Frank Gehry's work on display at the National Museum of China
Frank Gehry's work on display at the National Museum of China

 Architect Frank Gehry

One of architecture’s greatest minds talks about why that field matters—and why business jets do, too.

Ten years ago, after a tumultuous 16-year design and construction effort that was nearly derailed, one of architect Frank Gehry’s favorite buildings finally opened. Perched like gusty puffs of air among the rectilinear towers of downtown Los Angeles, his metal-skinned Walt Disney Concert Hall made his unique vision concrete for thousands of locals and visitors. Little do they probably know that the 84-year-old Gehry lives just a few miles west in the coastal enclave of Santa Monica, where his passion is taking a new form in the Ocean Avenue Project. Described as a “world-class hotel and museum campus,” it will be his first big design for the famously reluctant-to-expand beachside city.

Though Ocean Avenue seems likely to further enhance the architect’s reputation, the creator of such landmarks as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Dancing House in Prague, Czech Republic, doesn’t exactly need plaudits at this point. When Vanity Fair polled 90 leading architects and architecture teachers and critics in 2005, more than half named the Guggenheim in Bilbao as the most important work completed anywhere in the world since 1980. That led the magazine to call the Pritzker Prize-winning Gehry “the most important architect of our age.” The late Philip Johnson, another hugely significant figure in the field, proclaimed him “the greatest architect we have today.” 

Gehry’s insatiable curiosity undoubtedly plays a role in his greatness. This inquisitiveness was already evident at age 14, when he decided to replicate a high-school experiment where hydrogen and oxygen were combined and catalyzed with fire to make water, under a bell jar. Lacking the proper equipment, Gehry set fire to the combustible atmosphere inside the glass beaker. “I threw the match in, thinking I would have a pop,” he recalled recently. “Luckily, I turned around. I had glass pieces in my butt and all the way across the room. People on the street knocked on the door to find out what happened. I was terrified. It was a good lesson in leaping into something without having a sense of the possible consequences, like our politicians do.”

Gehry learned the lesson well. His work has been described as “crumpled paper,” but that’s an inside joke, deriving from his self-parody in a 2005 episode of the long-running TV show The Simpsons (“The Seven-Beer Snitch”). In that episode, Gehry’s cartoon character crumples a piece of paper that forms the basis of the Disney Hall design. In fact—as a visit to the Gehry Partners studio in Los Angeles reveals—his creative process is far more involved. Dozens of architects work on various ideas that begin on paper, then morph into models of ever-increasing complexity. 

Are you excited about the Ocean Avenue Project?
Yes! We don’t have a finished design, but you can see what could happen. 

You’ve focused the tallest part away from the edges to open up the sides.
I think that people are afraid of height. They’re afraid of the Manhattanization of Santa Monica, which is a long way off, but I suppose if you opened the floodgates you could get a lot of towers. I’ve lived in Santa Monica since the ’60s and I’d hate to see it Manhattanized, but I think there are enough constraints through the [city] council and the public in Santa Monica to not let that happen. You have to argue for special cases in every city, and that gets dicey, because you let one guy do it [get a zoning variance] and you’ve got to let the other guy do it. People I’m working with are also long-term residents of Santa Monica and they have similar feelings, so they’ve urged us to be real careful, and they don’t want to build it unless it’s special.

You’re a brand ambassador for Bombardier. Have you ever wanted to design an airplane?
We’ve painted airplanes for [Pritzker Organization chairman and CEO] Tom Pritzker and [philanthropist and wine expert] Larry Ruvo, a Challenger 600. And we did an [airplane for an] airline from Panama [Copa Airlines]. 

Do you travel by business jet?
Yes, on short hauls. To China or Europe I don’t. It’s hard to justify. I use it around the U.S. and [within] Europe and it saves a lot of time. I can cut a week trip to three days by flying around private. 

What models do you prefer?
Xojet uses Challengers and has the Citation X, which I love. My friend [the late film director] Sydney Pollack used to have one. I used to fly with him. But I love the [Bombardier Challenger] 300. Whenever we can get a 300 I opt for it because it’s very comfortable.

How do you use the extra time?
It allows you to bring a couple of people and work on the plane, so you get a lot of quiet time—no telephones, although we use the Wi-Fi. In the long run it pays for itself. 

Are there aspects of the jets’ designs that you’d like to change?
I tend to accept conditions the way they are. If there was a chance to dig in and help them design it, I would. I would love to. 

Ever want to become a pilot?
I’ve logged time as a student pilot [pulls out logbook]. This was on a Citation II. I did turns, landings, takeoffs and cross-country.
I have a logbook
from the ’40s when I was taking lessons in a Waco biplane. We used to do aerobatics over Van Nuys Airport and land on that famous runway [16 Right]. I was 18 years old. I was an air cadet in high school and Air Force ROTC in college, so I have a fascination with flight and I love it. I’ve never soloed. I’ve attempted to take lessons but I’m just worried that
I wouldn’t focus. I’m all focused on architecture. 

Why is architecture important? 
Ninety-eight percent of the buildings that we live with are not architecture. Maybe architecture is a human conceit that’s been handed down through the ages. Sometimes you wonder why it’s necessary. It’s so trivialized by world cultures. It’s important to me because I spent my life doing it. There doesn’t seem to be much…real interest in architecture today. I’m frustrated that it’s not taken more seriously. 

For an architect, small [projects] can often have a big impact. That’s the nice thing about architecture. Bilbao is a relatively small building compared with the scale of things that were being built at the same time, and it had a huge impact in bringing revenue to the city. 

Wasn’t Bilbao an example of being close to budget?
Yes, the budget was $100 million and we came in at $97 million, slightly under. Disney Hall was $207 million and we came in at $207 million to $208 million, somewhere in there. I’m fastidious about budget control.

Is that unusual in the architecture business?
To me it’s serious. If the budgets aren’t realistic going in,I challenge them, and sometimes we don’t get the job. Like in Hamburg [Germany], we were offered the concert hall for 135 million euros. And I told them you couldn’t build it [for that]; it was going to be more like 800 million, and it’s now over a billion. [Another] architect accepted the budget. I don’t know why. Maybe they needed the work. I needed the work, too, but that’s where I draw lines, and maybe to my own detriment.

Is this something that you teach people who come to work for you?
Yeah, it’s a discipline. I don’t think throwing money at a building makes it a better building. There is a marketplace and a labor force and materials that are commodities and [the costs of] those go up and down. You have to be careful, and those are beyond the reach of an architect or a client. We track labor costs, and we usually hire cost analysts to analyze what it would cost to build a building, and if they say it’s possible [to do within the budget], then we stick to that budget. If somebody else can do it, we can do it.

What led to your interest in the fish motif that you incorporate into your designs?
There was a backlash to historic reconstruction. We called it post-modernism. And people started to use Greek temples as models again. I was disappointed and I said, “Well, since Greek temples are anthropomorphic, why not, if you’ve gotta go back, go back 300 million years before man to fish!” I just said it off the cuff. 

So then it became a symbol. When I would draw I would put the fish in it. It piqued the interest of a lot of people. 

But once I got into it, I realized that what I was looking for in architecture was a way to express movement like the Greeks did, like the sculptors in India. I made a room that was based on a fish shape and it had that sense of movement. It was obvious, other people saw it and it was beginning to be an architectural scale. That opened the door. I wasn’t intending to build fish rooms and stuff like that. It opened a door to a language that went beyond just pure rectilinear shapes and did express movement. 

So you have to be open to things popping up?
This is where we get into the territory of who’s an artist and what’s an artist, and artists tend to use and trust in intuition more than a lot of people do. I’ve experienced this phenomenon with very successful businesspeople; they trust their intuition like an artist does. So it’s not that these things pop up—these things are a product of the reality of your everyday life and the response to it. 

The only thing that you gotta wonder is why more people aren’t curious. I was raised in a Jewish family. I’m not religious, but I studied Talmud. Talmud starts everything with “why?” There’s a sort of built-in model for curiosity in the early education of a Jewish kid. 

The tendency in the Jewish religion for curiosity has been a great asset in my life. I think curiosity leads to success. Curiosity means you’re paying attention to what’s going on around you and you’re wondering why it’s happening. The next step is to say, “What if you did this?” That’s trusting your intuition for one millisecond, and the product of “what if you did this?” sometimes leads to an expression that represents itself in painting, sculpture, architecture, music, science, building airplanes. 

Do you think architecture can stimulate curiosity?
Yes, I think it can. I imagine 50 years from now people going to Bilbao and saying, “What the hell is that? Why is it?” And then being told, “That’s the art museum.” And then the next response would be, “These people were interested in art, weren’t they? I wonder why.” And then it might lead to some curiosity of how that really happened, that it was a commercial decision by the minister of culture, the minister of commerce, mayor, president of Basque Country, to resurrect their economy. It was a business decision. Very interesting.