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Looking back at Frank Gehry’s building-bending feats

Frank Gehry, the most famous architect today, has brought art and flair to monumental designs around the world. Now he's being honored in his longtime hometown with a retrospective exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Now for an iconic architect with an inventive style, whose buildings almost seem to move, and are known for sweeping curves and unusual materials.

    Jeffrey Brown catches up with Frank Gehry, now in his ninth decade, but still breaking new ground. An exhibition all about his work is opening in Los Angeles this weekend.

  • FRANK GEHRY, Architect:

    This is City Hall, New York.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    A visit to the studio of Frank Gehry is a bit like a whirlwind tour of the globe, with a tour guide who has helped create what we see around us.

    You got cities all over the world here.

  • FRANK GEHRY:

    That's Toronto, where I was born.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Part of his motivation, says Gehry, is that so many buildings are just plain boring.

  • FRANK GEHRY:

    Anybody I talk to agrees that maybe 2 percent of the building environment since the war, we could call architecture.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And the rest you call nothing, junk?

  • FRANK GEHRY:

    It's built.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And so Gehry, now 86, builds, but adds in more than a bit of flair, dash, you could call it art, as with his 2014 Louis Vuitton Foundation Building in Paris, wrapped in sails of swirling glass.

    Are you better at this than you were as a young man?

  • FRANK GEHRY:

    Probably a little bit more secure about it, although there is a sort of healthy insecurity that I think is necessary. If you think you got everything, forget it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Gehry has been the world's most famous architect since he graded the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in 1997.

    And there have been plenty other eye-catching buildings, the Dancing House in Prague, the Olympic Fish in Barcelona and many more.

  • FRANK GEHRY:

    It was working with very inexpensive material.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It actually started, though, at home, his own home in Santa Monica, where Gehry still lives, a 1920s bungalow that he reimagined using corrugated metal and chain-link fence, unusual building materials, but elements of his future work all there.

  • FRANK GEHRY:

    I found the material that people hated the most and used the most. So, I was going and try and see if I could play with it sculpturally.

    STEPHANIE BARRON, Curator, Los Angeles County Museum of Art: I see an amazing thinker. I see a humanist, a thinker, somebody who is really sensitive to what buildings do and how people interact in them.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Now Gehry is being honored in his longtime home town with a retrospective exhibition curated by Stephanie Barron at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. We visited during the installation.

    Here are the drawings, photographs and, most of all, models of myriad projects.

  • STEPHANIE BARRON:

    This is one of the models for the Lewis Residence.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    One of the most important, Barron says, started out as a small addition to the home of Peter Lewis. It was never built, but turned into a fantastical playground of ideas that Gehry would later develop.

  • STEPHANIE BARRON:

    Look at the roof, for instance. It drapes the building, and it's like fabric that has been moistened and then carefully kind of connects it. It becomes the connector.

    On the far side, you see very kind of constructivist, very rectilinear, kind of simple geometric forms, and it brings together styles and ideas. And I think this is the project where he began to see what the computer technology could do.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The computer system, called CATIA, was based on an aerospace program. It became key to Gehry's practice, allowing his team to work out its elaborate designs and giving contractors a map for fabricating them.

  • TENSHO TAKEMORI, Designer:

    As a designer, we can clearly understand where we need to focus.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Tensho Takemori and Sameer Kashyap showed us the program used to develop the bumpy facade, or curtain, of a recent 76-story New York apartment building.

    Having the computer work out the technical specs reduced the time and cost for the contractors to build it.

  • TENSHO TAKEMORI:

    If you were to do this by hand, you might get two or three tries within the allowable design period. We had thousands of iterations. And because of that, we were actually able to hone the thing down to such great efficiency that we could essentially reduce the cost to almost the same as a flat curtain wall.

    The proof in this is there were no change orders, and that's a pretty unheard-of result for a 76-story tower.

  • FRANK GEHRY:

    It's like an old friend.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The computer program helped Gehry build what is certainly one of his most iconic works.

  • FRANK GEHRY:

    I was trying to express movement with the shape of these walls, and juxtaposing two walls that are both moving.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles opened in 2003 and quickly became a landmark where tourists and even models come to take photos amid the sweeping stainless steel walls. The outside gets most of the attention, but Gehry wanted to take us inside to explain that his first concern, as always, was a practical one, the acoustics.

  • FRANK GEHRY:

    In the concert hall, the orchestra has to hear each other. They play better when they hear each other. That's A. B is then you have to communicate with the audience. If you connect with the orchestra and they love it and people like coming here, bingo, I'm happy. Everything else is, you know, extra.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Gehry was so into the audience experience, he insisted on narrower arm rests to increase the seat sizes.

  • FRANK GEHRY:

    The arms usually are thick all the way down, which takes one inch off of the width of the seat, so people of larger weight, so to speak, are happier here.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Frank Gehry has at times been knocked for creating showy buildings that overwhelm their surroundings, for being a starchitect more than an architect.

    At Disney Hall, he insisted that function always comes first, then the artful expression.

  • FRANK GEHRY:

    They're not ego trips in the negative sense of an ego trip. I mean, you see a lot of so-called architecture that part of the ego trip overpowers the functionality and the budget and all that stuff.

    So, it's the essence. It's finding an essence. Why be expressive on the outside? Because everything around isn't.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's as simple as that?

  • FRANK GEHRY:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In addition to the retrospective, Gehry is the subject of a new biography by architecture critic Paul Goldberger.

  • FRANK GEHRY:

    The blue one is one we did for Brad Pitt in New Orleans.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Later this month, he will receive a lifetime achievement award from the L.A.-based Getty Trust, and he's now developing a master plan to revitalize the 51-mile Los Angeles River, sure to be controversial.

    Why are you still doing this? You're 86.

  • FRANK GEHRY:

    At my age?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

  • FRANK GEHRY:

    I don't know what else to do.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Is that true?

  • FRANK GEHRY:

    I love doing it. I love working. I don't know what the word vacation means.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All in all, it's a major moment for Frank Gehry in Los Angeles.

  • FRANK GEHRY:

    And that's Australia.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And well beyond.

    From L.A., I'm Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

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