Famed architect Frank Gehry

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The world-famous and visionary architect talks about his love of the interplay of the arts.

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, spanning decades and produced in America, Europe and Asia, are known for their striking appearance and cited as being among the most important works of contemporary architecture. Gehry's originality extends beyond structures. He started his career building furniture and has designed jewelry, watches and the World Cup of Hockey trophy. He's taught architecture at Columbia, Yale and the University of Southern California and, now in his 80s, shows no signs of slowing down.


Tavis: Without question, a building can transform a neighborhood and even a city. One such building — Walt Disney Concert Hall here in downtown L.A., which I’m proud to say can be seen as a part of our show open each and every night.

Now celebrating 10 years, this iconic building helped to change the way the world looks at L.A., and of course it is the work of the brilliant architect Frank Gehry, the recipient of the Pritzker Prize, the world’s most prestigious architecture award. Frank Gehry, always a special honor to have you take time out from designing something to come talk to us for a few minutes.

Frank Gehry: It’s great.

Tavis: You doing okay?

Gehry: Love seeing you.

Tavis: Love seeing you too. Does it feel like 10 years for you?

Gehry: No.

Tavis: Since Disney Hall?

Gehry: (Laughs) Time is just a blur for me. I don’t know what — I don’t even know where I am sometimes. (Laughter)

Tavis: I understand they got one on you — they had a little surprise for you at Disney Hall recently.

Gehry: They did. They took my words and they had some lady designer, a good one, put them on screens. So some of the words were not so pretty; they were naughty, that you wouldn’t say in polite company.

But it was about how I work, because somebody called me a while ago and said, “How do you do this stuff?” So I dictated it. I can’t recreate it, maybe, but I said, well, I build a model and I look at it. I hate it, so then (audio dropout) and I like it for a little bit, but then I hate it.

Then I make another model and I kind of like it, and then I add a little thing here, and then I don’t like it again. Then I have to work on another one. I build so many models that to store them costs so much money it puts me in the poorhouse. (Laughter) There’s a bit of truth to that.

Tavis: So the money you make from your projects, you spend it all storing the models you don’t like.

Gehry: The models. (Laughter) I think it’s up to a million bucks a year storage.

Tavis: That’s crazy.

Gehry: It’s a big deal. I’m trying to dump it. Would you — do you have a garage somewhere?

Tavis: No, I don’t have a garage, but I want one of those — as a matter of fact, you’ve got to give me one of these models, man. I want in my office to display a model that Frank Gehry gave me.

Gehry: Okay.

Tavis: There’s got to be — if you’re paying a million dollars, there’s got to be one in there that you don’t need anymore.

Gehry: Right, I’ll find one.

Tavis: Just give me one.

Gehry: I will.

Tavis: All right. I got you on tape saying that.

Gehry: I know, I know, I know, I know.

Tavis: All right. So I’m going to take one of those models and put it in my office and say, “Frank Gehry gave me this.”

Gehry: Right.

Tavis: When he was on our show. I hope I’m not speaking out of school here, and if I am, you slap me and we’ll figure out a way to edit this out. When I last came to see you and hang out for lunch at your office, you showed me this gorgeous design that your son was — can I talk about this?

Gehry: Yes.

Tavis: Okay. A gorgeous design that your son was working on; a home for you and your wife.

Gehry: Right.

Tavis: I thought that was the coolest thing, that you’ve lived long enough to have a son now who is designing a house for his father.

Gehry: Right.

Tavis: How is that coming along?

Gehry: It’s a beautiful design, and it’s a little over budget. (Laughter)

Tavis: I wonder where he got that from, Frank.

Gehry: No, we’re never over budget. We’re never over budget. That’s a commonly held fable. But he’s young and he’s starting, and I didn’t rein him in. I let him sort of have free rein so he could learn the hard way.

So now he’s doing his value engineering and we’re close enough. It’s not outrageous.

Tavis: What I love, and I’m an appreciator of architecture, but obviously I’m not skilled in that way at all, but I recall, and I told a bunch of friends about it after I left your office that day, that undulating rooftop with the colors, that metal that had that beautiful, rich color on the roof of the house?

Gehry: So it’s a titanium. It’s a corrugated, like corrugated metal, and it’s got a rose color to it. So when it’s on the roof, from the distance, it’s going to look like Spanish tile, which they like in that neighborhood, except it’s going to be metal. But I think Spanish tile would be cheaper, actually. (Laughter)

Tavis: One way to cut the budget down. Tell your son, “We’re going to Spanish tile, we will not use this titanium here,” yeah. I want to go back to what you said a moment ago.

I was making a joke, and I could tell that that hit you, and you pushed back really fast on that.

Gehry: Yeah, I did.

Tavis: I see. You know where I’m going, right?

Gehry: Yup.

Tavis: This notion that Frank Gehry is so expensive, and he’s over-budget, and you expect that when — you’re a — I can’t call you a diva; you’re a divo in your own right. You’re Frank Gehry. So there is this impression that your stuff is just out of reach.

Gehry: Exactly.

Tavis: So how do you get business if people think that you’re out of reach?

Gehry: So if I — well, maybe then I should get more? (Laughter) I don’t know. I do fine. I recently, or a year or so ago, gave a talk to a bunch of businesspeople, and I asked them when I started, “How many people here think my buildings cost a lot, that I charge a lot, and that I’m a diva, in that order?”

Each time, they all put up their hands. (Laughter) So being on budget has always been really important to me, and it’s never been a problem. The problem is you can always do something cheaper. People build warehouses for nothing.

Tweaking them and making them a little more exciting doesn’t really cost that much. So it’s 15 percent more, probably. So I’ve been able to prove that over the years, and we’ve developed a computer program to monitor the costs.

The tower we just finished last year in New York City, 76 stories, has a curtain wall that undulates, that somebody would think costs more. We got it right on budget and eliminated change orders, so zero change orders.

Every project, change orders are about 15 percent. Contractor budgets, 15 percent for change orders, and usually collects them. Those are because of mistakes or misunderstandings from two-dimensional drawings to a three-dimensional object.

If you can clarify it and eliminate those clashes, you save 15 percent. That’s a lot of money.

Tavis: You shouldn’t make any mistakes after all those models that you keep tucking into your garage. (Laughter)

Gehry: The models are my way of sketching, so they’re not — they’re quickly done. They’re my way of arriving — and they’re based on the program, so they’re not fluff. You could build those volumes and surface areas are closely monitored.

Tavis: Yeah. I suspect that every project that Gehry Architects does, you want to be something that will be stunning, that people will talk about, that will change the neighborhood, that will generate conversation.

Every project isn’t going to be regarded the same way the Guggenheim is, or Disney Hall is, or any number of projects. But is there a certain approach that you take to something like Disney —

Gehry: Yes.

Tavis: — when you know that there really is a lot potentially riding on this.

Gehry: Well historically, public buildings like concert halls, government buildings, libraries, in the early days, banks, had a consistent level of iconicity that set them aside from the rest of the buildings.

Roman city plans had arenas and forums that set them aside, and then the rest of the housing cuddled up to it, and it was mostly smaller dwellings that didn’t have — so the history — and it has to do with the pride, civic pride.

If you go to a city and you see the courthouse and the church — Chartres Cathedral brands that city. So there is a sort of an importance for us communally to have those kind of buildings.

Now, Disney Hall cost $207 million. The budget was $207 million. Same time that was built, there were similar halls built in the United States that were $300 million.

So it doesn’t have to cost more to do that, and if you looked at the blocks of Disney and see what I did, I just took the metal and tweaked it up at the corners to make it look like there was a sense of movement.

I was trying to give feeling without resorting to historical motifs like columns and pediments and all that stuff.

Tavis: I assume, though, that you have to be pleased a decade later now with the way it’s been received by visitors, by performing artists, by Mr. Dudamel himself.

I assume you have to be happy with the way it has just changed the whole feel about downtown.

Gehry: I am very proud of it. They’re putting a subway under it, which got me worried, but. (Laughter)

Tavis: What is the — this is inside baseball, but for an architect, and this can be true in L.A. or any city. But when you build a structure like that and they want to put a subway underneath it, particularly a performance hall, how do you process that?

Gehry: I freak out.

Tavis: You freak out. (Laughter) You’re freaking out why? Is it going to make the building rattle? What’s going to happen?

Gehry: Well, there’s no exact science for the transmission of low-frequency sounds through the Earth, so you’ve got to be careful. Nobody can predict what can happen.

So you’ve got to be a certain distance away to be safe, and so far, we ain’t. But we’ll figure it out. Everybody’s on it as an issue, so.

Tavis: Before I move off of Disney, I don’t know that I’ve ever asked you this. I’m sure somebody has. I would assume that Bilbao and Disney Hall would be in your top five, or maybe even top three? (Laughter) Or can you not rank them?

Gehry: It’s hard to say that, because —

Tavis: They’re all babies, and you can’t — you love them all.

Gehry: Yeah, you can’t tell your kids —

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Gehry: There’s a little building, a, 2,000-square-foot — Maggie’s Center. It’s a cancer clubhouse in Dundee, Scotland. It’s sweet as can be, and I volunteered, I did the work for free as a gift to the foundation.

It was on a British stamp, and I was really proud of that. People love it. The thing about Disney Hall, it’s like my house. I go there regularly, so the first two years were awful, because I saw all the mistakes. (Laughter)

Tavis: So I guess after 10 years now, I guess you’ve gotten used to those mistakes and if everybody else can deal with it, I guess you can too.

Gehry: We live with them.

Tavis: Yeah.

Gehry: But now we’re faced with what happens across the road, as you probably know, that we’re working on building a hotel and apartments and a commercial.

The opportunity — I don’t know if we’ll pull it off. It’s going to take patience for the developer and patience for the city and certainly the philharmonic is supportive. I’ve talked to the mayor, that we’d like to do something special on Grand Avenue, just for that one block, just as a test.

That means lighting and paving, and connect the two sides of the street so that in the evenings, it could be a party, and that we have restaurants and Disney Hall, and we have a bookstore, and they can talk to each other.

My one fantasy is to put a bridge across from the third level of the commercial to the garden in the back of Disney Hall, and activate that with some food and beverage, so that becomes part of knitting the city together.

The interesting thing we found out, and I had Deborah Borda, who’s head of the Philharmonic, meet with me and the developers. The hotel will have a nightclub that’s only used three nights a week from 11:00 to 3:00 in the morning, or whatever. All the rest of the time it’s empty.

L.A. Phil needs a small chamber hall. So there’s a — the connecting of these pieces across the road with the city helping us with the street, functionally, it could be amazing. I’m so excited about it, the potential of it. Now can we deliver it?

Tavis: We’ll see, yeah. You’ve said two things now that I want to go back and pick up on. One is I guess it had never occurred to me until you just said this. I’ve talked to all kinds of artists and artistic geniuses over the course of my years hosting this program, and I’ve talked to actors who don’t like to watch themselves on film because they see something they could have done better.

I’ve talked to musicians who don’t want to hear what they’ve done sometimes; they could have played that note a little better, or a singer who could have hit the note a little better. I didn’t know that architects endured the same thing.

Gehry: The same thing, same thing. (Laughs)

Tavis: They see stuff, they see the mistakes afterwards. So give me Frank Gehry’s way for how he processes particularly a place like Disney Hall, when you go to it frequency, where you see the mistakes or you re-think how you could have done something. How do you (unintelligible)?

Gehry: Well yeah, they’re not really mistakes for the most part. They’re usually —

Tavis: Things you could have done differently.

Gehry: — if I only thought about this, I could have done this differently.

Tavis: Right. How do you process that though when you look at it regularly?

Gehry: Well you have to live with it, first of all, and for two years, poor Ms. Borda, I’d sit next to her at concerts and complain. (Laughter)

Tavis: She’s trying to enjoy the concert, and you’re complaining about your own work.

Gehry: Yeah, she put my seat far away. (Laughter)

Tavis: She got tired of hearing you complain?

Gehry: Yeah.

Tavis: About your own work, yeah.

Gehry: But mostly it was that the exit lights on the second level, on the tier levels, were left on too brightly, and the doors that go through there were brightly lit, which didn’t have to be. Stuff like that. It was just stupid things.

Tavis: Yeah.

Gehry: They made a sound, a speaker system for when they need a speaker system, because the house is very live.

Tavis: Yeah, sure.

Gehry: But if you’re going to get up and give a talk, you need a — because it just garbles. So they made these speakers, and they copied the, what I call the French fries on the organ.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Gehry: So they have these speakers with these bloody French fries. It looks stupid. (Laughter) So a lot of it, since I live in town, since I volunteer to do anything they want for free, if they want to do anything, it’s crazy when I see the stuff that they sometimes don’t pay attention to.

Tavis: The other thing that you said I want to come back to beyond having to live with your work whether you like it or not when it’s done is how at your age you process and decide what you do and don’t want to do.

I say this respectfully, because none of us lives forever. But you were just sitting here —

Gehry: I was told I was going to, though.

Tavis: Somebody told you you were going to live forever?

Gehry: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: Okay. Well, maybe that answers my question then. (Laughter) You’re going to live forever, this question is irrelevant.

Gehry: Yeah.

Tavis: But assuming that you don’t live forever, I just saw your excitement. You really bounced in that chair a moment ago when you talked about the excitement of this new project downtown.

Gehry: Yeah.

Tavis: So obviously, you’re still excited about it and passionate about the work that you do, but given that you know the time is — how do you decide what you do want to do?

Gehry: Well, I’ve figured out that I have an office with some really talented young people that have been there for some time now, and they ask me what’s their future.

So we’re talking about a legacy office. We’ve put that in our language now, of how to do this. So once I got that into my gut, that we could focus on that, it gives me a lot of freedom. I can say, “Well, I’m just getting ready for the legacy of it.” (Laughter) So I’m just working for you guys. I’m getting you ready.

So it’s kind of a ploy for my own head. The work, what I accept is the work that excites me, and if there’s at least a modicum of respect for what I’ve done and what I — I don’t mean, I’m not a prima donna, but if they come in and try pushing me around, I walk away. But usually people come with decent respect and —

Tavis: Yeah, I would expect so, at this point in your career.

Gehry: Yeah, not everybody. It’s sort of — you read the horror story on Disney Hall, which we almost didn’t get to do it — if it hadn’t been for Diane Disney Miller. But I get that again, I get that stuff. They don’t think I can do the production drawings. “We just want you to do the design, sweetie-pie.”

You’re treated — you’re marginalized as creative, but not practical, still, by developers, the big-time developers. They don’t — they’ve got so much stuff, they don’t care.

Tavis: When I last saw you at your office (unintelligible) I recall having a really in-depth conversation that I want to reprise, at least a piece of it, for television here now, because I was fascinated to hear your thoughts.

I have my own thoughts about this being on the outside looking in, but I was fascinated by your own thoughts, Frank, about the still-lingering lack of inclusion and diversity in your particular field.

It’s getting better, but it’s woefully slow that there are architects of color who are getting the training, getting the opportunity, getting the contracts. We got a Black man in the White House, in case you don’t — (laughter) I know you know this; I saw pictures of you and him all around your office.

So there’s a Black man in the White House and we still have trouble trying to get this field more integrated. What do you –?

Gehry: I know. I don’t know what — they don’t come to school. I don’t see color at Yale. I don’t know where they get edited out. There are a few now, architects. Hopefully they’re talented. I’m praying.

But I would support — we’re willing to take people in as interns. We have some colored people in the office, and I’m excited about it. But you’re right, it’s missing. Also missing is that the schools graduate at least 50 percent women, and there ain’t many at the top in these firms.

There’s a lot of women, but they don’t stay till they’re running it. The one in my life —

Tavis: Is it that they don’t stay, Frank, or that they get pushed out, or feel pushed out? Those are two different things — staying versus being pushed out.

Gehry: I don’t know, but you met my chief of staff, Meg.

Tavis: Megan, yeah, sure. I met Megan, yeah.

Gehry: Megan, last time I was here.

Tavis: Yeah.

Gehry: She is now — we have a tech company. She’s now running it. She’s working with me on projects. This is a young lady that’s in her — 35, 36. She’s going to go to the top.

But all the doors are open to her; she’s made her own way. I think I try to tell the others in the office that they should follow that model, but the color thing, what do we do? I’ll do anything. Tell me what to do.

Tavis: Well, I don’t know. It’s not my field. I just know that it’s got to be a priority for somebody; it’s got to be a priority for schools.

Gehry: Yeah.

Tavis: For design programs, for firms.

Gehry: Well that’s why I’m doing this program in the elementary schools with Malissa Shriver, trying to — this is something I started with the Shriver family, who — the Shriver family invented philanthropy, and Bobby’s wife, Malissa, is involved with the arts council and stuff like that.

So I hired her to help me put together an arts program in the elementary school, modeled after Sistema, the Dudamel thing. My reason for doing this was a long time ago I taught in the elementary school, just to try to figure out where it goes wrong.

There were colored — a lot of color in the school, the classroom, and they seemed to be marginalized way back then. They were on the periphery. When I’d get a kid and this young lady, Debbie, I took her out in the middle of the room and got her to paint on a box.

She was very shy. When she put the color box on the table as part of a city, everybody said, “That’s so beautiful.” This kid turned around in 30 seconds. You could talk to her about math and you could — so I think we’re still missing.

There are a lot of kids that can’t do reading and writing and arithmetic as their — I have a son, Alejandro, who had trouble with dyslexia and all kinds of stuff.

Because he was involved with me and the artists and everything, he was drawing, he was making things, and that got him through. Got him through school.

So there’s a lot of that missing. It’s the law that it has to be in the school system in California, but it’s not. It’s missing in a lot of schools. We were talking to the ACLU. I don’t think we’ll do this, but we should file suit against the state, because —

Tavis: We should. (Laughter) If it’s missing, these kids need that.

Gehry: No, but it’s needed, because not everybody’s the same. A lot of these kids have an art sense, have a music sense, have other — anyway.

Tavis: My time is up. I got 30 seconds to go. Since we both mentioned Dudamel, the great conductor here of the L.A. Phil, I’ve been reading that you may be doing a project that has his name on it in his native Venezuela?

Gehry: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: A concert hall with his name on it?

Gehry: With his name on it. Two concert halls, a 700-seat and a 2,100-seat, in Barquisimeto, where Sistema started.

Tavis: Right, the program that produced Gustavo Dudamel.

Gehry: He’s great.

Tavis: He’s a great guy, but so are you.

Gehry: Thank you.

Tavis: I’m always glad to have you on the program. Just love sitting around, hanging out with Frank Gehry, (laughter) one of the best to ever do what he does. Glad to have you on the program. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: December 21, 2013 at 1:23 pm