The conversation below took place in December 1998, when ARCHITECTURAL RECORD editor-in-chief Robert Ivy flew to Santa Monica, California, to talk to Gehry. Ivy and Gehry met in two locations: Gehry's office and in his favorite deli on Wilshire Boulevard.
ARCHITECTURAL RECORD: You're getting covered with glory and honor; it must be an extraordinary moment for you. Not just the AIA Gold Medal Award, but the accumulation of all that has gone before.
FRANK GEHRY: It feels good but it's a bit overwhelming.
ARCHITECTURAL RECORD: That is really my question. What is it like?
FRANK GEHRY: I'm trying hard just to focus on work and luckily I'm old enough that I'm not going to go on drugs and get intoxicated. I've seen a lot of friends that got this kind of blitz and they didn't handle it very well. So, I guess÷we all know that success is harder than failure. It really is. But I have a very stable practice here that has been going on for many years and it is very well run business-wise. It has always been very well run. I don't think people realize that because it looks kind of hokey. But I never borrow money and everybody here is paid and everybody gets their Christmas bonuses. And it has been like that for years.
ARCHITECTURAL RECORD: That's not bad. That's pretty good.
FRANK GEHRY: So it's not a hokey-poky place. And so that stability is pretty reassuring. And then my wife works with me and handles the checkbook and that gives me comfort. And I have had a terrific team for the last ten years. When you're starting out, you can't get a team because you look so crazy, and you do work over and over again when you're younger, when you're fussing around trying to figure out who you are. And so people that have kids and stuff like that don't stay with you because you seem too unstable. In the last 10 years it has been great and I have two partners, Jim Glymph and Randy Jefferson. Maybe you should talk to them too. I would have liked to give the firm the award, because it is really them working with me that has made this possible.
When the M.I.T. facilities department went to Bilbao with me a few weeks ago in the pouring rain, they fully expected to find buckets on the floor. They didn't. And that is thanks to Randy Jefferson. So I've got that kind of technical and financial comfort, and that gives me a lot of freedom to play. And I've got two extremely talented design guys, Edwin Chan and Craig Webb, that have been here for a long time. We shorthand each other a lot. I work about the same amount as I always have. I go home every night at six and I don't work on Sundays. I take it easy. But I never go on vacations. I'm very committed and involved. I probably travel too much.
ARCHITECTURAL RECORD: How many people are employed at your firm now?
FRANK GEHRY:120. We've started to do production in the last three or four years; that is why the numbers have gone up. Before that you could run an office with this kind of load with 40 or 50 people. I think the production staff that we have is as good as anybody in the country right now. They are really at the leading edge. There is a lot of innovation in how architecture is practiced, how the cost control and working with clients and technical documents are done. So that all excites me a lot and gives me the feeling of being grounded and safe. Maybe I don't know something, but certainly we've been through a lot of ups and downs in the real estate market with this team and we've been able to handle ourselves pretty well.
ARCHITECTURAL RECORD: When did you decide to do production? Was it a job that did it?
FRANK GEHRY: Well, it was to gain better control of a job. We started with Bilbao. Randy was here and he was the project manager. He ran an office before he came here. A lot of his [previous] work was as executive architect. So he had a team that he wanted to put in and he controlled the process. We don't always get to do it. But we find that we're much more efficient when we do.
They are doing the production of Disney Hall now. You see the drawings that were done by the executive architect. Day and night. It gives us a better handle on cost control and then we can sleep at night. The other way if the building leaks it is not your fault. But when you're high profile, if the building leaks, you don't have time to explain to them that there was an executive architect and they screwed up. You get blamed. So I realized that we had to be responsible anyway. I would rather take the responsibility myself. So that's the long and short of it.
ARCHITECTURAL RECORD: Who is running things when you're not here, when you're all over the world? You are all over the world, it looks like.
FRANK GEHRY: Well, there are phones and stuff. Either Randy or Jim is here. My wife is the money part, the stability.
ARCHITECTURAL RECORD:Tell me a little bit about how you work. Where do you start with a project? Where does it come from? I've seen some of your gestural models.
FRANK GEHRY: Sketches. They make a block model of the program and many models of the site. So I work at two scales at once. The reason I work at two scales at once is so that I don't get enamored with one, the object of desire I call it. It is seductive. I remember when I was a kid I could draw pretty well and I would get suckered by my own drawings. Think I was doing something [great] and then you build it..., focusing on the real building all the time while you're working is a trick, because you get lazy, and by shifting scales it forces you to [be careful]. It is a lazy man's way of being careful.
So they build these blocks and we work with the client a lot. I listen to the client a lot. A lot. I spend a lot more time with clients than people could guess. Because I think that is the way we move forward and they get what they want and they feel comfortable about it. It is a process that lets them know you're listening to what their problems are. But it also is a process that creates the opportunities for invention, because it is that interaction that makes it exciting and rich. And I love the process most of all, the people process÷better than the final building actually.
I have told this before. There are three projects of mine I've never been to see and people are pissed off. The University of Iowa Laser Lab and the Herman Miller Manufacturing Center in California and a house out in the San Fernando Valley, and the reason for Iowa and Herman Miller is that by the time the buildings were finished, the people I was working with weren't there. So there was nobody to celebrate with, so I didn't go. And I like the building. And the house, the people are very proud of it. They would love me to come. They act very private and I didn't want to go out there
But did you see the blocks?
ARCHITECTURAL RECORD: I don't know that I saw the blocks.
FRANK GEHRY: See over there on the wall, those yellow blocks. (He points to the far wall in his studio). Those are the blocks of Case-Western University and then there÷I don't know if you can see them÷on the end on top, those are offices.
Each faculty group had a requirement for their offices and they were worried about where their desk would be. So we made a design of an office right on detail with their furniture and everything, book shelves, etc., and so that made them understand that we understood their problem. Now, once you do that, then if I deform and move the building and change things, at least they know I've committed myself to honoring those criteria.
We play in blocks and very neutral blocks for a long time until we get the organization on the site and the scale right. While we're doing that is when I do the sketches because as soon as I understand the scale of the building and the relationship to the site and the relationship to the client, as it becomes more and more clear to me, I start doing sketches, those sketches. (He points to drawings pinned casually around the room).
Those sketches give Edwin and Craig, depending on who is working on it, a sense of where I want to go, and they start making rough study models with some inkling of scale and architectural language; we go through that for what feels like months. I go back and forth. And we use the computer÷you will see some of those Case-Western models had alot of metal on them.
So that states the basic idea, and then we use the computer to calculate the area of metal and figure the exterior surface. We know cost-wise that we can only afford "X" as a certain amount. So then we modify the designs. We use that as a way to understand the cost. And we get area counts, surface counts an accuracy of seven decimal points. So it is really clean. Very clear and very precise and so when÷if you're here you would see that there are days when there is too much of something and they calculate it and they come in with long faces. I say, God, the design looks good but you've got to take ten percent of this away. And it is a matter of refining and keeping going until we get it right. And then refining the shapes.
Also, the shapes have to be clearly related to what is going on inside. That is another misconception about my work is that I just make shapes and there is no inside. People say that all the time. I don't know how they see that or get that idea.
ARCHITECTURAL RECORD: I don't think you know that until you go inside. I didn't know it until I went to Bilbao. Pictures don't show you.
FRANK GEHRY: Well, since the way I make models, it looks like we're tearing up paper and I just roll up the paper and throw it all out. It's good. It is not like that. It is much more precise and careful. So, we work from the inside out mostly.
Now, it takes a long time. It is like watching paint dry and I will move things. Sometimes it goes too far and then we pull it back. And that is why we have such a neat archive, because we record the daily changes. When we're in the heat of it, we'll record it on a daily basis because I know that I go too far and I want to go back and I want to recall things so we can rebuild. So, I can go back and say two weeks ago, that picture. Rebuild the model that way and they know how to do it.
ARCHITECTURAL RECORD: What do you say to the world right now, which is so engrossed in theory, about all the conversations that make architecture?
FRANK GEHRY: I'm teaching at M.I.T. because they don't do that. I don't know. Since I'm not that kind of intellect, it is easy for me to dismiss it. But my feeling is that there are a lot of different kinds of architects. There are a lot of different kinds of people. People do what they do best. And I love to read some of the stuff they write. And I'm interested in philosophy. I'm not a student of philosophy. My philosophy education comes out of reading proofs and stuff like that. The Bible. Years ago I used to read....I was interested in linguistics. But I didn't follow through.
So I became more interested in the visual and I suppose that, if anything, I've honed and spent time on developing my visual intellect. I don't sit down and say, "Okay I'm going to hone my visual intellect." But I mindset myself a long time ago to look at a lot of stuff. To look at things. Spend a lot of time looking. Looking at the space between objects. And I used to sit and just fantasize about cities. And I do that in the built environment. That is something you can do all day long. And I have a good visual memory. And I love things÷sculpting. Painters are most important to me.
ARCHITECTURAL RECORD: Who do you like? Who has been most important to you as a painter?
FRANK GEHRY: Rothko. And Jasper Johns. Of the modern, I mean I look at everybody. Matisse. Picasso. Everybody. I look at÷I have always loved stuff that I find in museums and I would get excited. See "The Madonna and Child" (he points out a Bellini print).
Well, my theory is that our buildings, the ideas that come from buildings are from art. So when we were working in Mexico on a project, I was thinking of "The Madonna and Child."
And so I showed this model to some clients, the Reichmans÷they were religious Jews. I showed them the painting, and I said "That is where they came from," and they looked at me [and said], "You've got to be kidding." I didn't do too well with the Reichmans. I come from their faith, but boy I don't fit into their fundamentalist whatever-it-is.
So, paintings and sculptures have been very crucial to my world and my life÷probably more than literature. Although I like reading.
ARCHITECTURAL RECORD: How about architects?
FRANK GEHRY: That is the part that is a problem. Well, I will tell you how it happened. I started÷I mean my student years I loved Harwell Hamilton Harris and Schindler. I went through a Frank Lloyd Wright thing. And I just flipped out for Le Corbusier. And in one of the classes I got to meet John Michel. I think Le Corbusier was the greatest architect of the century.
ARCHITECTURAL RECORD: Ronchamps. You thought it was the greatest.
FRANK GEHRY: Yeah. So, I then went to Europe and lived in Paris and worked in Paris and I spent a long time....I mean on weekends I would go driving everywhere I could. We didn't have a lot of money. They didn't pay much. I had two kids, two little girls at the time. And not the present wife. I flipped out for history. When I went to Chartres, denying all that, there was a lot of denial about history. And when I got to France, holy shit, when I got to Chartres, I practically cried at how beautiful it was.
So, I was really angry with my professors. You go through that. And I spent a lot of time studying Romanesque, French Romanesque. I went to all of them. And just loved it because of the toughness of the sculpture. And I came back and started practicing with no money. I got a job. A crummy little job that led to another little job. One of my first works, the Danziger House, the little Danziger House in Los Angeles. When I was walking around the structure, I would meet artists there. So a lot of the artists...Kenny Price, Ed Moses, mostly Ed Moses, were on strike. And I would meet them and I knew their work, and I was so excited to meet them.
At the same time, the architecture community ragged me for those buildings. They were really nasty about it. They didn't think I was [serious]÷I don't know why. They thought that using industrial windows in a real building was some kind of terrible thing to do at the time or something. It was more like I wasn't welcome with them and I couldn't talk to them. I found I could really talk with the artists. So I became more a part of this other community.
That was for a long time and it was nice. I kind of like to hide out too. I think of myself as an outsider. You know how you take those poses and you live your life with those things. So I felt at home with the artists and I learned a lot from them. I did some work for some of them. Like I ended up doing the Ron Davis studio. But I was intellectually intrigued with their process, their language, their attitudes, their ability to make things with their own hands. That it wasn't this detached thing. That it was hands-on and it was÷there were a lot of things that felt more comfortable to me that way from the art world, and I became more and more detached from architecture, from the architecture world. I was doing architecture. And more and more the architects were treating me like Joe Idiot anyway. Very few people were very interested at the beginning. A few people.
(Returning to the subject of Ronchamps)...Well, every time I go there I end up crying. I go there often. It was when the five days in May thing happened÷do you know about that?
ARCHITECTURAL RECORD: Refresh my memory.
FRANK GEHRY: Tim Vreeland was teaching at UCLA and he created a thing called The Five Days of May where they had the whites, the silvers and the grays. And they didn't include me in any of them. But they included people that were working for me. So I knew about it. And so that was all right. Sort of intrigued but not [part of it]÷and they asked me to host a party because I was the commercial architect. I was doing Santa Monica Place and commercial work that I had done with the Rouse Company and they saw me as this successful commercial architect. So they asked me to host a party for the architects, in a big loft. And I thought that's pushy to ask÷they didn't invite me to the party but they invited me to host one.
So, I said, "Okay, I will"÷I'm a gentleman. So I hosted the party but I was going to go to Harvard÷it was the same days as the urban design conference at Harvard and so I had plane reservations and I was leaving for Harvard. I wasn't even planning to be there. I was just going to split. And by some fluke I went to UCLA in the morning and I heard [Peter] Eisenman speak and it clicked. He was doing his little houses at the time. Four, three, six, five...whatever. And he talked about the joy he got in drawing÷he explained the joy of drawing those drawings. And the tactile quality. And he was talking like an artist. And I connected with him. And I was fascinated with him. So I went up and started talking to him and he dragged me along to one of the parties that they were going to and by the end of the evening I was into discussions with all of these guys. So the next day came, and I didn't take the plane. I decided I would go to the party.
Excerpt from the interview.