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.