, he was out of it.

What do you think you would have thought of your work? Would he have been proud of you?

He would be shocked and proud. I think, yeah. I liked that thought. 

So, what advice do you give to your son as he tries to carve his own path?

Just stay curious. Do where your head takes you. And be conscious of the people who are working with you and the people who are you're working for and the importance of what you do in relation to your contribution to what's going on around us.

That sounds like advice you could give to lots of people.

Yeah. Well, I'm not holier than thou about it. I know that I just live that way. But there's a lot of different ways to live and still be creative and still be part of the world and still be doing important things. So my way is not the only example. 

Well, I think in these times though it's nice to hear you know to connect the work you do and the wider concept of architecture to the idea of humanity and being humane. I think it's a really important thing to hear from you.

Yeah. But I think the history of architecture shows that that was prevalent from the beginning.

You know all the great artists of the Renaissance became architects. So Giotto was a great painter, became an architect. El Greco was a great painter, became an architect. Architecture was treated as an art in those times.

After the war here architecture became less of an art and more engineering issues and financial issues. And not that they're not important but that became the driver. Not the humanity of it. And that's why our cities are kind of the way they are I think. And the cities look the same all over the world. You go to Seoul, Korea. It looks like downtown L.A.

Do you see yourself as an artist more than an architect?

Absolutely. I hope so. I think it's the same. They're not mutually exclusive. When I got out of school, I hung out with the artists more than with the architects because I just felt that's where I should be. And I still do.

Want to hear the full conversation?

Listen for free at cbc.ca/more or on your favourite podcast app — including Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts and Spotify. And if you're new to podcasts entirely, start here

Episode 7: "Frank Gehry built small cities with grandma" is available now on the More with Anna Maria Tremonti podcast. (CBC)