Frank Gehry is having what publicists call a “moment”: Frank Gehry, a retrospective at LACMA, opened on September 13; Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry, a biography penned by critic Paul Goldberger, was just published by Knopf; and he’s the 2015 recipient of the J. Paul Getty Award. The only problem is that, as a prolific architect for more than half of his 86 years, he’s moved beyond a moment, or even Warhol’s fifteen minutes. What we’re seeing now is the writing of his legacy and the prodigious desire for the archetypal architect to steer his firm, Gehry Partners, into a future beyond his signature. That future includes out-of-character projects, such as the study for the L.A. River.
Mimi Zeiger: What does it mean to you to have a retrospective of work opening at LACMA, an institution you’ve worked with for so many years? This new show is a far cry from renting furniture for a show you designed for Billy Al Bengston in 1968.
Frank Gehry: I have a problem looking back. I love working with [LACMA senior curator Stephanie Barron], on shows, but I couldn’t bring myself to work with her on my show.
What do you mean by “I have a problem looking back”?
Well, I think I work forward. I love my projects, but I figure if they’re worth documenting, other people will do it. Does that make sense?
I think so. In the sense that someone else will record your archives or take care of the history.
Or not! If they don’t, they don’t.
You came up in the Sixties and Seventies with a lot of the L.A. artists. Your ambivalence to the archive reminds me of John Baldessari burning his first set of work in 1970.
Yeah, I’m more in the spirit of that. I didn’t burn my stuff, but I suggested that people do that.
But what happens to your archive? Do you feel compelled to find a home for it at an institution—at LACMA or the Getty, for instance?
Well, unfortunately my process ends up building a lot of models. I put them in storage and I have to pay for the fucking storage, if you’ll excuse me. Right now it’s costing me a million a year to store all that stuff. So it’s an albatross. What do I do?
Yeah, that’s right. And it’s hard for people to take it because it’s so huge. No one institution could possibly do anything with it. So, I bought a warehouse and put everything in it.
In regards to LACMA, a while back, around the Peter Zumthor scheme, there was talk that museum director Michael Govan was interested in you doing a tower. Has anything more come of that conversation?
No. It’s been in the mind of LACMA for a long time. Because they have this site across the road and they want to do stuff around it. A long time ago we did a study and actually proposed a pedestrian bridge over Wilshire Boulevard. Not as wide as Zumthor’s, but a very thin bridge. It makes sense to use that site for expansion or special shows and there’s a lot of parking over there so they could. It seemed like a no-brainer to do that at some point. I hope that sometime it does.
So, anything you’ll do is contingent on the Zumthor plan moving forward?
I suspect; I don’t know. I’m not being coy, I really don’t know.
In his biography of you, Paul Goldberger writes that your exploration of digital technology allowed architecture to catch up with art. Did you have it in mind that you wanted to somehow reach a level of art through using technology? Was that a goal to make architecture an art?
In my early days I was a bit put off by the architects. They didn’t like what I was doing, the locals. They thought I was breaching some kind of trust and they sort of shunned me. The artists in L.A. embraced me at that very same time. I became part of their team and felt more comfortable. I felt their way of exploring form and space and their creative impulses were manifested very honestly and directly and I felt better with that. So, I stayed with that idea all the way through to now.
I’ll give you the quote from Wayne Shorter. Have you heard it?
He went to a room with his guys to start working together on something and the guitarist said, “Wayne, what are we rehearsing today?” And Wayne said, “You can’t rehearse what you ain’t invented.” And I think that says it all for architecture and art. It is an exploration and an invention.
Of course, we have to follow budgets and stuff like that and that’s why I started playing with the computer. I realized that in the construction industry, probably more than thirty percent of the amount spent building buildings is waste, and fifteen percent of that is in change orders, which people accept. It’s really crazy. It’s like a pro forma thing that you expect you’re going to get fifteen percent change orders and nobody complains about it.
The computer system that I was playing with builds airplanes. And then we modified it for buildings because it was too complicated. We developed an add-on called Digital Project and that helped us eliminate clashes in the field. That’s all it did. It clarifies everything.
Your firm is taking on a master plan for the L.A. River and two partners, Anand Devarajan and Tensho Takemori, are leading it. Gehry Partners is often seen as your signature. With the river study are we seeing a more collaborative way of working?
I’ve shared the presence of these people with our clients for twenty years. When we publish the material they are usually given credit in the credit line. We’re trying to acknowledge partners more as I get older. But it’s really hard. I don’t think anybody’s really done the legacy office thing very successfully. Saarinen I guess, Kevin Roche and Dinkeloo, but that’s just two guys. Kevin’s still there flying in and out. And he’s kind of lived up to the promise. It rarely happens. Up until twenty years ago, when there were talented kids were in my office, I would kick them out at the end of five years and say, “You deserve to take a shot at things yourself.”
In an interview with KCRW’s Frances Anderton, you mentioned that your time studying urban planning at Harvard influenced the L.A. River plan.
People were asking, “What’s your credibility to be doing this?” So, I just threw in Harvard.
I spent a year there in city planning. I didn’t complete the course because it was about statistics and stuff like that, so I got out. If people doubt my credibility, I don’t get it. I think I’ve done plenty to deserve the credibility.
We have a credible team; an incredible team. The work we’ve done clarifies what is needed, what the water issues demand. Once you understand that, that cuts through all the political stuff.
There are fifteen cities. We need to get agreement by fifteen constituencies, and then the state government and the governor on what the problem is and what do we have to do to manage the water and to reclaim it. It’s millions of gallons of water that go to waste that could help us with our drought.
And it’s just water that’s flowing back into the ocean?
Yes. It’s just wasted. I don’t think anyone’s really addressed that. Once you understand that, the reclamation of the water can be used for creating parks and gardens. Then come the designers for each one of those sites. I’m not going to do them. The people that are probably complaining now, if they have the creds to do it they’ll be brought in. And there are a lot of people in L.A. that have the ability to do the landscape work.
Master planning is outside of the kind of work that your firm usually pursues. Are large systems an interest?
The reason I went to city planning instead of architecture at Harvard is because I wanted to do these kinds of things. That was my dream back in the Fifties, and there was no market for it. There was no culture for it. You couldn’t get hired to do anything like this back then. Governments weren’t doing that. They had a few examples, Robert Moses in New York or Olmstead, but there wasn’t really a culture that was interested.
The infrastructure does require design and talent and it is not usually given to design and talent. I was in shock, as everybody was, when the group came to me about the river. I said what do you want me to do? They said they were looking at the High Line in New York. I said the High Line is a derelict railroad bridge and they just put plants on top of it. The L.A. River is a flood control project and you can’t treat it like that. It’s not a “cleanup and plant trees and make it look pretty” kind of project.
First, you have to figure out what the engineering requires. It’s going to take a long time and I’m not sure where I will be when they get there. The team in my office is dedicated and they’re young and full of piss and vinegar. They will not do pretty designs. They will solve the problems first.