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.