Q&A: Paul Goldberger on Frank Gehry’s Life and Work

The architecture critic on Gehry’s peculiar psyche, his triumphs and disappointments, and giving reporters the finger

The architect, sporting a mustache in 1970, working on drawings for the Ron Davis House (1972), one of his most significant early works.

Courtesy Gehry Partners

Frank Gehry isn’t just the world’s foremost architect; he is, by all public standards, also one of our greatest living artists. Paul Goldberger’s new biography (his first), Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry, acknowledges the architect’s celebrity status but doesn’t acquiesce in it. Rather, Goldberger interrogates the peculiar psyche and restless contradictions of the man to shed light on the motivations behind the architecture. Metropolis editor Samuel Medina speaks to the newly minted biographer about defying genre conventions, unpacking the ambiguities of Gehry’s work, and giving reporters the finger.

Samuel Medina: In the last decade, critics have been almost overeager to dismiss Gehry simply as a starchitect. How is that a reductive or unfair judgment?

Paul Goldberger: There’s a side to him that’s very non-starchitect, I’d say. I was just talking to someone at the Los Angeles Times who’s doing a piece on Gehry’s project in Watts [for the nonprofit Children’s Institute, Inc.], and talking about his lifetime interest in social responsibility, and the book delves into that. Frank really doesn’t want to be remembered as somebody who just did a few iconic buildings. I wanted both to place him within the context of the architecture of our time and also place his iconic buildings within the context of an entire life, because there’s more to him than Bilbao and Walt Disney Concert Hall.

SM: A note about the biographical genre: This is an “authorized” work and Gehry’s voice is very present throughout the book, and these kinds of biographies can, of course, easily slide into hagiography. What kind of tropes or conventions did you militate against?

PG: I don’t like to use the word “authorized” because it’s often taken to mean or imply some kind of approval. If Frank had wanted that, it would have been his privilege to want it, just as it would have been my privilege to say “no.” I wouldn’t have taken it on on those terms. He had no right of review, no right to delete anything that displeased him, and I know that there are some things in it that he would rather not have be there. The basic thrust of the book is, indeed, positive, but it’s how I feel. It’s not flattering for every word and every sentence.

SM: You first met Gehry in 1974, and you’ve covered his work very frequently over the years. But in the book you mostly abstain from rehashing your previous critical judgment, generally restricting yourself to describing the work in context, including other contemporaneous critical commentary. Why?

PG: I tried to weave together the genres of a narrative and a critical analysis. But for something like that to work it has to be primarily a narrative—the critical analysis has to piggyback on the narrative and not the other way around, or it simply doesn’t work. I’m very aware of those works in which that’s been done successfully, probably most recently Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan’s biography of de Kooning, which is extraordinarily good. The goal with this book was always to make something that would appeal to the general reader—the intelligent, educated general reader—not just the architecture public, and that too argued for limited critical imposition on the narrative. There is some criticism, definitely, but if that drives the book, then it’s no longer a biography, it’s a work of criticism. And there are so many monographs on his work already, I don’t think the world needed another one.

SM: Gehry’s coming of age and L.A.’s own urban history are intertwined to a certain extent in your telling…

PG: There’s no question that the histories are intertwined. He and the city have had a dynamic relationship for a very long time. First, he made a kind of architecture out of the vernacular of L.A., which no one else had done before, and then he later became a major force in a more mature L.A. His relationship to the city has always been a very emotional thing, as when the Disney Concert Hall ran into real difficulties and Frank came very close to moving away because of it.

Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015, 528 pp., $35) is the first biographical work by the architectural critic Paul Goldberger who first met Gehry in 1974. The book is an “authorized” biography, though Goldberger resists the label.

Courtesy Alfred A. Knopf

SM: There’s a conservative kernel to L.A.’s utopian shell, and it’s the opposite with Gehry, who has this heartfelt, well-worn liberal sensibility but is now considered very much part of an establishment. Do his politics really have any bearing on his work?

PG: He emerges out of an almost commonplace, often Jewish left-wing, vaguely socialist working-class tradition. That’s what he grew up with in Toronto, and it didn’t change that much when he moved to L.A. Throughout his career he’s tried with varying degrees of success to express this and make it known. Of course, it was a little hard to notice that when Bilbao was taking up all of the attention, and certainly he didn’t make his political leanings known much in those times; nevertheless, it was always part of him and part of his psyche. I think that’s why he’s now doing the L.A. River project to revitalize the city’s famous waterway and the Children’s Mental Health Center in Watts. It’s a leitmotif running throughout his life, and Frank has always been at war with his desire for fame and a fondness for the celebrity culture.

SM: You mentioned the psyche, and in one place in the book you humorously deconstruct Gehry as part Frank Lloyd Wright and part Woody Allen, which should be the blurb on the back cover. Armchair psychology is part and parcel of these kinds of biographies—how is it different here?

PG: I’m always a little bit hesitant to suggest too much of a connection between the psyche and the work. There is a connection—the work would not exist without the psyche—but it’s not quite that simple either. I like that line too, but it was intentionally meant to send very mixed messages because Wright and Woody Allen are fundamentally inconsistent and incompatible psyches. Yet somehow Frank seems to weave together elements of both of them. The constant angst that Frank does indeed experience and worry about is not unlike a Woody Allen character at least, and the sense of never fully being satisfied as in the neurotic person sitting at his psychiatrist’s saying “Why am I not happy?”—there’s very much that side of him. At the opening of the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris when all of this amazing stuff has happened—he’s the toast of the town and one party after the other is being held in his honor—he said, “I just wish I was the kind of person who could be happier with all of this and could take total joy in it, but I can’t.” Is there a direct connection between that and the architecture, or is the architecture something he produces when he is able to overcome some of those instincts that challenge him and block him creatively? I tend to think it’s a little more of the latter.

Goldberger, sitting on Gehry’s Wiggly Side Chair (1972), from the architect’s Easy Edges short-lived furniture collection. The designs made innovative use of corrugated cardboard (a surprisingly strong material, it turned out) and were set to be sold by Bloomingdale’s, until Gehry pulled out of the deal.

Courtesy Michael Lionstar

SM: Let’s talk a bit more about the architecture. Much has been made about how Gehry’s early work adopted the vernacular and subverted it in a way. Where would you place Gehry on the spectrum of Postmodernists, in the late 1960s and early 1970s?

PG: There’s no question that there’s a lot of the vernacular in the Hillcrest Apartments [1962, one of Gehry’s first independent commissions], and it’s why Esther McCoy didn’t like it. The book also talks about the fact that there are similarities between Frank and Postmodernists like Robert Venturi and Charles Moore, whose architecture could not be more different superficially; but, when Frank emerged on his own, he sought to make a very similar critique of orthodox Modernism. At an early point, back when Robert Venturi was building his mother’s house and Frank was building his earliest work, the impulses behind the different projects were actually startlingly similar, and that’s a point I was trying to make. Ultimately, they chose to interpret this in very, very different ways, and as the years went on the work became more and more different. But in fact, there’s a certain common root.

SM: His work then also had an almost punk aspect to it, a coarseness and a nonconformity that get lost as he adopts computer software. Bilbao, for instance, has lost some of its avant-garde appeal, partly because of the work that it ushered in, by Gehry and others. Is it possible to read that building anew today in spite of its unfortunate influence?

PG: I think it’s a vastly more subtle and important building than the starchitecture brand suggests, and it was reduced to that by people who liked it but didn’t fully understand it. That’s the price that one pays when a work of high culture is accepted by middle culture. That can happen in literature, film, and music—there are loads of people now who think David Foster Wallace is very cool and read him without really grasping most of what made his writing extraordinary, and I would say the same is the case here. It was fundamentally a good thing for society for that building to become iconic. That said, there’s no free lunch, and in that transformation into an iconic object a certain amount of understanding was lost or the finer points disappeared as the building became stereotyped; in fact, it’s a much more subtle and knowing piece of urbanism than it’s often understood to be. Obviously, if someone likes his buildings, Frank’s happy about it, although I think he feels that a lot of the reasons that that building’s been liked are the wrong reasons.

SM: What, exactly, does he want, then?

PG: He’s full of conflicts, which is one thing that makes him so interesting. There’s a line in the book where he says success is always harder to deal with than failure. He craves success and he’s terrified of it at the same time. You have to accept that contradiction. For example, he walked away from his collection of corrugated-cardboard furniture [Easy Edges, which was to be sold in Bloomingdale’s stores in the early 1970s] he said it was primarily because he’d be manipulated as a public personality to the point that he would cease to be an architect. He’s always walked away from things when they freak him out—even when they might have been of great personal benefit—or if he felt he was losing control. With the New York Times Building, he was all but officially chosen to do the building, but then walked away from it, and it went to Renzo Piano. He kind of got scared of doing a skyscraper in New York, plus he also found it to be a more corporate thing than he really wanted to put up with it. So he didn’t.

The very first sketch Gehry made of the design for the Guggenheim Bilbao.

Courtesy Gehry Partners

SM: In the last five or seven years, the buildings have taken on a shared character that could be termed the “late Gehry style,” where there’s a kind of reverential look into his own work, such as at the New World Symphony. Is this merely nostalgia or is it more productive than that?

PG: It’s certainly more than nostalgia, or rather, the nostalgia of the work is instrumental. I’m not sure Frank would agree with that, or that he would agree with my interpretation of Fondation Louis Vuitton combining early and late Gehry. In the case of the New World Symphony, the circumstances were different—but to point out something that’s equally important to him, especially now, is his nearly desperate desire to prove that he can do buildings on a budget that are responsive to programs. There’s nothing that bothers him more than being thought of as somebody who does fancy shapes that are arbitrary and being defined as a take-it-or-leave it architect. He feels that that’s the greatest misunderstanding of his work, and there I would agree with him. New World Symphony was his attempt to show that he could design something on a budget, and there was a very tight budget for that building. He wanted to show that he was happy to put a Gehry-esque auditorium inside a box, because that was the cheaper way of doing it. Despite how visually and formally different his late work is, projects like the New World Symphony and Fisher Center at Bard make me think of Venturi and the complexity and contradiction of architecture more than it does, say, Norman Foster.

SM: Would you say that Gehry is the last of his kind, so to speak? Or would you at least acknowledge that the architect-artist figure that he represents is in jeopardy?

PG: In many ways Gehry is a very traditional architect because he believes in one-of-a-kind buildings that create unique experiences in real physical space and which are material form arranged in a particular way. It is very possible that technology will make that whole idea obsolete at some point. And if architectural culture passes him by, it will be as much for that reason as anything else. He is of the belief—and only time will tell if it’s right or wrong—that the better way to use technology is not endless replication, but to make economical the creation of unique objects. That is the theory behind 8 Spruce Street, the apartment tower in Lower Manhattan, where his software enabled that facade to be what it is and the building to be buildable at costs close to those of a conventional New York apartment high-rise. So, he is, in fact, keeping up with the times and preparing for another age, and whether other people will do it his way or not remains to be seen.

SM: There was a great controversy about his giving the finger to a Spanish reporter last year. What, aside from the gesture itself, does it say about Gehry’s perception of himself?

PG: I think it meant far less than everyone said it did. The greatest significance of it is really more that he has become another celebrity, so that anything he does gets attention. He has always claimed that he had been misquoted, that he did not say that “98 percent of everything that was designed today was pure shit,” but rather that “98 percent of everything that is built and constructed today is pure shit”—that is, everything that makes up the built environment. But what he was really saying is that certain works of architecture are special and have the ability to provide transcendent experiences. That doesn’t mean that everything’s supposed to be that way. The idea that Frank Gehry is invalid because it would be a terrible world if everything looked like his buildings—of course it would be. But it would also be a pretty horrible life if you had earphones strapped to you and were forced to listen to Beethoven’s symphonies all day long, every day. Great art is not meant to cover the world at every moment and every place. It’s an occasion for very special experiences that impact your psyche and your life in very special ways, but we need background architecture and background other things, too. What Frank was trying to say is “Why are you putting us down”—we architects who are trying to provide those special foreground moments—”it’s not as if we’re trying to say that nothing else matters.” I have to say that I very much agree with him. You can say to the painter, “That’s a very beautiful painting, but why didn’t you put all of that effort into feeding the hungry?” Well, perhaps so. But it’s not a comment that creates any meaningful discourse or yields depths of understanding in your art or in society. Art does not sustain people in the way food sustains people, but great architecture already sustains life’s deeper meaning. I think all Frank was trying to say was “Lay off, that’s all I’m trying to do.”

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