May 4, 2006
A new documentary on Frank Gehry gives insight to the man, the myth, and his methodology.
This spring Frank Gehry’s star is shining bling-bright as Tiffany & Co. lauds his new jewelry line, but the leap from buildings to baubles is not an insignificant step in the career arc of the well-known American starchitect. The sculptural trinkets are crown jewels in a career that has made Gehry more constellation than star, an architect apart whose structures have come to personify the popular idea of contemporary architecture itself. Little wonder, then, that filmmaker and longstanding friend of the architect, Sydney Pollack has produced a friendly but perceptive documentary treatment, Sketches of Frank Gehry, debuting this week at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, that contemplates the curious alchemy of Gehry’s career.
Documentaries about architects tend not to stray far from two narrowly prescribed story arcs: hagiography or tragedy. In both scenarios, the subject is presented as a relatively flat figure, a genius or would-be genius; the real distinction between the plot paths concerns career outcome, parental and personal capriciousness, or cosmic ennui. The genius shtick is rarely avoided. (A good exception is the delusions of grandeur farce, My Father, The Genius.)
Celebratory films are usually no better and are often vanity projects commissioned by the architects themselves as career capstones. Yet the plot points of this film are not sycophantic, and Pollack’s naïf approach strikes an appealing balance between flattering his subject and demystifying him. The film also examines anti-Gehry sentiments at length. Sketches, in fact, does a reasonable job of expunging (but not exploding) the genius myth.
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Given his background, Gehry nearly comes across as a tourist in his own profession. He failed his first drawing class: it was perspective, of course. He wandered into a ceramics class. He was an intellectually curious displaced Toronto boy who ran catering truck deliveries for Los Angelinos like Roy Rogers. His path, veering into architecture from fine art, helps explain his now trademark qualities: the obsession with shape, the extensive use of new and unconventional materials, and the performative, exhibit-like quality of his structures.
Pollack’s film deglamourizes the architect’s design process. The namesake sketches of the film’s title, Gehry’s starting point with all his projects, are about as mystical as the Gehry process gets. His methods for approaching his work and for discussing it with his team reveal a straight-talking, impatient craftsman. Films about artistic process often fail by relying on a protean myth of overwhelming talent: Gehry’s chief skill, beyond his perspective and experience, comes off as his sheer playfulness. It is a playfulness, one interviewee alludes, made possible by technology.
Too often couch talk seems more prop or gimmick in biography—but any artist with a three decade flirtation with therapy warrants the focus. It seems to explain the heart of Gehry’s development. The film’s most amusing interview comes with Gehry’s elder therapist of 30-plus years. Elsewhere, Gehry laments how his first wife pressured him to replace his Jewish birth name (Goldberg). The most telling admissions, however, are those wherein he considers his long-abiding sense of professional isolation—a castaway not fully belonging to art or architecture—and his flickering need for acceptance from both communities.
The real difficulty with Sketches, finally, is that Gehry’s career conforms so readily to a Hollywood biopic treatment. His life is rich fodder for some future star vehicle. A vagabond architect who, largely without mentors, defies his professional peers. Hangs with likeminded outlaw artists. Flouts convention and develops brash, trademark style. Achieves greatness. Does not look back. No matter how Sketches of Frank Gehry—or any biography—might try otherwise, Gehry’s example rekindles the myth of the architect as soloist.
For more information on this film and where it’s playing in your area, go here.