LOS ANGELES – It was a Monday afternoon and the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry – Even though he had just turned 92 in a pandemic, had completed the top floor of his building on Grand Avenue and was preparing for an exhibition of new sculptures at the Gagosian Gallery – I had little interest in sitting back to reflect on this potentially momentous moment in his life and career.
Instead, he was on the move – he was giving his first studio tour since the Covid-19 outbreak and was much more eager to discuss the myriad drafts he has underway, most of which have already been done. (Only one skyscraper in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards stalled, and its office laid off eight of its 170 employees).
Projects include the version of the New York High Line in this city along the Los Angeles River. new office buildings for Warner Bros. in Burbank and the scenic design he does for Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding’s jazz opera “Iphigenia”, which will go to the Kennedy Center in December. Nearly 3,000 miles away, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will unveil its Gehry-designed interior renovation and expansion in May (an event the architect plans to attend).
When asked whether he had considered taking a break or driving back, given his age and performance, Gehry declined the idea. “What would I do?” he said. “I enjoy this stuff.”
The architect buzzed through his sprawling workspace, saying he has now reached a point in his career where he has the luxury of focusing on what matters most to him: projects that promote social justice.
“I’m just free,” he said, “now that I don’t have to worry about fees anymore.”
Gehry’s increasing emphasis on giving back appears to have reinforced his commitment to the city. For example, he designs apartments on Wilshire Boulevard for homeless veterans. And about six years ago, he and activist Malissa Shriver founded Turnaround Arts: California, a nonprofit that brings art classes to schools in need in the state.
“These are works of love,” said Gehry.
He has volunteered to design a new home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s youth-focused educational arm, the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA), at the Inglewood Civic Center in the south of the city, due for completion in June.
Gehry said he was inspired by Venezuela’s publicly funded music education program, “El Sistema,” which gives underserved children the opportunity to play in orchestras. One product of this program, Gustavo Dudamel, the music and artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic who holds the same roles for YOLA, called the Gehry creation “a metaphor that says,” Beauty is important. “
While converting a 1960s bank building into a concert hall for the youth orchestra, Gehry said he pushed the organization to raise a little more money for a 45-foot theater that was the same size as its Walt Disney Concert Hall. “It appears,” he said, “like a beacon for the community.”
Gehry, who designed a center for the New World Symphony in Miami, as well as the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, and the Guggenheim office planned for Abu Dhabi, remains animated by cultural projects with an educational component (he recently joined the board of directors of the Herbie at Hancock Institute of Jazz, a non-profit organization that trains promising young musicians).
He’s perhaps most excited about the River Project – an effort funded by the Los Angeles County Public Works Department to revitalize the 51-mile canal that runs from Canoga Park to Long Beach, which was paved in 1938 Prevent flooding.
River LA, a nonprofit group – with the assistance of Mayor Eric M. Garcetti – recruited Gehry to develop a master plan for the site. This gave rise to the idea for an urban platform park above the concrete with lawns and a $ 150 million cultural center.
The SELA Cultural Center (named after its location in southeast Los Angeles) is publicly and privately funded and serves as a space for both local artists and professionals. Those likely to contribute to programming include Dudamel; Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and Benjamin Millepied, the founder of the LA Dance Project.
This cultural component has not yet taken a specific form. Millepied said he would “first identify good local dance organizations and understand how best to work with and support them”.
However, some criticized Gehry’s involvement in the project – a public comment period on the plan recently ended – as senior community leaders who lacked outdoor experience and invited gentrification.
“The potential for tragic setback is enormous,” warned a recent article in the Los Angeles Times. “We could put millions of public dollars into a scheme that looks impressive but displaces its target audience – communities that have had a hard time just surviving over the past few decades.”
Gehry tried to address such concerns and in an interview emphasized that his focus was on creating affordable housing and open space.
“We are working on social housing options,” said Gehry, “in order to promote home ownership among the existing population.”
Even so, activists remain unhappy with Gehry’s approach to the project and prefer to restore the tributary to its original state. “As famous as Gehry is and as much as that fame has drawn attention to the river, there is no better architect than Mother Nature,” said Marissa Christiansen, executive director of Friends of the LA River, an advocacy group.
Gehry’s current proposal “shows a lack of innovation and a thorough understanding of the watershed that feeds the river,” she added. “It has not yet been fully investigated whether there are other options.”
Gehry as the face of his company remains the target of such criticism, but Gehry Partners is made up of longtime members who have worked closely with him, including his wife Berta, Meaghan Lloyd, David Nam, Craig Webb and Tensho Takemori, Laurence Tighe, John Bowers and Jennifer Ehrman .
The operation has become a family affair. In addition to Finance Director Berta Gehry, Gehry’s son Sam is also an architect (he designed his father’s new house in Santa Monica) and his other son Alejandro is an artist who contributes work to his father’s projects. (Gehry’s daughter Brina teaches yoga in New York.) “We’re a corner shop,” said Gehry.
And while he can be a lightning rod in the River Project, he is also engaged in more carefree activities, such as his reinterpretation of the Hennessy XO bottle for the 150th anniversary of cognac last year: a wrinkled shell made of 24-carat gold bronze, in sculptural form Wrapped in glass.
Inspired by his 5-year-old granddaughter, who calls him “Nano”, Gehry created an oversized “Alice in Wonderland” tea party with a hatter. This piece, along with colossal polyvinyl and copper vertical fish lamps hanging from the ceiling, will be featured in Gehry’s sculpture exhibition opening June 24th in Gagosian’s room in Beverly Hills.
“Late in life, he’s really free to be creative with no compromise or collaboration,” said Deborah McLeod, senior director of the gallery. “How much fun Frank Gehry is doing what he wants.”
While the architect seems a bit more hunched over and his hair is tousled, he continues to exude a childish enthusiasm for design details.
For example, how he played with metal blocks for the $ 175 million art complex of Swiss art patron Maja Hoffmann, Luma Arles, which is due to open at the end of June.
How he experiments with a softer metal to create the effect of a watercolor painting with his design for a medicine museum on the campus of the China Medical University in Taichung, Taiwan. “If you fold the metal,” said Gehry, “you get a nice surface.”
And how he used white glass for his Warner Bros. project along the Ventura Freeway, as he did for Barry Diller’s IAC headquarters on the West Side Highway in New York City. “I thought of them like icebergs,” said Gehry of his buildings, “which float on the autobahn.”
The architect, clad in a blue T-shirt and brown corduroy pants, his reading glasses on his head, spoke to Jeffrey Worthe, the developer of the Warner Bros. project that Gehry is for, about how much he enjoyed his give and take Design of a hotel complex on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. “He takes care of architecture,” said Gehry.
For his part, Worthe said he was surprised by Gehry’s openness to input and cost savings. “He never thinks it’s perfect,” said Worthe, “he never thinks he has all the answers.”
That’s not to say that Gehry doesn’t keep a healthy ego. When the architect talked about the popular contemporary art museum he designed for the Louis Vuitton Foundation in 2014, he said, “I think we did it pretty well.”
And he’s clearly proud of designing private homes for prominent clients, like the elegant family business in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, for Hassan Mansur of the Surman Automotive Group. Or the Colorado “Meeting House”, which he designed for Michael and Jane Eisner in 2018 with a contoured stainless steel roof.
Perhaps most notably, Guggenheim Bilbao took the idea of target architecture de rigueur, even though Gehry said he was focused on the challenges ahead, not what he has already achieved.
“I don’t know if I approve of something,” said Gehry. “I don’t care that much.”
“I’m proud of what I’ve done,” he continued, “but I can look at projects and see all the things I should have done differently.”
One project has a special status: the two towers that are part of the King Street development in his hometown Toronto – the architect’s tallest project to date.
“New York has Rockefeller Center – it’s a cohesive piece of architecture and it holds, it holds,” said Gehry, adding that he hoped his efforts on King Street would “hold it together”.
“My grandmother’s street is right up there,” said Gehry, pointing to a rendering on the wall. “My grandfather’s hardware store was here. So I hung out on this street.
“The city gave us extra height,” he added, “because I came home.”