Playboy Interview: Frank Gehry

By David Sheff

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When Philip Johnson, who has been called the godfather of contemporary architecture, first entered the just-completed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, he wept. It wasn’t the first time Frank Gehry, the building’s architect, inspired emotions rarely caused by an edifice. Johnson is just one of many architects and critics who have crowned Gehry the most important architect in the world.

Gehry’s hauntingly beautiful, completely original buildings have redefined architecture and transformed cities. Some are made with common materials such as chain-link fences and corrugated metal, on one hand, and on the other, some with sheets of titanium, curving like ocean waves. Like no other architect since Frank Lloyd Wright, Gehry transcends the often-rarefied field to become a celebrity. He hangs out with friends such as Brad Pitt and Bono, for whom he has envisioned pop-up stores for Product Red, a charity that uses its profits to fight AIDS in Africa.

Recently Vanity Fair magazine asked 52 of the world’s reigning architects and critics to pick the greatest work of architecture built since 1980. The winner by a landslide was Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, called by the late New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp “the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe.” “Bilbao is truly a signal moment in the architectural culture,” said the Pulitzer Prize–winning critic Paul Goldberger. “The building blazed new trails and became an extraordinary phenomenon. It was one of those rare moments when critics, academics and the general public were all completely united about something.” Other famous Gehry buildings include Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago’s Millennium Park, the Experience Music Project museum in Seattle and the magnificent “Dancing House” in Prague. The accolades continue to pour in and Gehry has been given every major award an architect can win. For Playboy’s 50th anniversary issue Gehry created the ultimate bachelor pad. A stark contrast to what was the traditional bachelor pad—described by The New York Times as “a studio with a duct-taped beanbag chair and a beer-can sculpture”—Gehry’s was modern and deconstructivist, with a ceiling over the bed that was a glass-bottom swimming pool.

Gehry, born in Toronto and educated at the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture, is currently working on an arts center at Ground Zero in New York City and a new Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi. Other commissions include buildings in Biloxi, Mississippi, Las Vegas and Basel, Switzerland. Though 81, Gehry travels nonstop, jet-setting between his Los Angeles home and construction or potential construction sites throughout the world. Between trips, the architect sat down with Contributing Editor David Sheff, who has interviewed John Lennon, Fareed Zakaria and Betty Friedan, among others, for us. Sheff reports: “Gehry’s firm is located in a former BMW factory that looks like a cross between Epcot Center, a Silicon Valley technology laboratory and a preschool, with rooms crowded with construction materials (building blocks, sheets of metal) and models of buildings from miniature to room size. In Sketches of Frank Gehry, a documentary about the architect by Gehry’s friend Sydney Pollack, former Guggenheim director Thomas Krens remarks on Gehry’s big ego, but in our conversation the architect was surprisingly modest and self-deprecating. He also had a wry sense of humor. Before we began, he said he’d prepared for our interview by reading one I’d conducted in the past—with Jack Nicholson.

‘Mostly Nicholson talked about his sex life,’ Gehry said. ‘I don’t want to disappoint you, but I have no sex life.’ It turned out fine, as at one point he noted that architecture is all about erections.”

PLAYBOY: It’s not often that an architect is the subject of a Playboy Interview. Does this make you feel like a celebrity?

GEHRY: I’m of two minds about doing any interviews these days. It seems a lot of the world is out to play gotcha with me. I guess they always go after people these days. It’s sport. Can you imagine being Brad Pitt?

PLAYBOY: As the world’s most celebrated architect, wouldn’t you expect to be the target of the press and critics?

GEHRY: The thing is, I hate the celebrity architect thing. I just do my work. The press comes up with this stuff and it sticks. I hate the word starchitect. Stuff like that comes from mean-spirited, untalented journalists. It’s demeaning.

PLAYBOY: And yet ever since Frank Lloyd Wright, a few architects—such as you, Philip Johnson, Rem Koolhaas and a few others—have become as well known.

GEHRY: It’s derisive, and once it’s said, it sticks. I get introduced all the time, “Here’s starchitect Frank Gehry.…” My reaction: “What the fuck are you talking about?”

PLAYBOY: From your prominent position, whether as starchitect or architect, how would you sum up the state of architecture in America?

GEHRY: Ninety percent of the buildings we live in and around aren’t architecture. No, that’s not right—98 percent.

PLAYBOY: What do you mean they aren’t architecture?

GEHRY: Ninety-eight percent are boxes, which tells me that a lot of people are in denial. We live and work in boxes. People don’t even notice that. Most of what’s around us is banal. We live with it. We accept it as inevitable. People say, “This is the world the way it is, and don’t bother me.” Then when somebody does something different, real architecture, the push-back is amazing. People resist it. At first it’s new and scary.

PLAYBOY: Don’t your buildings prove the opposite, that people embrace the radically different?

GEHRY: After they’re built. Every time, the resistance is enormous. When initially I met with the clients in Bilbao—the people who represented the city—they asked for the Sydney Opera House. That is, they wanted something that would define Bilbao in the way the Opera House defines Sydney. In my own way I delivered what they asked for. I presented the museum in model form and they loved it and pushed the button to go forward and build it. Immediately there was a vigil in the streets. Steelworkers, dockworkers, other union people and many others all against me created a phalanx with candles. I had to walk through them to go to the formal presentation of the model. There was a threat in the newspaper, “Kill the American architect.” I was told not to worry, but believe me, through all the public presentations I stood next to the Basque president. I thought, They’re not going to shoot him.

PLAYBOY: What was their point? Why were they holding a vigil?

GEHRY: They didn’t want it built. They hated it. They were appalled. They didn’t understand it. They didn’t want the change it represented. Now that it’s built they run over and want their pictures taken with me. “Señor Gehry, Señor Gehry…!” I should live there. It’s a love-in, though they’d probably get tired of me. Before, however, they reacted as if I was taking their city away.

PLAYBOY: Why were people threatened? According to many architects and critics, the Bilbao is the best modern building in the world.

GEHRY: Generally people are afraid. They pretend they aren’t; it’s part of the denial. We’re all part of it. As much as we pretend otherwise, we want what’s comfortable, and we’re afraid of the different. We’re afraid of change. It happened in Los Angeles, too, when the first models of Disney Hall were shown. You should have heard the outcry from the public, critics and press. It was called “broken crockery,” “outlandish” and blah blah blah. Of course now the feeling is different. The building has helped the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which is one of the few orchestras anywhere that’s in the black. The management of the Philharmonic credits a lot of it to the building. But at first people saw the models and drawings and were horrified. It’s happened over and over again.

PLAYBOY: How do you feel driving through virtually any city or suburb almost anywhere in America—and increasingly in the world—and passing identical strip malls, condominium complexes, apartments, chain stores, McMansions, big-box stores and tract houses?

GEHRY: “Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky.” There’s the old song about it. It’s a metaphor for what we’re being told: “Just stay in the box, kid, don’t muddy the water.” Parents say it to their kids. Teachers say it. Schools do. And so people become immune to the sameness. I’m in denial just like everybody else. It’s so common it’s accepted. We can’t imagine it any other way. It’s dehumanizing, and we don’t even notice it. You see it in Korea, you see it in Russia, you see it in China, you see it in India, you see it in Japan.

PLAYBOY: Globalized bad taste?

GEHRY: Globalized no taste. It’s terrible, and each of those cultures comes with a history of beauty, whether Korea, Russia, China, India or Japan. Everywhere, including America, at least a little bit.

PLAYBOY: But does the sameness come down to no taste or to economics? That is, isn’t it simply cheaper to build cookie­cutter buildings and a mass­produced monoculture than distinctive offices, stores, homes and other structures?

GEHRY: I think it has more to do with comfort. You can make the economics work if you want. But in Tokyo, London or Los Angeles people go into McDonald’s and the restaurants are identical and people are comfortable. It’s unthreatening. They know it, and we like what we know. Look around this room. [indicates his office, a clutter of drawings, models, stacks of papers, books and photographs] I’ve got all my tchotchkes. They make me feel good. It’s messy, but it’s a controlled mess—my mess. I know where everything is.

PLAYBOY: Sameness may be about comfort, but could it also be that people don’t notice or don’t care about architecture and design?

GEHRY: I think people care. If not, why do so many people spend money going on vacations to see architecture? They go to the Parthenon, to Chartres, to the Sydney Opera House. They go to Bilbao. There’s something that compels them. People come to see Disney Hall and Millennium Park in Chicago—I should be happy and shut up. So what is it? The general public throughout the world, no matter what their education or background, from all walks of life, go to the Parthenon. It costs them money to get there. They go to Rome, to Milan. They go to see great architecture. Something compels them, and yet we live surrounded by everything but great architecture. Why do we stand for it? People are searching for something they don’t have in their lives. There’s an unfulfilled need. My question is, What creates that need, and why doesn’t it translate into more of a demand for better design in our lives?

PLAYBOY: Well? What creates the need?

GEHRY: What creates the need is deeply part of who we are as people. The reason it doesn’t translate into a demand for better design in our lives is because of denial. As I said, we don’t see the banality, but we accept banality. We accept it as inevitable, and it’s not.

PLAYBOY: Maybe it is.

GEHRY: If the general public demanded better, they’d get better, because the market­place responds to the public’s needs and desires.

PLAYBOY: Do we pay a price for accepting the banal?

GEHRY: I think we do, but maybe I’m wrong. We’ve survived as a species, so maybe it doesn’t matter. But maybe we’re missing something. Guys way back when were drawing in caves, and something was driving them. We have always created—music, literature, art, dance. The art around us—or lack of it—may be a measure of how we’re doing as individuals and as a civilization, so maybe we should be worried.

PLAYBOY: Like early man drawing on cave walls, in spite of the boxes we live in and around, people still build and create, whether skyscrapers or sand castles. What’s behind the impulse?

GEHRY: There’s a drive in us to express ourselves in some way or form. We pick up whatever material is available. It’s primitive. Kids see sand on the beach, build something and show their parents: “Look what I did, Mama.” It’s necessary to us. Some cultures tried to stop people from expressing themselves. In Mao’s China, for example, the Communists tried to stop individual expression. For them the payoff was a society of equality. The problem of course is that it didn’t work. Ultimately you can’t repress individuality, even though you can try. People live and work in uninspiring environments, but look inside those rooms. Look at the painted walls and the decorations. People rebel even in the most controlled office environment in which they’re not allowed to do anything. You see the little bulletin board in front of a person’s desk with their photos, clippings, cartoons and whatever else.

PLAYBOY: Is it elitist to suggest that people need art and architecture? Many people don’t have the time to see art or get the education that could help them appreciate it.

GEHRY: It’s not elitist to acknowledge that everyone has a unique signature and everyone is different. We’re physiologically wired differently. There are many variations on the theme, and the excitement and recognition of that should be celebrated. It’s not about time or education but about individuality. Those who say only artists and architects can create are the ones who are elitist. We should celebrate variety rather than conformity and allow people to express themselves. That we don’t is more of our denial. We deny our nature to build and create and then wonder why there is so much alienation and dissatisfaction. Everyone has a desire, if not a need, to use their individual signatures. Whenever people meet to talk about a project, even stuffy old businessmen, they say they want to create something new. Insurance executives go to a retreat and what do they talk about? “How do we make things better?” The experts come in and have everyone free­associate. They even call it play—“Let’s play around with this idea.” We’re wired that way from childhood. Childhood play is nothing more than an expression of our individuality and preparation for human interaction. Everybody’s an artist. Unfortunately we don’t treat them as such.

PLAYBOY: When you’re traveling, do you feel different depending on whether you stay in a beautiful hotel versus a standard Holiday Inn?

GEHRY: Generally people are more impressed with the services and the comfort issues than the design. If there’s fruit, you feel welcome. I tend to go to very old-fashioned hotels. I’ve stayed in the Philippe Starck hotels with tiny rooms, and I bump into everything. I love his work a lot, but when I go to some of those hotels I come out with black-and-blue marks. There are also places that are so designed they’re unlivable. I used to rail against the Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe. If you lived in that house and you came home and took your clothes off, where would you put them? You couldn’t just throw your coat on the chair; it would spoil the design.

PLAYBOY: Like Mies, some architects plan every detail, including the furniture and art on the walls. Don’t you?

GEHRY: I don’t. A friend of mine who worked with Mies had the Mies ensemble—a settee, two chairs and a coffee table—in front of the fireplace in his apartment. He’d complain that it wasn’t comfortable. I said, “I’ll show you what’s wrong.” I took the settee and pulled it around, put a chair on either side of the fireplace and did this and that. He agreed it was so much better. The next time I went it was all put back the way it had been. I asked why, and he said, “That’s the way Mies wanted it.” Mies was dead by then. I don’t think he would have cared.

PLAYBOY: On the other hand, how does it feel if someone with terrible taste decorates one of your buildings?

GEHRY: It’s up to them. It’s why I don’t micromanage the interiors. People ask me to and I say no. I don’t want to control everything like Mies and Frank Lloyd Wright did. I’ll say, “I’m going to design the container and interior spaces. You bring your own stuff to it and make it your own.” I don’t impose myself in that way.

PLAYBOY: How do you respond to the charge that your work is about art, not people?

GEHRY: Art is about people. I think the discussion about whether architecture is art or not is lamebrain. Richard Serra, whom I very much respect, has joked that my work is not about art because I put a toilet in it—he called me a plumber. Artists dismiss me as an architect, so I’m not in their box, and architects dismiss me as an artist, so I’m not in their box. I don’t know whose box I’m in, and I don’t really care. In the Renaissance there wasn’t a distinction. Bernini was an artist and he made architecture, and Michelangelo also did some great architecture. The back of Saint Peter’s is one of the finest pieces of architecture I’ve ever seen. The architect Borromini’s Quattro Fontane, a little church in Rome, is one of the most beautiful rooms in history.

PLAYBOY: Isn’t it annoying to create what you consider a piece of art and then have a client say, “My wife needs a bigger bathroom.”

GEHRY: I don’t do houses.

PLAYBOY: How about a building when the client asks for changes?

GEHRY: In the Sydney Pollack documentary about me, Tom Krens, the former Guggenheim director, says I have the biggest ego in the world and that it manifests itself when you come to me and say “I don’t like this” or “I want a change.” He says I relish that because my ego’s so big I think I can solve whatever you throw at me and make it even better. I enjoy the interaction and the challenge.

PLAYBOY: In your opinion are your best buildings ones in which you’ve been given free rein?

GEHRY: No. The best are the result of collaboration with a good client.

PLAYBOY: What about a bad client?

GEHRY: I do my best to choose carefully. If I don’t feel that collaboration is going to happen, I say no. Think about it. These projects can involve a five-to-seven-year partnership. If you don’t feel comfortable with someone, you can’t get rid of them. I just walked away from a job for that reason. Every one of these projects is an emotional investment, like falling in love. You’ve got to believe in it and you’ve got to like the people you work with.

PLAYBOY: After the initial stage of signing on to create a building, is there usually a moment of epiphany when you first envision the overarching design?

GEHRY: I have moments. I do get excited. It happens when I have the idea—the structure, the form, the body language, the way it fits, the way it deals with the functional elements, with gravity and the realities of construction—and I know it’s affordable to the client.

PLAYBOY: What if you come up with an exciting idea that because of engineering or cost is impractical to build?

GEHRY: I’m preprogrammed emotionally and intellectually not to go down blind alleys. I don’t waste the time. I automatically edit out whatever’s impractical. By the time I get to what I call the candy store, when it all comes together, I know I can do it. The rap on me on the street is the opposite—I’m impractical, I’m more expensive, it’s too complicated and I run over budgets, which isn’t true. None of that’s true and there’s plenty of documentation if anybody needs it.

PLAYBOY: From where do the big ideas come? Is it true you saw what became Disney Hall in a crumpled-up piece of paper?

GEHRY: That’s mythology. I wish I could do that, but it’s not true. That’s from The Simpsons. On the show I crumple up a letter and there’s the concert hall they asked me to design. If only it were that easy. The Disney Hall was never a crumpled piece of paper. The fact is I’m an opportunist. I’ll take materials around me, materials on my table, and work with them as I’m searching for an idea that works.

PLAYBOY: What was the biggest challenge designing Disney Hall?

GEHRY: I spent a lot of time with musicians and learned how often they’re frustrated in these rooms because they can’t hear one another. That was one challenge. Another was performer-audience connection. Shakespeare said it: “All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players…” blah blah blah. Both the audience and the performer want that connection. I’ve experienced it myself giving lectures in various auditoriums. If the room is friendly to a relationship between lecturer and audience, you feel everything—the tension, the appreciation. I think the audience feels it too. I carefully analyzed the halls that work for musicians and audiences and those that don’t, and spent a lot of time talking to musicians and people who make up the audience. As a result I designed Disney Hall to be extremely intimate, with an intense connection between performers and audience. It was challenging for many reasons, including how difficult it is to build anything these days.

PLAYBOY: Why is it difficult these days?

GEHRY: When you were a kid, if you went to the Montreal Forum or a hockey game at Maple Leaf Gardens, which I did, there was a great feeling. The new stadiums don’t have it. Why don’t they have it? Building codes.

PLAYBOY: What’s wrong with building codes?

GEHRY: The safety requirements, which are necessary, spread everything out and push people farther and farther away from the stage and from each other. That’s a big part of the problem.

PLAYBOY: How did you solve it for the Disney Hall?

GEHRY: I compressed the space but found ways to include the required exits and accessibility and everything else. I convinced the clients it was worth it even though we wound up with fewer seats than they originally wanted. The plan was for 2,500 seats; I finally got in 2,265. I made it all work without compromising intimacy. In fact, the few complaints I got were about that very issue. Some people find it too tight and feel threatened by that kind of closeness. I’m sorry about that, but we’ve found places they can sit where it isn’t a problem. Otherwise people—musicians and audience—respond to the intimacy. We worked with acousticians, of course. We made a one-to-10 model of the space. We took out the oxygen and replaced it with nitrogen—that allows for the purest sound because it’s less obstructive to sound waves. A Mozart sonata was played. It was another part of the process of fine­tuning, all of which resulted not only in the design of the space, including the risers on which the orchestra sits and a million other things, but also acoustic changes. It was all incredibly complex. It’s not just about crumpling a piece of paper. And it had to fit the budget, which it did.

PLAYBOY: When a building as complex as that is completed, are you sort of amazed that you pulled it off?

GEHRY: I am.

PLAYBOY: And proud?

GEHRY: It takes three or four years before I get there. My first reaction is, “Oh my God, what have I done to these people?”

PLAYBOY: Do you sometimes wish you could have another go, that you could improve on a design?

GEHRY: Every time.

PLAYBOY: Which of your buildings is your favorite?

GEHRY: That’s like asking which of your kids is your favorite. Even if I had one I wouldn’t say.

PLAYBOY: But are you particularly proud of the most famous ones—the Bilbao, Disney Hall, your original Santa Monica home?

GEHRY: There are the obvious ones, but I’m also terribly proud of others. One that comes to mind is the Maggie’s Centre in Scotland, which I did pro bono.

PLAYBOY: Which are your favorite buildings designed by other architects?

GEHRY: The easy one is the chapel by Corbusier at Ronchamp in France. One of my unsung heroes is Erich Mendelsohn. I met him when I was a student and he was a cranky old man and very unpleasant. But if you go to his Einstein Tower in Potsdam, Germany you see an enormous intellect at work with a language that was personal and new. It has a sense of urban design and of theater and procession I hadn’t seen before. His drawings are expressive and beautiful. If he’d had the computers we have now, everything I’ve done he would have done before me. I would have had to figure out something else.

PLAYBOY: What newer buildings do you like?

GEHRY: At first I didn’t cotton to Mies’s Lake Shore Drive towers in Chicago, but when I went there and saw how they come down on the slab of one-and-seven-eighths-inch-thick travertine, I turned around. I think that was an incredible statement of modesty and power, not resorting to the usual pedestals and the other aggressive things modernists do. It was so subtle, understated and powerful as hell. Rem Koolhaas certainly achieved an incredible piece of sculpture in the CCTV tower in Beijing. Also in Beijing, of course the Bird’s Nest stadium [built for the Olympics] by Herzog & de Meuron. I like a lot of young people, such as Zaha Hadid, who did the MAXXI Museum in Rome. They’re finding their way, and I have great respect for them.

PLAYBOY: After years of debate and revision, what’s your opinion of the Freedom Tower that will go up at Ground Zero in New York City?

GEHRY: I don’t know. It’s probably going to be okay.

PLAYBOY: We thought that 9/11 would have stopped what seemed to be a perpetual competition for the world’s tallest building, but skyscrapers keep getting taller.

GEHRY: Yes, the race continues in a way. My tallest is the Beekman in New York; it’s being finished now. The client said that at 76 stories it is the tallest apartment building in New York, and I said, “Why don’t we make it two stories shorter so it’s not, because if Trump hears that, he’ll try to beat it, and I don’t want to bother him.” Already somebody’s doing a taller one. It’s a hilarious thing about erections.…

PLAYBOY: What’s your opinion of the current world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai?

GEHRY: It’s big. When you get up to the top there’s no space.

PLAYBOY: Though buildings are getting taller, did the destruction of the World Trade Center change architecture in other ways? Is it looked at as an anomaly, or do architects and engineers now take into consideration the possibility of a similar attack?

GEHRY: You have to pay attention to it. I would certainly raise that issue with the structural engineers I deal with. Everybody takes it into account. It’s now possible to do a lot better with engineering.

PLAYBOY: What’s changed?

GEHRY: Everything—design and technology and materials—has changed since the World Trade Center was built. A lot of it has to do with computers, which allow us to be far more efficient as well as structurally sound.

PLAYBOY: Exactly how have computers changed architecture?

GEHRY: They allow architects to remain parental instead of being marginalized by the contractors and managers.

PLAYBOY: How are architects marginalized?

GEHRY: Until now, you hired an architect and they designed a building you liked. You put it out to bid to contractors, and the bid comes in high. You don’t have the money. What do you do? You turn to the contractor, who begins telling you how to cut costs. The contractor becomes parental and the architect becomes infantilized. The contractor, who doesn’t know why these shapes are the way they are, attacks anything that’s different and says, “Look, do this and do that and we’ll fix the budget.” With computers we can work everything out from the beginning. For example, the Disney Hall models were presented to the board in my offices some years ago. The contractor, who was well-known to the board members, came to the meeting. The board oohed and aahed over the model and loved it, then they turned to the contractor and said, “What do you think?” This guy, in my office, in front of them and in front of me, said, “Looks great, but you can’t build it.” I was ready for him. I’d made a 20-foot-long, 12-foot-high mock-up of all the hard parts of the building. It was in the parking lot. We all went outside, and the contractor looked at it in front of the board said, “I didn’t understand what you meant. Of course I can build that.” I was playing gotcha. We were able to build it because computers demystify the complex, giving you more freedom. Before we built anything we worked it all out on computers until we knew exactly what would and wouldn’t work and how much it would cost. Architects are back in control, even though people still love to tell us what won’t work. They’ve always done it—they told Frank Lloyd Wright, too.

PLAYBOY: What did they tell Wright he couldn’t do?

GEHRY: He was always searching for and testing new materials. He wanted to use a new kind of concrete blocks for the Ennis House in Los Angeles, for example. He was told they couldn’t be built. He ignored the intelligentsia and made them himself, and they lasted about 50 years. After that amount of time they failed, but they were fixable. The building’s an icon, but he built it for people who lived in it and loved it. They were long gone when the blocks failed.

PLAYBOY: After the destruction of the World Trade Center, do you feel responsible for the soundness of the materials and safety of your buildings?

GEHRY: The materials had nothing to do with the collapse of the towers, but yes. With our engineers and consultants we’re responsible to make sure things aren’t only beautiful but safe. When I teach at school and see these kids coming through, I look at them and say, “You’re walking into a bloody cannon and you’d better start looking at the realities. If you’re serious about being an architect, you’ve got to learn how to take responsibility.” It’s not fluff. You have to do every detail on every bloody piece of the building. You have to know how the engineering works. You have to know how the fittings go together. You have to master the mechanical, electrical, acoustical—everything.

PLAYBOY: After all these years, why do you still teach aspiring architects?

GEHRY: I love it. You feel as if you can make a difference in someone’s life. When I start my class I ask the students to write their signatures on pieces of paper and put them on a table. I have them look at them, and I point out, “They’re all different, aren’t they? That’s you, that’s you, that’s you, that’s you.” I say, “That’s what you have to find in architecture. You have to find your signature. When you find it, you’re the only expert on it. People can say they like it or don’t like it. They can argue about it, but it’s yours.” In one class the students had to build a model of a concert hall in Istanbul for the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. It was a theoretical assignment. A brilliant and talented young lady from Iran knew the region, knew the history and knew the culture. She designed a building that contained all she knew. It was too rigid. I suggested that she had to find her signature in the building and not try to create it for other people. One night at her apartment she had a dinner party for the class, and for dessert she’d made a meringue. It was beautiful. She said that whenever she became stressed or freaked out with work she’d cook. She loved it and derived great joy from it. I said, “That’s where you have to look for your inspiration. Don’t separate the rest of your life—who you are, what you love—from your work.” The meringue was the result of her passion. I said, “Your concert hall is in there.” Her final project not only worked, it was beautiful.

PLAYBOY: Do architecture schools inspire people to, as you describe it, have their own signatures?

GEHRY: Sometimes, but it should begin much earlier with arts education in the American school system, which is sadly deficient. When I was a child I could do math and art, so I had left- and right-brain capabilities. But I’ve seen my children, who are more right-brained, struggling. My son was told he wouldn’t make it to college, but he dogged it through and ended up being accepted by 10 major art schools after the high school advisor said, “Please don’t apply. You’re going to be disappointed.” That kid’s an artist now. Generally in our world, whether in architecture or almost anywhere else, we devalue the artist, and schools at whatever level shut people down. A 14-year-old girl was in a high school class I visited. Her mother worked, and this girl had to take care of a baby. She was completely shut down, insecure and self-deprecatory. She’d hide in the corner and wouldn’t say anything. I had the students make a city. I got them a bunch of boxes full of chicken wire, trash and other materials. She sat in the corner and didn’t do much. I noticed and decided to give her a box, paintbrushes and paints, and I asked her to paint it. We put the box in the final model, and everybody saw how beautiful it was and told her. It brings a tear to my eye to think about that moment. She became the class artist and changed before my eyes. Her confidence, her sense of possibilities. There are thousands of kids like that.

PLAYBOY: In your life, did you have an equivalent teacher who was encouraging and inspiring?

GEHRY: The ceramics teacher who sent me to architecture class. I was in night school, taking art classes. I was 18 or 19. The teacher was building a house by a well-known Californian modernist architect, Raphael Soriano. I guess something I was doing or saying resonated with him, because he took me to see that house.

PLAYBOY: Is architecture something you had thought about before in your life? Growing up were you aware of architecture?

GEHRY: Not very much.

PLAYBOY: What was your childhood home like? Were your parents involved in the arts?

GEHRY: My mother was interested in classical music. She studied violin when she was a kid. She took me to concerts. She also took me to art museums. She’d taken me to the Art Gallery of Ontario, which I coincidentally ended up remodeling. I used to go to the lectures at the University of Toronto on Friday night, which was date night. I attended a lecture by a gray-haired old man from Finland, who later I discovered was the architect Alvar Aalto. I was very moved. I wasn’t interested in architecture, but it was a moving thing I’ve never forgotten. Meanwhile my father was in the slot machine and pinball machine business until they were declared illegal in Canada. He didn’t have an education. He failed and he got sick. His brother picked him up and brought him to California, because that’s what they did to people who were sick. I came to California and became a truck driver.

PLAYBOY: How did you get from truck driving to architecture?

GEHRY: I got into architecture school at USC and then did graduate work at Harvard in city planning. When people condemn me for designing iconic buildings in cities and not having an idea what a city is, they haven’t done their homework. I started in urban design and city planning. It’s just that when I got out of school there wasn’t much of a market for that. There still isn’t.

PLAYBOY: When you decided on architecture, did you know what type you wanted to do?

GEHRY: I’m a do-gooder liberal. That’s why you go into architecture—at least I did—to do things for people. I think most of us are idealists. You start out that way, anyway. I didn’t have any interest in doing rich people’s homes. I still don’t.

PLAYBOY: And yet you’ve done many.

GEHRY: Not lately. I stopped. In the early days I had to do them.

PLAYBOY: Everything changed for you when you built your own home in Santa Monica, famously made with chain-link fences and corrugated metal. What inspired you to use those materials?

GEHRY: It goes back to what we were talking about earlier: denial. Here we are surrounded by material that’s being manufactured in unimaginable quantities worldwide and is used everywhere. I don’t like it, no one likes it, and yet it’s pervasive. We don’t even see it. I noticed and started finding ways to beautify it. I wanted to take the curse off the material. It’s also why I made cardboard furniture. Cardboard is another material that’s ubiquitous and everybody hates, yet when I made furniture with it everybody loved it. In the art world Robert Rauschenberg had been combining common materials that people thought was art and beautiful, and it was. If he could do that, I could emulate him.

PLAYBOY: More than 30 years before the green-architecture movement, you were recycling materials. The most dramatic recent change in architecture follows that model. In the age of global warming, it’s the trend toward environmentally responsible design. Why then did you criticize LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] certification of buildings that meet green standards?

GEHRY: What I said is that what’s being done, while it makes everybody feel good, isn’t enough to meet the needs of the problem. I’m concerned about it. China is building cities for a 20 to 40 percent increase in population. India is quickly growing. The carbon footprints of that and other development around the world are overwhelming. The issues are bigger than LEED. It’s a world problem and has to be solved politically. Many people put a green button on their collar and feel good, just like a lot of people put an American flag on their lapels and feel patriotic. It’s not enough. I’m not dismissing it. I’ve been concerned about these issues since the 1960s. There have been many articles that say we’ve been exemplary regarding these issues. We’ve been doing environmentally responsible architecture for years. My house from 1978 would probably get LEED Platinum. For years good architects were dealing with environmentally responsible design—materials, energy efficiency, all that—before it became a trend. Frank Lloyd Wright always did. I just don’t think it’s enough to solve this monumental problem. We have to do more.

PLAYBOY: Earlier you mentioned that the people who commissioned the Bilbao said they wanted a Sydney Opera House, which meant they wanted a building that would become an icon and a symbol for the city. The Guggenheim accomplished that for Bilbao, and now many cities want what has been named the Bilbao effect. Is transformation of a place a lot to ask of architecture?

GEHRY: It’s not new. The Bilbao effect is the Parthenon effect, the Chartres Cathedral effect, the Notre Dame effect. The press labeled it the Bilbao effect; I didn’t name it. It’s not new that architecture can profoundly affect a place, sometimes transform it. Architecture and any art can transform a person, even save someone. It can for children—for anyone. It still does for me.


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