/ 21 July 2008

Fish out of water

Sami Gehry walks me through his father’s office in Culver City, Los Angeles. Sami, an artist who might just go on to complete his architectural training and work for the firm, is Frank Gehry’s youngest son.

He’s 28. Looking around the big, open-plan California studio, everyone seems to be about 28. There are as many women as men among the 200 or so employees and most are busy making models of improbable buildings that wriggle, writhe and twist. They look fun to play with. Computer screens are conspicuous by their absence.

Sami picks up a crude wooden model. ”It’s a catapult,” he smiles, as his dad joins us, white-haired in jeans and T-shirt, and half a century older than pretty much everyone else at Frank O Gehry Associates (Foga).

”This was our starting point for this summer’s Serpentine Pavilion,” says Gehry, of the small London park project beloved by the world’s most famous architects. ”We wanted to be a little primitive. So, we thought of how we could make an interesting timber structure with a bit of energy under the trees in neighbouring Kensington Gardens. And, because the pavilion is temporary, we thought, why not get back to some real basics? We started with this catapult idea, and then we got hooked on the notion of a roof made of stylised butterfly wings. We passed the model around the office like we were playing a ball game, and ended up with this.”

The final model of the pavilion sits between the Gehrys and me. It looks like a big wooden puzzle, with slanting, intersecting beams of marmalade-coloured Douglas fir mixed up with steel beams, glass sheets set at multiple angles and long benches below the whole happily improbable caboodle. It reminds me of the way Gehry designed his own house in Santa Monica in the late Seventies; since rebuilt, it looked as if someone had tipped the contents of a builder’s yard over the site. It was a clever, sophisticated and much-liked building, funny without being daft.

The odd thing is that the Serpentine Pavilion is Gehry’s first English venture. ”Probably the last, too,” he says. ”I don’t think England likes me. The critics don’t, that’s for sure.”

To date, there is only one Frank Gehry building in Britain, a modest Maggie’s Centre in Dundee. British politicians might rave about the need to recreate what they call the ”Bilbao effect”, wanting to manufacture some of the cultural stardust emanating from the titanium roofs of Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, a building said to have done as much to lift the image of the Basque capital as Jorn Utzon’s Opera House did in Sydney. Yet Gehry has been asked to do nothing in England, aside from the Serpentine and a residential development in Hove on the south coast.

”I put it down to the ‘scared of Frank syndrome’. Perhaps they think I want to do another Bilbao. I don’t. I’d like to do one more major concert hall before I go, but just as no one would want to write another Ring Cycle, I wouldn’t do another Bilbao.”

As for the critics, Gehry has a point. On the plane to Los Angeles, I read a copy of Intelligent Life, the Economist‘s lifestyle quarterly. Gehry is described as ”the one-trick pony’s one-trick pony”, suggesting that all he does is repeat his origami-like design for the Bilbao Guggenheim. True, the stainless steel-sheathed Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown LA is the son of Bilbao, but this is pretty much as far as the look has gone. Would Gehry’s critics have said the same of Palladio or Mies van der Rohe? Or Bach and Picasso? Artists are surely free to explore a particular style until they exhaust it. And Gehry has worked in any number of styles over a career that spans decades.

Sitting in Gehry’s inner sanctum — a cosy office dotted with framed ice-hockey shirts, family photos, swooping cardboard armchairs (Gehry’s design), Mickey Mouse figurines, paintings by friends and a big wooden fish — the architect shows me drawings and books of designs and projects before Bilbao. Here are Japanese-influenced private houses, schemes for social housing, box-like cultural buildings, adventures in the colourful, cartoon-like postmodernism that failed to export well across the Atlantic.

Gehry’s creative drive stems from a very particular upbringing. He starts by saying he doesn’t want to talk about this, preferring to show me the latest work in the office, but in the end he does both. ”I began by building little model cities with my mom on the floor of our home in Toronto,” he says, ”while grandad read from the Torah. Mom’s family was from Lodz in Poland; they left in 1913. Dad’s family was from the Russian-Polish border. He made and sold furniture. For a time it was little papier-mâché rocking horses for kids.”

The Gehrys were ”pretty poor. At school, I got beat up by Catholic Polish kids, miners’ sons, who called me ‘kike’ and ‘Christ killer’. But the French Catholics, the underdogs in Toronto, were on my side and I learned to fight back. I even got good at ice hockey. One of my favourite projects has been ‘Disney ice’, a rink we did in Anaheim in the mid Nineties close by Disneyland.

”When I was 16, I went to a lecture — a big cultural experience for me — at the Art Gallery of Toronto. This fine, white-haired gentleman showed photos of wonderful bent plywood chairs, all curves and nothing like I’d ever seen. I hadn’t a clue who he was or what he was saying. I did later. It was Alvar Aalto — for me, along with Erich Mendelsohn and Le Corbusier, the greatest of all modern architects.”

The following year, the family moved to California to make a better living.

Gehry became a truck driver, delivering and fitting kitchens. One of his clients was Roy Rogers, ”King of the Cowboys”. Rogers made the 17-year-old welcome in his home. ”I was invited to Christmas dinner and got to attend film premieres and parties. I had a feeling of what California had to offer.”

Freedom, in a word. Gehry, a United States citizen, maintains his Canadian passport, but he is also very much a product of California. ”I started going to night school, taking drafting classes — I got an F at first — then calligraphy, book design, ceramics and architecture. I was told I was good at architecture, the first thing anyone said I was good at except ice hockey, fighting and fitting kitchens. A compliment can work wonders with a kid. So I was all set to try and get into college and then I was drafted into the army.”

The Korean war was over, so he served his time designing furniture for the army. Finally he got to architecture school. He showed his work to Richard Neutra, an Austrian émigré, who had done much to pioneer the modern California style of architecture: open-planned, geometric steel or timber and glass houses, blurring landscape and man-made structure. Neutra offered Gehry a job. With a wife and two kids to support, Gehry raised the question of a salary. Neutra was horrified: Gehry should be paying him for the privilege.

California, meanwhile, nurtured a particular sensibility in the young architect. ”I was a committed modern. I loved what Neutra, Schindler, the Eames and Pierre Koenig were doing, but I was looking, too, at somehow creating more delight in architecture. Vitruvius talked of the three things that mattered in architecture as being ‘commodity, firmness and delight’.

”The first two aren’t too hard to get right, but ‘delight’ seemed the real hard one.”

It took Gehry a long time to find his way towards an architecture that expressed movement. ”I love classical music and somehow I wanted to create musical buildings, lyrical buildings with a lot of delight. But, because I was a paid-up Modernist, I didn’t want to do this with decoration; it had to be with essential form.”

For Gehry, the resolution was 1997’s Bilbao Guggenheim, which has made him one of the most famous architects in the world. He even turned up in an episode of The Simpsons: his design for a Springfield Concert Hall was inspired by a screwed-up letter.

Gehry is thrilled that the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce has recently adopted his Disney Concert Hall as the city’s symbol, in place of the famous hillside Hollywood sign. He is also delighted to be designing a $200-million extension to the Art Gallery of Ontario.

”I first started on the whole movement thing by drawing fish, and then buildings that looked like fish. It was a kind of joke at first.

Postmodernists, reacting in the Eighties to the straight lines of modern movement orthodoxy, were going back to classical roots and the whole ‘man the measure of all things’ shtick. I thought, hell, why not go back even further to the fish. So I started drawing fish everywhere … Then I became obsessed with the flowing beauty and movement of fish and wanted that in my buildings.”

Gehry caught the moving spirit of the times and has never looked back. We take a stroll through the studio. Here is the billowing model of the future Fondation Louis Vuitton building, Paris, rising like waves from the Bois de Boulogne. Here is an extension to the chilly neoclassical Philadelphia Museum of Art designed by Horace Trumbauer, an architect from a humble background who drank himself to death. Gehry’s major contribution will be underground and out of sight.

We walk alongside models of the 75-storey, stainless steel Beekman Tower, Gehry’s first Manhattan tower, and designs for the Joyce Theatre, a dance school and venue, Gehry’s contribution to the redevelopment of Ground Zero.

A colourful model of what looks like a mini-Manhattan skyline is a proposal for the Brooklyn Arena and public housing development, the subject of much local protest that its towers will overwhelm the local area. In another corner, a young architect is making a model for a children’s playground for Manhattan’s Battery Park.

”We do projects like the kids’ park pro bono,” says Gehry. ”People come on to the phone asking me to give everything away for free — design, models, my sketches, the furniture in my office. Why not my shirt? You’d think Frank Gehry had already passed on. Not yet, I tell them. We’re still a business, very busy and still pushing the boundaries in design. The big thing for me now, though, is to encourage all this young talent in the firm, to make sure we don’t just vanish when I do … Architecture’s a continuum; you need to look back and forwards at the same time and to keep moving.”

”Like a shark,” I suggest. ”A fish,” counters Gehry. —