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.