Architect Frank Gehry – Part 1

The iconic architect tells stories of his childhood and youth, which include failing an art class in college, and explains his use of art and music in architecture.

Frank Gehry took his first architecture courses on a hunch and, using imaginative elements and his unique personal vision, became a Pritzker Prize-winning architect. His projects are known for their striking appearance and cited as being among the most important works of contemporary architecture in the 2010 World Architecture Survey. Gehry's originality extends beyond structures. He started his career building furniture and has designed jewelry, watches and the World Cup of Hockey trophy. Now in his 80s, he shows no signs of slowing down. He's the designer of the future Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial.


Tavis: Pleased and honored to welcome Frank Gehry to this program. The legendary architect has put his stamp on the world of design with some of the most well-known and influential structures around the globe.

So much to get to in this conversation, including a new Web-based design platform coming this summer from Gehry Technologies. Frank Gehry, I am honored, sir, to have you on this program.

Frank Gehry: Thank you, honored to be with you.

Tavis: Thank you for coming. I’m fortunate that I have tonight and tomorrow night to talk to you, and I still can’t do justice to your ongoing life and legacy, even with two shows.

Gehry: Oh.

Tavis: But thank you for sitting here. Let me – I want to start, if I can, at the beginning, and I want to start, and I’ve been thinking for days, knowing that you were coming to see me, been thinking for days how to squeeze so much life, again, into two nights.

It seems to me that those of us who are fans of yours, and I count myself one of them, fans of your work in L.A. and around the world, know at least something about your design work, but so few of us, I think, know much about Frank Gehry. So with your accommodation, I’d like to talk about you a little bit.

Gehry: Okay.

Tavis: You’re born in Toronto.

Gehry: Yes.

Tavis: How’d your family make its way here?

Gehry: Oh, it’s a sad story. My father was in Canada, he wasn’t educated, he didn’t get to high school. He grew up in New York, in Hell’s Kitchen. There was one famous person in our lives. She signed his affidavit of birth, and it was Helen Roth. Do you know that actress who – “I’ll Cry Tomorrow?”

Tavis: I know who she is, I don’t – yeah, sure, yeah.

Gehry: I never met her, but I saw her signature. Anyway, he was doing slot machines and pinball machines when I was a kid, and they were all in my basement, wherever we were, and he was moving around. Then that was made illegal in Canada, so – this must be the early ’40s, and I was in high school.

He then tried other businesses and he failed, got a heart attack at 50, and his brother brought him out to L.A. to cool out. That’s what they used to do to people.

He was broke, and he became a truck driver for Yankee Doodle pop company, I remember, and I got a job as a truck driver in the valley, delivering breakfast nooks and tables and things like that, and went to night school.

I lived on the corner of 9th and Burlington in L.A., which is still there. The building’s still there, anyway.

Tavis: Yeah. Tell me about your mother.

Gehry: Mom wanted to be a lawyer. Her parents emigrated from Poland. They didn’t think women should go to college, right, so her brother was sent to college. I think he went to law school, even, and he never practiced. He was a playboy, he wasn’t interested in that.

She regretted it all her years. When they moved here she got a job in a Broadway Hollywood department store as a candy – the candy department, and she moved up through that to the drapery department, and –

Tavis: I’m not sure that’s a move up, though, Frank.

Gehry: Well, it turned out –

Tavis: Candy to drapery?

Gehry: Yeah, she – (laughter).

Tavis: I’ll take the candy, yeah.

Gehry: Then she became known because the Holly of Holly Carter Hale, I ran into him when I was working on something in L.A., I think probably Disney Hall, and he said, “Is your mother Thelma, she worked in the drapery department?” I said, “Yeah, that’s her.” (Laughs) So she was legendary. Pat Nixon worked at the Broadway Hollywood, I found out.

Tavis: As in Richard Nixon’s –

Gehry: Wife.

Tavis: Wow. (Laughter) So now we’ve got two famous people from your past.

Gehry: But I never met her. But Mama was tough. She went to night school; she got – at L.A. City College. She got an AA degree. That’s as far as she got, but she was studying law, and she was interested.

She’s the one that got me to classical music. She’s the one that got me to art. Although there was a story that my father won an award for window dressing in a grocery store in Toronto, and he got a Canadian National Exhibition award.

Now, I always thought that was kind of, whatever, folklore, and two weeks ago my sister found the book of my father’s – on window dressing for stores. So he was – whatever – I started crying. I couldn’t believe it.

Tavis: So there was creativity in your family and you didn’t even –

Gehry: Yeah, you know who it came from, because his sister became a dress designer in Miami, and she had a following. Not a big one, but I think – so it was in the genes somewhere. I always somehow suspected it was him, but he never got a chance.

Then when I got this book I thought, oh, my God.

Tavis: So creativity runs in your DNA, obviously.

Gehry: Crazy. Maybe.

Tavis: You mentioned L.A. City College. I want to bounce around because there’s so much to cover with you.

Gehry: Sure.

Tavis: You mentioned L.A. City College. Education institutions, certainly city colleges and state-funded programs, are under such attack these days all across the country when the economy gets tight like this. Never mind what we say, we end up cutting education, oftentimes before anything else.

But what does it say that one of the world’s most renowned architects started out at L.A. City College?

Gehry: I did, yeah.

Tavis: What do you make -?

Gehry: Night school.

Tavis: Yeah, at night school.

Gehry: Yeah. It was interesting. I took – the only inkling of art was I took a class in perspective drawing. Mr. Workman, I remember his name. And I got an F. (Laughter) It really angered me, so I went back the next term and I did it over again with the same guy and I got an A, so I vindicated myself.

But I guess that was the beginning of it, and then I took night classes at USC because I had a cousin down there, and in ceramics. The teacher was Glenn Lucas, who was very well known at the time and still – he’s long gone, but Glenn made me a TA so I could keep taking the class, and then he was building a house with a California architect that had – Soriano, had some reputation.

He took me there on a hunch, and after that visit he enrolled me in USC architect class at night on his hunch, and I suspect he paid for the tuition, because I wouldn’t have had the money, and I did really well. That was the first inkling, kind of, that I knew something was going on.

Tavis: When you say it was the first inkling that you did well at USC in night school, let me back up half a beat if I can. What do you recall, if you recall, what do you recall about that perspective class at L.A. City College where you first took it and got an F, come back the next semester and get an A, what do you recall about what made the difference, because that really, to my mind, at least, is the first sign that you were at least passionate enough about this work to go back and get it right.

Gehry: Right. But I think it was Mr. Workman –

Tavis: Okay, that’s fair.

Gehry: – the teacher.

Tavis: I take that.

Gehry: Who probably realized I failed for other reasons than –

Tavis: Than skill.

Gehry: – than skill, and he took me back and it worked. So I think he was a guy that was respectful and probably – he could have said, “Look, forget it.” That happened to me at SC. After the night class in architect they put me in second year. They skipped me right into second-year architecture, and the teacher brought me in three months into the class and said, “This isn’t for you. Get out.”

Tavis: I was going to ask you about that, so I’m glad you went there.

Gehry: I don’t know if this guy’s still alive. He’s a great guy. But he became the architect for the airport. He worked for LAX. He didn’t design it, but he was the campus architect, so to speak, and I used to run into him after and he said, “I know what you’re thinking.” (Laughter)

Tavis: Did he apologize? Did he say he was wrong?

Gehry: Well, yeah, kind of, but it was kind of stupid. It made me realize – I teach at Yale and I teach occasionally at other schools, but that you can’t play God like that. That in a class of 10 really bright students, not all of them are what I do, nor should they be.

There’s a variety of parts to architecture that people can play a role in and thrive and make a really good contribution. But it may not be doing what I do.

Tavis: I suspect that anyone who is successful, whatever that means, or has become successful, again, whatever that means, I suspect every one of us has a story of someone who told us you ain’t going to make it, this is not for you, you ought to give this up. You’ve just shared yours now.

How did you, in retrospect, process that? It’s one thing, you were fortunate to run into this guy a few times later in his career and he had to come face-to-face with your gift.

Gehry: And he might still be around, watching this show. (Laughter)

Tavis: Hi. But how did you process somebody telling you at the time you’re not going to make it in this field? How did you deal with that?

Gehry: Well, by then Glenn Lucas said – had promoted me to the architecture school. The architecture school teacher promoted me to second year, and I’d already tasted blood, so to speak, of the approval for making something. So I wasn’t going to – I didn’t pay – I said, “I don’t care what you say; I’m going to do it.” So I’d already had the bit in my mouth. I wasn’t going to give up.

Tavis: Yeah. To your point now, Frank Gehry, how much of being an architect has to do with the approval of others? I ask that because I can see an architect sitting at his or her drafting board or wherever you sit at these days, computer, drafting board, and setting out to design something that you – makes sense for a variety of reasons.

But how much of it in the end has to do with whether or not the people, whoever they are, like what you do?

Gehry: Well, I think you go right to the point of the profession, because at first you’re not known, so people trust you or hire you based on their impression, feeling. As you produce stuff that has some juice in it and people look at it and you win an award or whatever, you come to the table with a little different power, so to speak.

There isn’t a – I never abused that power. I never think of it as something fair game. Probably it’s something I should have, but I didn’t. You’re at the mercy of people’s tastes and I think that once they’re on board, once they hire you and they know what they want, then it goes fairly smoothly.

You’ve got to worry about deadline, meet obligations of cost control, but those are all like you’ve got to put on your shoes in the morning. It’s all stuff you’ve got to do. There’s a moment of truth when you’re making a move and it’s an intuitive thing and you’re responding to all of these things, but with a lot of information in there to respond with.

I think the profession is undervalued a lot. Most of the buildings built in the world I wouldn’t call architecture. You go to every city in the world and you see better or worse versions of the same things you’ve got home, and for some reason those models seem to be easier to assimilate and build.

So there’s a lot of denial. Most people complain about the city, but when I did the first models of Disney Hall, the newspaper said, “Broken crockery.” (Laughter) I get that all the time.

And Bilbao, I had a thing in the paper that said, “Kill the American architect.” Once it’s built they come on with it, but it is still – I did Disney Hall what, eight years ago now, and it’s great, everybody likes it, musicians like it, everybody likes it, and they don’t – I haven’t been asked to do another one. (Laughter)

Tavis: Since we’re talking basically or essentially about critics, persons who may not necessarily like your work, and even when you’re Frank Gehry there’s no guarantee that everybody’s going to like your work.

Gehry: No, no, there’s a lot of people that don’t.

Tavis: Yeah. I’m glad you acknowledge that, because there are two or three things as I’ve been reading and reading and reading for week preparing for this conversation, there are two or three things I note that the critics don’t like your stuff say rather consistently, and I wonder what your take might be on that, in no particular order, that you oftentimes build these designs, these pieces that don’t really fit into the neighborhood. They stand out in such a way, they don’t really fit into the neighborhood, number one, and number two, that oftentimes these buildings have features that are functionless.

I know this is stuff you’ve read and heard before, but as you get along in your profession, how do you deal with that kind of response to your work, for those who don’t like it?

Gehry: Well, there’s this blogger class that’s happened recently (unintelligible). (Laughter) People will say anything. But before that, people still said anything, and some reporters didn’t want to take the time to go look at stuff.

I’m pretty well known as a – by the people who know me, know my work, mostly would say I’m a contextualist. I pay attention; I’m respectful of my neighbors. In fact, when I talk about it, the golden rule, do unto others, certainly is an important issue for me.

But I also was raised by my mother to not talk down to people. She made that point to me really strongly. So if I were to talk down to the neighbor buildings, I would copy them, which is what people say about – especially in Washington, D.C., if you want to build a building in Washington, D.C., it’s got to be historicist and for the most part the public buildings.

The other two-thirds of Washington, D.C. are developer buildings and they’re cruddy and crap and look like everywhere else, but they get by. But I’m very careful about contextual, and I’m very careful about the buildings working. So I spend a lot of time on classical music with the man who ran the L.A. Phil for years, Ernest Fleischmann, and he taught me about classical music over a period.

But basically when you go into a theater, the important thing is the connection with the actor, the actor connection. You’ve been on stage when it doesn’t happen, when the building doesn’t allow it to happen, and you’ve been on stage when it does, and it makes a big difference.

So I’ve focused on that issue so that the audience at Disney Hall connects with the orchestra, the orchestra feels it. When they play good, the audience expresses it. They don’t realize they’re doing it, but they do, and the orchestra feels it, and it builds a kind of a relationship.

I think that’s one of the important things, is the acoustician, Yasu Toyota and I, he calls it psychoacoustics. Not like the lady in the shower psycho. I think that’s true.

Disney Hall has a wood veneer that’s Douglas fir, but Douglas fir, straight grained, looks like a cello, and when you go into that – the wood means nothing acoustically, it could be – all it needs to be is two inches of plaster. But psychologically, people think they’re in a musical instrument, and it feels good. So I think those are real issues that you have to pay attention to.

Tavis: You’ve mentioned now art and music. What’s the relationship between art and music to your architecture?

Gehry: Well, I fill my head with all kinds of things. Literature, I’ve been looking at art since I was a kid, my mother got me doing that. I’ve spent a lot of time with artists. They’re sort of my family, my friends. The last 30 years I’ve spent a lot of time in the classical music world, which I love.

I love the sciences. I spent a month at Princeton last year in the microbiology department. (Laughter) So I’m curious about stuff. That stuff just fills your head. Where it comes out, who knows?

Tavis: But if you put the right stuff in, though, some good stuff might come out the other side.

Gehry: Well, certainly there’s a relationship between all the visual fields and architecture.

Tavis: Right.

Gehry: What I took away from my art world life was the right to be intuitive. I watched the architect, my friends coming out of school, and they were trying to justify well, you have to do this because of that, and you have to – there’s so many reasons to rationalize and justify making a form, but it’s irrelevant, finally.

You can make lots of forms work for lots of things. I call it the moment of truth when the artist faces a white canvas. What am I going to do? Architecture gets to that point eventually, because you have to – you digest all of the stuff, the building department, all the things you have to do that are part of the game, but at some moment you make a shape, a move, a mark that becomes the beginnings of the architecture.

It’s intuitive and it’s – if I know what I’m going to do in advance, I would discard it. So if I’m consciously, I walk away from it.

Tavis: It just has to flow.

Gehry: Yeah.

Tavis: What’s your process – only got a couple minutes here for tonight; we’ll come back with – I’ve got so many more questions. But what’s your process? I know you have a team of people that work with you, but when you’re, to your point, when that moment of truth comes and the canvas is in front of you, are you in your office, are you listening to music, do you have a glass of wine? What are you doing? (Laughter) What’s the process for this magic to come forth?

Gehry: I’m working. I’m looking at a model, I make models. The first models are made on programs, so I know what size the thing is, and I make some gesture with it. Then I look at it and I find things that I don’t like and new things, and I make the next model, and I just do this until I’ve made about 50 models, and I finally pick the one.

It evolves. It’s not an, “Oh, my God.” Although Bilbao, I did a – on the second meeting I did a sketch and it looks damn like the final. I don’t know how that happened.

Tavis: I want to talk about Bilbao, because I think Bilbao was the moment in which the world came to really appreciate your gift and your talent, so I want to start our conversation tomorrow night talking about Bilbao and everything else that we haven’t covered tonight.

So much more to get to with Frank Gehry. We’ll do all of that tomorrow night. One of the most iconic architects of our time, and I’m delighted to have him here tonight and again on this program tomorrow night.

Until then, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: July 20, 2012 at 3:38 pm