Frank Gehry's World

Robert Brooks

Frank Gehry still sees himself as an outsider, just plugging away.

Like it or not, Frank Gehry is the world’s most famous architect. And he doesn’t really like it much. About to turn 82, Gehry has spent his career happily playing the role of scrappy outsider. But even if it’s all happening against his wishes, the Canadian-born Gehry is now unquestionably the éminence grise of American architecture, a household name the world over. He pals around with Brad Pitt, had Sally Kellerman serenade him and 500 guests at his 80th birthday party and played himself in an episode of The Simpsons. He’s designed an austerely modern line of jewelry for Tiffany, along with $1 million diamond brooches in the shape of the Guggenheim Bilbao’s floor plan.

“One day they’re going to discover I’m a fraud,” he jokes by phone from his L.A. office, a nondescript former warehouse near Marina del Rey. “A little insecurity is healthy. As soon as you get too fat and sassy…I’ve seen it happen to so many people.” Though exactly what, he doesn’t say. “Whatever this fame thing is, it’s only come in the last 15 years. And because it happened late in life, I don’t believe in it. It’s not real to me. It’s nice when people ask for my autograph, but I’m still Joe Schlepper,” says Gehry. “I can’t help it. That’s how I feel comfortable.”

People use the term “Bilbao Effect” to describe the kind of urban renewal Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum brought to that Basque city after it opened, in 1997. It could also apply to Gehry himself. It’s now close to gospel that the Guggenheim Bilbao is among the best, if not the best, building of the 20th century. Walking into it for the first time, Philip Johnson, kingmaker and dean of American architecture until his death, in 2005, anointed Gehry “the greatest architect we have today.” He later declared the museum “the greatest building of our time.” That sentiment was recently confirmed by Vanity Fair, which polled leading architects on the most important buildings of the last 30 years. Bilbao came out on top in a landslide.

Gehry, in typical fashion, brushes aside the adulation, admitting he didn’t much care for his masterpiece at first. “It usually takes me a couple of years to like my buildings,” he says. “But I’ve learned to enjoy the process. I get my kicks up front. When a building is done, it becomes the people’s, not mine.”

These days the projects come to Gehry, and he can pick and choose. While many clients are no doubt hoping for their own Bilbao Effect, Gehry’s newest projects are decidedly not in the mold of the Guggenheim. In many cases they’re closer to the modest, sometimes rough-and-tumble but dynamic buildings of his early days. Gehry recently flew to Biloxi, Mississippi, for the opening of the first phase of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, a project that was 18 months from completion when Hurricane Katrina destroyed it. Now mostly rebuilt, a handful of domestically scaled gallery pavilions devoted to the unorthodox proto-modern ceramics of Biloxi’s “Mad Potter” George Ohr and other Gulf Coast artists are set among a grove of historic oak trees. The buildings feature vernacular touches like clapboard siding and “shoofly” belvederes as well as more recognizable Gehry elements: curving staircases, jagged, metal-wrapped skylights and twisting, pod-like, stainless steel–clad forms.

In January, New World Symphony artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas, an old friend of Gehry’s, will christen a new campus that the two worked closely on together. The centerpiece is a multifaceted stucco-and-glass building that houses a 750-seat performance hall and rehearsal rooms, which, viewed from the soaring glass atrium, appear precariously piled atop each other, like children’s blocks. From the landscaped park outside, audiences can watch performances and other video programming on a huge exterior wall, part of an effort to ensure a casual cultural experience befitting Miami Beach. “It’s not about getting all dressed up to go to the Philharmonic. People can drift over with their Bellinis or whatever and sit in the park and watch,” suggests Gehry. “Artistically it’s exquisite and impeccable, but from the user standpoint it’s cozy and accessible.”

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In New York, Gehry has endured disappointment over the years, with failed plans for, among other projects, a rehab of Lincoln Center, a downtown Guggenheim and the controversial Atlantic Yards district in Brooklyn. But his proposed cultural center at Ground Zero recently got a boost with $100 million in federal funds, and his 76-story luxury apartment tower at 8 Spruce Street (now the city’s tallest residential building) is nearing completion. Clad in a skin of shimmery stainless steel that undulates across subtle setbacks and irregular rows of bay windows, the tower is a striking addition to the Lower Manhattan skyline. “I’m very proud of it,” says Gehry. “I worked hard at making a very New York building. I think it has that body language.” The architect reveals that his visits to the city are tinged with memories of his New York–born father, Irving Goldberg. “He grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, very poor. He’s long gone and didn’t get to see me as I am now. So I talk to him. I say, ‘Hey Pop, look what I did!’”

Initially Gehry, who came out of L.A.’s edgy, creative scene in the ’60s and whose sartorial tastes still run to black T-shirts and jeans, had to show he was up to the task of big commissions for high-polish clients. “When I got the Disney Concert Hall job [in 1988], the rap against me was that I wouldn’t know how to do a fancy building, that it would be all plywood and chain-link fencing,” he says. “I had to prove myself in the upscale gentlemen’s world.” Now he works with moguls like Barry Diller, whose IAC headquarters in Manhattan he designed; Swiss pharmaceutical heiress and art patron Maja Hoffmann, for whom Gehry is creating a home for her Luma Foundation, in Arles, France; and the emirs of Abu Dhabi, who commissioned another branch of the Guggenheim. One-third bigger than Bilbao, with fewer titanium swirls and more gravity-defying stacks of canted boxes and cones, it’s due to open by 2014 on an island packed with cultural buildings by fellow Pritzker laureates Jean Nouvel, Norman Foster, Tadao Ando and Zaha Hadid.

Lurking behind all the projects opening in the next few years is the question of what happens to the firm if and when Gehry retires. For now, he has no plans to stop designing. As he bluntly puts it, “I don’t want to miss out on some damn good projects.”

Collecting Frank Gehry

Though not as famous as his buildings, Gehry’s forays into furniture design have been groundbreaking in their own way, often mirroring the evolution of his architecture. Interest has increased as the architect’s fame has soared, though prices have stayed moderate. “Given his stature,” says Richard Wright, owner of Wright auction house and gallery in Chicago, “there are relatively good deals for signature pieces.”

Gehry’s best-known furniture is probably his Easy Edges line, made of ribbonlike layers of corrugated cardboard. Launched in 1969, the collection was a big success for a few years, but Gehry halted production for fear of having his name forever tied to furniture, not architecture. Still, examples are fairly abundant, and for the past several years Vitra has been making new versions of the iconic Wiggle side chair and stool. For these reasons, prices have remained flat, with vintage stools hovering between $2,000 and $3,000 for years.

In 1980, New City Editions in Venice, California, began producing limited editions of Gehry’s more adventurous Experimental Edges collection, which captures the raw energy of his architecture in shredded and torn cardboard. Much scarcer, these pieces command far higher prices. A Bubbles chaise brought in $18,750 at a Wright auction last summer, while Christie’s sold a pair of the Sitting Beaver side chairs for $20,400 in 2005, more than twice their estimate. Admittedly, cardboard is a challenging material to conserve. Moisture is a mortal enemy, and prolonged sitting can crush the corrugated edges, lessening the value of a piece.

Capturing the highest prices at auction by far are Gehry’s limited-edition Fish lamps with Formica and glass “scales,” produced in the mid-’80s by New City Editions. The whimsical lamps, the subject of a recent show at New York’s Jewish Museum, reflect Gehry’s recurring use of fish forms in his work. Examples have fetched up to $180,000 (at Sotheby’s sale of the David Whitney estate in 2006), a record for Gehry at auction. “Gehry’s work has broad appeal,” says Wright. “It’s not just for the collector of architecture.” —Raul Barreneche

Rave New World

In the tradition-bound world of classical music, Michael Tilson Thomas is a trailblazer. He’s also one of the hardest-working music directors in the business, with posts at the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony Orchestra and Miami’s New World Symphony. He founded the latter in 1987 as a three-year immersion program for advanced conservatory graduates. Since then, the acclaimed group has performed at the Lincoln Theater, an outdated Art Deco space with so-so acoustics: confining conditions for a tech-savvy musical leader who even has his own YouTube channel. But for the past five years Tilson Thomas has collaborated with Frank Gehry, a friend since childhood, on a new state-of-the-art campus in Miami Beach that will be inaugurated with a weeklong series of concerts and events kicking off January 25.

In addition to a 750-seat concert hall and rehearsal spaces (all outfitted with lots of 21st-century technology), there’s a rooftop terrace, a 2.5-acre public park and a 7,000-square-foot exterior video wall. Tilson Thomas says the main hall, with its adjustable seating and staging, is really like “several performance spaces, where audiences can surround the music or be surrounded by it. And the hall has numerous surfaces for projecting video, so rather than reading in the program that Stravinsky quoted a Ukrainian folk song in a piece, you’d see an archival clip of a group playing that song.” The goal, he says, is “to create new habits of concert-giving.” —Adam Baer