Relax. Don’t Do It.

Frank Gehry’s words of advice to a roomful of Columbia shapemakers.

Frank Gehry’s voice was low—his words unspooling at a lope, his pauses deliberate and long—but there was a little smile in and around his eyes as he spoke. He knew he was being naughty, and, droit du seigneur, he didn’t care. He was in front of a full auditorium three levels deep under the architecture school at Columbia University, giving the second keynote (Rem Koolhaas had delivered the first a month earlier) to kick off a giant conference with a presumptuous name—“The State of Architecture at the Beginning of the 21st Century”—and epochal aims: to record the cultural moment on the occasion of the departure of the school’s long-serving dean, Bernard Tschumi. The lights were on, and the slides were waiting; Gehry had preempted his default stump speech to preach abstinence in the bawdy house of form, temperance to the theory-drunk, patience at a school where the professional model is the shooting star: streak, flash, burn out.

“It’s hard to start getting notoriety when you’re just starting out,” he said. “You see it with a lot of movie stars and people like that. I’ve had a few artist friends who peaked in their thirties and just went down the tubes. Just went to drink and drugs. Maybe they would have done that anyway. So take your time. My message is: take your time. Pace yourself. Make a firm kind of base for yourself as you go forward. Make alliances with great people who are going to partner with you and help you make the buildings.”

It was not a crowd that would welcome that particular common sense. Poor Tschumi squirmed through the episode and then tried to sandbag Gehry with the first question after the talk. (He said, approximately: “You seem to be untroubled by your decision to change the skin of your buildings from stone to metal, even as the form remains the same. How can you explain that?” He wanted to say: “Hypocrite! You do as you wish! I spit on your freedoms! Reveal your imprisoning logic and submit it for review!”) Many of the people who would be at the conference a few days later—manning panels on “Politics and Material” or “Detail and Identity” (“Is the detail the place where architecture confronts its cyclical identity crisis?”)—were there that night, ranging up behind their dean on the podium side of the hall. They were gathered in one of those worrisome state-of-the-union densities that make you hope at least one trendy thinker has been exiled to spend the evening elsewhere, prepared, if necessary, to reconstitute the academy and ensure another decade of weightless bloviation.

Of course, there was also an elephant in the room: the new dean, or rather his or her specter, as no one had been selected at the time of that gathering (or this writing). The committee was reportedly deadlocked last spring, but the rumor mill was running free, mostly churning through the same three names—Lynn, Zaha, Libeskind; Zaha, Libeskind, Lynn—as if some privileged recitation of those five syllables might, like rubbing hands on the genie’s bottle, summon an agent to deliver the school from uncertainty. Taking pity, it would grant three wishes, one for each: a limitless supply of disposable logic for the idle generation of form (Lynn), a probe to uncloak the mysteries of taste (Zaha), and a path through geometry to the unspeakable name of God (Libeskind).

Meanwhile, there before them Gehry stood as the object lesson: the architect who took for his muse the limits of the marketplace, the star who came in from the cold. He ran through his recent projects, perhaps just a little bored; he had thought too late to bring slides for a new lecture he’s been giving—one image for every building built, from the pre-glamorous years to the present.

The last question of the night—picking up on Tschumi’s line and revealing a similar discomfort with an approach to design centered proudly in the right brain—was a perfectly incomprehensible attack leveraged on Gehry’s lack of “cohesion.” The petitioner was cocksure, and the tone was confrontational. But translated from the Columbianese it might have sounded like this: “How do you make decisions in the absence of a theory? (Help me.) How do you cope with the vertigo of form? (Save me from myself.)”

“You’re making it very complicated,” Gehry said in that same slow way. “When you’re a kid, you say, ‘Step on a crack, you break your mother’s back.’ So when you’re a kid, you don’t step on a crack because you don’t want to break your mother’s back. It’s a childlike notion of power. And I think we’ve turned that into, ‘If you stand at a certain place with a fulcrum, you can move the universe.’ If you go at design that way, it becomes so important and so powerful that you can’t do anything. You go into gridlock. I had a kid that came out of Eisenman’s class once. He couldn’t do anything. He had gotten into something with Peter about line and wall . He had a whole thing about line and wall . And he had made them so precious that he could neither draw a line nor make a wall. It was such a striving for perfection that he could never get to. So he gridlocked.

“It’s wonderful that you’re interested in logic. And you’re asking more than it is even possible to tell. And you’re not going to get out of line because there is gravity that’s gonna hold you down. And the culture around us is gonna hold you down. The building department is going to hold you down. The client, economics—everything is going to keep you in line. So you’re not going to destroy the world. You’re not going to break your mother’s back if you step on a crack. You can do things. You’ve got to free yourself to let those things happen.”

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