Architect Frank Gehry – Part 2

In part two of his conversation with Tavis, the world renowned architect discusses his earliest influences, the U.S. urban planning problem and the upcoming Dwight Eisenhower tower.

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: Welcome back to night two of our conversation with this icon, Frank Gehry. Last night we had a wonderful conversation that kind of talked about his early life and early career and being born in Canada and coming to the U.S. and what brought him here and his family life.

So if you didn’t get a chance to see last night’s show, go on here at our website at and check out the first version of this conversation. I’m delighted to continue that conversation.

When we finished our conversation last night, we were at the point of talking about Bilbao and it being, to my mind at least, and you tell me if you agree or disagree. It’s one thing to say what we say. What do you say is another question. But Bilbao seems to be that moment at which the world came to really appreciate your gift.

Quite frankly, even here in Los Angeles, you had not, to my read at least, been as regarded as you perhaps should have been until Bilbao, but that’s my read. What say Frank Gehry about this?

Frank Gehry: Well, should have been, I don’t know. You never know about that. But Bilbao, I lucked out.

I met a man named Tom Krens who was the director and who’s a genius in his own right. He had a vision for that building and it was a small competition. They insisted that it be small because the longer they are, the more money you waste and you don’t get paid for it.

We won it based on a tiny little study model and a few sketches which pretty much became the building, even though I didn’t know it when we won. I started all over again, but slowly without knowing it, came back to that.

At first, I spent a lot of time in Bilbao. I studied their music, I studied their language which is obscure and difficult and I couldn’t speak it, but it had a certain music to it. I love their food; I love their wines, their Percheron. It’s like an after-dinner drink.

I studied their literature, so I really became knowledgeable of who they were as best as I could and I spent time with the leaders that Tom brought to the table. I knew the art world, I knew pretty much.

Tom set a program and he said, “If you’re gonna make shaped galleries that are not foursquare like everybody in the world wants, I urge you to do that and those will be for living artists so they can engage with you. Then for the guys who are dead, we got to make these foursquare galleries because they ain’t here.”

That combination, I mean, was brilliant on his part because that served well over the years since the building. Right now, other museums – and I’m not gonna mention them – but some famous ones in New York maybe, are having to reduce their galleries because they’re all square.

So I think there is a resistance in the curatorial and museum directors. They always want it because it’s something they know and they’re not willing to jump out of that.

When you find a director Tom Krens who understands the artists, he knows that these people are gonna engage with me and they did over the years. They still do and it’s wonderful. I mean, Hockney called me the other day and thanked me for the building [laugh]. I get that all the time.

Tavis: I referenced this a moment ago, but how would you describe what Bilbao, the success of it, did for your career?

Gehry: I guess, public relations-wise, it was bingo since I never had a public relations person, but the museum did and they did a hell of a job promoting the building once it was done.

I can live in Bilbao for free. I can walk down the street and walk into any restaurant and nobody will charge me [laugh].

Tavis: So if this thing ever goes south on you, you’re gonna move to Bilbao.

Gehry: Yeah, I’m thinking about [laugh]. It’s scary. I was in Butonne in some beautiful courtyard in one of those beautiful buildings and some lady came over and said, “Frank Gehry?” I said yes. It was 50 people from Bilbao and they swarmed around me [laugh].

Tavis: Got to be a good feeling, though, yeah.

Gehry: Yeah.

Tavis: I was ignorant about this. I was in New York one day driving past Barry Diller’s building and it got my attention so much so that I stopped and just stared at this thing and did not realize at that time that you had done that building.

Gehry: Yeah.

Tavis: Beautiful structure.

Gehry: Good guy. Marshall Rose was his partner that I worked with. He’s great. But we did the second building, the Tower.

Tavis: How does most of your work come these days? What I’m getting at is whether or not there is more stuff than you can handle and you turned tons of stuff away.

Gehry: Oh, I wish that were true [laugh].

Tavis: It’s not?

Gehry: No.

Tavis: Seriously? I would think it would be.

Gehry: Yeah, but I don’t think so. It hasn’t been.

Tavis: Why not?

Gehry: I don’t know. Well, times are slow now. You know, you got to go around and meet people and do things. I’ve never done that. They probably think I’m too busy. I’m not [laugh].

Tavis: I want to phrase this the right way because I don’t want to get anybody – well, anyway, let me phrase it the right way. How would you assess our appreciation in America or lack thereof for architecture versus places around the world?

I ask that because there’s always a great debate in this town, as you well know, since you and I both live here about how little regard we have for certainly historic edifices and structures.

How would you size up our appreciation or lack thereof for architecture versus more ancient places, of course, around the world?

Gehry: Well, we haven’t matured into what the ancient places are, and there are talented architects that have built things here and they should be preserved, Schindler, Wright, maybe even me. But this town’s spread out.

Architecture hasn’t been enormously important, but I don’t think it’s much different than most cities. Chicago is the only city in America that I think has made a dent in architecture, you know, more than just a few buildings.

Tavis: You were involved in Millennium? Is that correct?

Gehry: Yes, yes.

Tavis: Millennium Park.

Gehry: But that was Richie Daley who understood this moment and didn’t understand my work at all. I think he was scared of it. Pritzker family supported it and he became a fan, but it wouldn’t have happened probably unless the patronage of that family.

But generally, Frank Lloyd Wright did work there, Louis Sullivan. They have a history of that and they’re proud of it. The new public buildings, I don’t know.

Tavis: You’re not a fan.

Gehry: Not all of them, some of them.

Tavis: You mentioned Frank Lloyd Wright. Your earliest influence? One of your early influences?

Gehry: Well, I had trouble with his politics which seemed to be, you know – I mean, I was Joe Socialist [laugh] in college. I was in all the stuff. It seemed elitist and all that. So I never went to hear him speak.

But driving back across country from college, I stopped. I had two kids by then and a wife. We stopped in [unintelligible] and the flag was up and he was there. I went to the gate and they wanted a buck for each of us, four bucks, and I said forget it and I left [laugh]. I regret that.

He was great. There’s no excuses for him. He was great. I think growing up architecturally on the western part of the country, you tend to be Asia centric, Japan, China.

Tavis: Pacific Rim, yeah.

Gehry: Pacific Rim. So my early work in college where the teachers had just come back, G.I.s just come back from Japan, the wood technology of Japan of the small houses was easily assimilated here. So a lot of the early stuff looks Japanese.

In fact, if you go to Disney Hall and sit there and think Japan, you’ll see it.

Tavis: You spent time in the military.

Gehry: Yes.

Tavis: What were you doing? What was your assignment?

Gehry: The exciting thing, I was in the Third Infantry Division, Third Army, which was Eisenhower’s division, and now I’m doing his memorial.

But I was in the Infantry and I had a bad leg, so they put me in clerk-typist school and I applied to the Lion Company for my first day as clerk-typist and they gave me the morning report and, after an hour, the captain said, “What else do you do?” [laugh]. He had me making signs for latrines and all kinds of stuff.

They were getting ready to go on maneuvers and they had a fancy new tactic and they needed charts made. They gave me that and, by fluke, the general knew somebody. There was a Lieutenant General Thomas F. Hickey. He was head of Third Army. He was a paratrooper.

He decided to fix dayrooms and service clubs and they were looking for a decorator, so I got sent up there and I got taken into Special Services. I was married and had kids and we moved from Columbus, Georgia from the infantry school up to Atlanta.

My first day of company fallout for picking up the trash in this – even the Special Services, they had us do that – and my Master Sergeant was Leonard Nimoy.

Tavis: Leonard Nimoy? Like the Leonard Nimoy?

Gehry: Yeah.

Tavis: Like “Star Trek?”

Gehry: “Star Trek” [laugh].

Tavis: That’s the third famous person now, yeah.

Gehry: Yeah, but I didn’t know. He didn’t know who he was, right? He was in Special Services entertaining the troops. He was an actor and he was a Master Sergeant. Then he got out and, years later, I was at a thing at Boca.

They had an event and the director brought Leonard Nimoy over and said, “Mr. Nimoy would like to meet you. He’s a great fan of your work.” I shook his hand and I rattled off all the officers’ names. I just went through them. He looked at me and said, “Who are you?” [laugh].

Tavis: That’s a great story [laugh]. Frank Gehry and Leonard Nimoy serving our country together.

Gehry: Yes, we did.

Tavis: That’s funny. You mention Eisenhower. Just a quick question about this. So you’re doing this memorial in Washington. There are already murmurings and rumblings that some inside the Eisenhower family aren’t crazy about the design.

Gehry: Well, you know, every memorial has a history, so it takes time. It was a competition and it just started right after this economic slowdown.

The guys in the office said, “Why don’t we do a competition? This one sounds good.” So I read the biography and I fell in love with Eisenhower and I didn’t realize I was in sort of the same outfit.

But more important, I didn’t realize what a powerful guy this was and how he did it with a kind of modesty and a kind of wonderful camaraderie with people and his respect for his guys and the people he worked with. He lived that. I just went crazy, so I decided to enter.

The site was difficult because it’s on the back end of a lot of buildings, very disparate environment and it’s a space that could become a park, so we proposed that it be a park, and that we create some kind of intervening something that makes it special.

I came up with this idea of tapestries that hadn’t been done before at this scale. They had to be transparent because they were gonna be in front of buildings’ windows, so we had to kind of invent the technology.

A Polish artist, Tomasz Jasinski, said he could do it and, just out of the blue, he started doing it and it’s really beautiful.

Then once you set that frame without destroying the park, the park is still there, you create sort of a holy place to put the serious story about Ike as the general and Ike as the president.

So what I did is create a stage set and the historians and the advisers and the commission, in a way, Senator Roberts, I mean, there’s a lot of people and the family are involved in that. Those were the issues of what you really show and how you show it.

Tavis: How you show it, yeah.

Gehry: I think it takes time to sort that out.

Tavis: You mentioned this particular design and the park setting. Since you referenced it, I want to come back in a moment to talk about this new GT web-based design. We’ll come back to that in a second.

But since you mentioned the park, it made me think that I had a number of conversations about this over the past few years.

I’ve found myself on my radio show actually talking more about this, and that is the urban planning problem that we seem to always have in this country, but is more acute now for a variety of reasons including the environmental reasons and economic factors and sociological and cultural factors, all the stuff that you know much better than I do.

But what’s your sense – this is too big of a question – but what’s your sense of our urban planning quandary and what we ought to be considering as a path forward in urban centers in this country? Does that make sense?

Gehry: Yeah.

Tavis: Okay.

Gehry: The great urban moves in history were done by a benevolent king for a friendly dictator where they controlled a big enough piece of the ground, of the terrain, to make something happen.

That’s how European cities then became the six or seven stories of blocks that created the streets and that model made most of Europe, but it was a different time.

Democracy is a problem and we don’t want to get rid of it [laugh]. That means people have rights to do things and God bless us that we got that and I don’t want to mess with it. But that means there’s gonna be collision of thought, which is what we have, and collision of thought represents itself in our cities.

I think what’s missing is a sense of responsibility for the greater good that seems to have disappeared from – you know, guys make a lot of money and they start foundations and they give back, but if they gave as they were going and left a better trail with their buildings and their objects and things they made, we’d probably be happier.

If you knew you were gonna be that rich, maybe you could give a little at the beginning. I don’t know you feel. I think that it’s just having a sense of responsibility to the city and our political leaders have to lead us there.

Tavis: How much have environmental concerns, eco concerns, challenged, changed, aided and abetted, you tell me, the way that you all do business at Gehry?

Gehry: Well, it’s done two things. It’s real.

Tavis: Right.

Gehry: I really believe there is a problem. I think most of us now are beginning to really understand there is a problem and there’s something we got to do about it.

There have been fads that have been created that create different ways to do it and those have to sort out and we’re finding the real stuff.

But the construction industry, for me, wastes 30 percent, sometimes as much as 50 percent. So you build $100 million dollar building, at least $30 to $40 million of that is waste effort or waste materials.

You multiply that and talk about sustainability of that, and that’s why I got into this tech thing, the technology to try and figure out a way to build without waste, to focus in on the – because the waste happens because of errors in the field, change orders.

If you’ve ever built something, you’ve had change orders. The Tower we just did in Manhattan, 76 stories. The exterior skin was built with no change orders because of this technology.

Tavis: Web technology.

Gehry: And there’s a lot of people using technology. We’ve developed a more robust one maybe. It started out because of the kind of buildings I was doing. I never thought it would have any meaning to anybody beyond me, but we’ve helped a lot of architects now.

Tavis: What’s your hope for what this new technology will do in the future?

Gehry: Well, I hope that the talented architect, I mean, the person who’s trying to make something beautiful, will be in charge and not be marginalized by the process, by the construction industry.

You know, buildings come in over budget, the contractor tells the owner “Don’t worry, I’ll fix it,” they straighten everything out and it looks like what it looks like.

We’ve proven that, if you control the information, whoever’s in control of the information can get to the finish line with a great building for the same price.

I’ve shown that many times now that, if you give me a budget that Joe can do it for normal, I can show you how to make architecture within the same thing by controlling the waste, eliminating the waste, and having that become part of the game.

Tavis: It’s been two nights and my time with you is just about up and I’m still full of questions. I’ll shake your hand anytime.

Before we end this, though, we’ve talked about Disney, we’ve talked about Bilbao, we’ve talked about other wonderful properties that you’ve designed. You’re 83 years young now.

Gehry: Yep.

Tavis: Strange question to ask an architect, but have you built your magnum opus or is there still something greater that’s gonna come later from Frank Gehry? Is there greater later?

Gehry: I hope so. I haven’t given up. I’m still dreaming.

Tavis: Ideas still coming to you?

Gehry: Oh, yeah, yeah. I think the kids in the office will tell me.

Tavis: Yeah, when it’s time to go home?

Gehry: Or the marketplace will tell me [laugh]. No, I still get up and enjoy it. Philip Johnson told me when he was 98 and he called me in one day and said, “Don’t retire.”

Tavis: Don’t retire.

Gehry: Yeah, he was right. I mean, the friends of mine who are my age that are moving and shaking are still moving and shaking. They’re able to do it. Look at Kerkorian [laugh].

Tavis: I think there is something to the fact that, when you sit down, you start to rust a little bit, so we keep moving.

Gehry: Keep moving, don’t quit.

Tavis: All right, I’ll take that advice from you. I’ll keep moving. If Frank Gehry’s gonna keep moving and don’t quit, I’ll keep moving and don’t quit.

So we’re out of time, but we clued these cameras. As you can see, I got a stack here.

Gehry: I sent you some of them.

Tavis: Yeah. I got a stack here of Frank Gehry’s stuff that I’m gonna have you sign for me because I don’t know if you’ll ever come back on this show again. But for two nights, I’ve been delighted to have you.

Gehry: I will be back.

Tavis: Thank you for coming. We’ll get these over here and get you signing these. In the meantime, I’ll tell you that’s our show for tonight. You can download our new app in the iTunes app store.

I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, hope you enjoyed these two nights with Frank Gehry. I’m Tavis Smiley in Los Angeles. As always, thanks for watching, and keep the faith.

Narrator: Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

Narrator: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: July 23, 2012 at 2:44 pm