This article was originally published in January 2011.
A candid conversation with the world’s most important architect about why people love good design, and why they fear it…
When Philip Johnson, who’s been called the godfather of modern architecture, first entered the just completed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, he wept. It’s not the first time Frank Gehry, the building’s architect, inspired emotion that’s rarely been caused by an edifice. Johnson’s just one of many architects and critics who have crowned Gehry the most important architect in the world.
Frank Gehry’s hauntingly beautiful, completely original buildings have redefined architecture and transformed cities. Some are made with common materials such as chain-link fences and corrugated metal, on one hand, and, on the other, some with sheets of titanium, curving like ocean waves. Like no architect since Frank Lloyd Wright, Gehry also transcends what’s often a rarified field and has become a celebrity. He hangs out with friends like Brad Pitt and Bono, for whom he has designed homes, and, recently, pop-up stores for Project Red (that use their profits to fight AIDS in Africa).
Recently Vanity Fair Magazine asked 52 of the world’s reigning architects and critics to pick the greatest work of architecture in the 21st century. The winner by a landslide was Gehry’s Bilbao, called by Herbert Muschamp, the late New York Times’ architecture critic, “the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe.” “Bilbao is truly a signal moment in the architectural culture,” said the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Paul Goldberger. “The building blazed new trails and became an extraordinary phenomenon. It was one of those rare moments when critics, academics, and the general public were all completely united about something.” Other famous Gehry buildings include Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles; Chicago’s Millennium Park; the Experience Music Museum, which includes the Jimmy Hendricks Museum, in Seattle, and the magnificent Dancing House in Prague. The accolades continue to pour in and Gehry has been given every major award an architect can win. He’s also the first architect to be the subject of a Playboy Interview, though this isn’t the first time he’s appeared in the magazine. For Playboy’s fiftieth anniversary issue, Gehry created for us the ultimate bachelor pad. A stark contrast with what was the traditional bachelor pad—The New York Times described it as “a studio with a duct-taped beanbag chair and a beer-can sculpture” – Gehry’s was modern and minimalist with a ceiling over the bed that was a glass-bottom swimming pool.
Gehry, born in Toronto and educated at the University of South California’s School of Architecture, is currently working on dozens of commissions, including an arts center on Ground Zero in New York City; a new Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, and buildings in Biloxi, Mississippi; Las Vegas, and Basel, Switzerland. Though 81, Gehry travels nonstop, jet setting between his Los Angeles home and construction or potential construction sites throughout the world. Between trips, the architect sat down with Contributing Editor David Sheff, who has conducted our interviews with John Lennon, Fareed Zakaria, and Betty Friedan. Sheff reports: “Gehry’s firm is located in a former BMW factory that looks like a cross between Epcot Center, a silicon-valley technology laboratory, and a preschool, with rooms crowded with construction materials (building blocks, sheets of metal) and models of buildings in every size, from miniature to room sized. In a documentary about the architect by Gehry’s friend Sydney Pollock, former Guggenheim director Tom Krens remarks on Gehry’s big ego, but in our conversation the architect was surprisingly modest and self-deprecating. He also had a wry sense of humor. Before we began, he said he’d prepared for our interview by reading one I’d conducted in the past — with Jack Nicholson. ‘Mostly Nicholson talked about is his sex life,’ Gehry said. ‘I don’t want to disappoint you, but I have no sex life.’ It turned out fine; as at one point he noted, architecture is all about erections.”
PLAYBOY: What does it mean to you to be the first architect in history to be the subject of a Playboy interview?
GEHRY: I’m of two minds about doing any interviews these days. It seems a lot of the world is out to play gotcha on me. I guess they always go after people these days. It’s sport. Can you imagine being Brad Pitt?
PLAYBOY: And yet as the world’s most celebrated architect, wouldn’t you expect to be the target of the press and critics?
GEHRY: The thing is, I hate the celebrity architect thing. I just do my work. The press comes up with this stuff and it sticks. I hatethe word “starchitect.” Stuff like that comes from mean-spirited, non-talented journalists.
PLAYBOY: Why is it mean-spirited? Ever since Frank Lloyd Wright, a few architects — like you, Phillip Johnson, Rem Koolhaus and a few others — have become as well known as movie stars.
GEHRY: It’s derisive and once it’s said it sticks. I get introduced all the time, “Here’s starchitect Frank Gehry…” My reaction: “What the fuck are you talking about?”
PLAYBOY: From your prominent position, whether as starchitect or architect, how would you sum the state of architecture in America?
GEHRY: Ninety percent of the buildings that we live in and around isn’t architecture. No, that’s not right. Ninety-eight percent.
PLAYBOY: What do you mean they aren’t architecture?
GEHRY: Ninety-eight percent are boxes, which tells me that a lot of people are in denial.
We live and work in boxes. People don’t even notice that. Most of what’s around us is banal. We live with it. We accept it as inevitable. People say, “This is the world the way it is and don’t bother me.” Then when somebody does something different, real architecture, the push back is amazing. People resist it.
PLAYBOY: Don’t your buildings prove the opposite, that people embrace the radically different?
GEHRY: Every time the resistance is enormous. When initially I met with the clients in Bilbao – the people who represented the city – they asked for the Sydney Opera House. That is, they wanted something that would define Bilbao in the way the Opera House defines Sydney. In my own way I delivered what they asked for. I presented the museum in model form and they loved it and pushed the button to go forward and build it. Immediately there was a vigil in the streets. There were steel workers, dockworkers, and other union people and many others all against me who created a phalanx with candles. I had to walk through them to go to the formal presentation of the model. There was a threat in the newspaper, “Kill the American architect.” I was told not to worry, but believe me, through all the public presentations I stood next to the President. I stood close to him. I thought, They’re not going to shoot him.
PLAYBOY: What was their point? Why the vigil?
GEHRY: They didn’t want it built. They hated it. They were appalled. They didn’t understand it. They didn’t want the change it represented. Now that it’s built, they run over and want their pictures taken with me. “Senor Gehry, Senor Gehry…!” I should live there. It’s a love-in, though they’d probably get tired of me…. Before, however, they reacted as if I was taking their city away.
PLAYBOY: Why were people threatened? According to many architects and critics, the Bilbao is the best modern building in the world.
GEHRY: Generally people are afraid. They pretend they aren’t; it’s part of the denial. We’re all part of it. As much as we pretend otherwise, we want what’s comfortable and we’re afraid of the different. We’re afraid of change. It happened in Los Angeles, too, when the first models of Disney Hall were shown. You should have heard the outcry from the public, critics, and press. “It was called “broken crockery,” “outlandish,” and blah, blah, blah. Of course now the feeling is different here, too. The building’s helped the Philharmonic, which it’s one of the few orchestras anywhere that’s in the black. The management of the Philharmonic credits a lot of it to the building. But at first people saw the models and drawings and were horrified. It’s happened over and over again.
PLAYBOY: How do you feel driving through virtually any city or suburb almost anywhere in America and increasingly in the world, and you pass identical strip malls, condominium complexes, apartments, chain stores, McMansions, box stores, and tract houses?
GEHRY: “Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky.” There’s the old song about it. It’s a metaphor for what we’re being told: “Just stay in the box, kid, don’t muddy the water.” Parents say it to their kids. Teachers say it. Schools do. And so people become immune to the sameness. I’m in denial just like everybody else. It’s so common it’s accepted. We can’t imagine it any other way. It’s dehumanizing and we don’t even notice it. You see it in Korea, you see it in Russia, you see it in China, you see it in India, you see it in Japan.
PLAYBOY: Globalized bad taste?
GEHRY: Globalized no taste. It’s terrible and each of those cultures comes with a history of beauty, whether Korea, Russia, China, India, or Japan… Everywhere, including America, at least a little bit.
PLAYBOY: But does the sameness really come down to no taste or to economics? That is, isn’t it simply cheaper to build cookie-cutter buildings and a mass-produced monoculture than distinctive offices, stores, homes, and other structures?
GEHRY: I think it has more to do with comfort. You can make the economics work if you want. But in Tokyo or London or Los Angeles people go into McDonald’s and they’re identical and people are comfortable. It’s unthreatening. They know it and we like what we know. Look around this room. [His office is a clutter of drawings, models, stacks of papers, books, and photographs.] I’ve got all my tchotchkes. They make me feel good. It’s messy, but controlled mess. My mess. I know where everything is.
PLAYBOY: Sameness may be about comfort, but could it also be that people don’t notice and/or most don’t care about architecture and design?
GEHRY: I think people care. If not, why do so many people spend money going on vacations to see architecture. They go to the Parthenon, to Chartres, to the Sydney Opera House. They go to Bilbao. There’s something that compels them. People come to see Disney Hall and the Chicago Park– I should be happy and shut up.
So what is it? The general public throughout the world no matter what their education, their background, from all varied walks of life, go to the Parthenon. It costs them money to get there. They go to Rome, to Milan. They go to see great architecture. Something compels them and yet we live surrounded by everything but great architecture. Why do we stand for it? People are searching for something they don’t have in their lives. There’s an unfulfilled need. My question is, What creates that need, and why doesn’t it translate into more of a demand for better design in our lives?
PLAYBOY: Well? What creates the need?
GEHRY: What creates the need is very deeply part of who we are as people. The reason it doesn’t translate into a demand for better design in our lives is because of denial. As I said, we don’t see the banality but accept banality. We accept that banal as inevitable and it’s not.
PLAYBOY: Maybe it is.
GEHRY: If the general public demanded better, they’d get better, because the marketplace responds to the public’s needs and desires.
PLAYBOY: Do we pay a price for accepting the banal?
GEHRY: I think we do, but maybe I’m wrong. We’ve survived as a species, so maybe it doesn’t matter. But maybe we’re missing something. Those guys way back were drawing in caves and something was driving them. We’ve always created–music, literature, art, dance. The art around us — or lack of it — may be a measure of how we’re doing as individuals and as a civilization, so maybe we should be worried.
PLAYBOY: Like early man drawing on cave walls, in spite of the boxes we live in and around, people still build and create, whether skyscrapers or sandcastles. What’s behind the impulse?
GEHRY: There’s a drive in us to express ourselves in some way or form. We pick up whatever material’s available. It’s primitive. Kids see sand on the beach and build and show their parents: “Look what I did, mama.” It’s necessary to us. Some cultures tried to stop people from expressing themselves. In China, for example, under Mao the Communists tried to stop individual expression. For them the payoff was a society of equality. The problem, of course, is that it didn’t work. Ultimately you can’t repress individuality, even though you can try. People may live and work in uninspiring environments, but look inside them. Look at the painted walls. Look at the decorations. People rebel even in the most controlled office environment where you’re not allowed to do anything and yet you’ll see the little bulletin board in front of a person’s desk and it has their photos and clippings and cartoons and whatever else.
PLAYBOY: Is it elitist to suggest that people need art and architecture? Many people just don’t have the time to see art or education that could help them appreciate it.
GEHRY: It’s not elitist to acknowledge that everyone has a unique signature. Everyone is different. We’re physiologically different, wired differently. There’s so many variations on the theme and the excitement of that and recognition of that should be celebrated. It’s not about time or education, but about individuality. Those who say that only artists and so-called architects can create are the ones who are elitist. We should celebrate the variety rather than conformity. We should allow people to express their selves. That we don’t is more of our denial. We deny our nature to build and create and then wonder why there’s so much alienation and dissatisfaction. Everyone has a desire to if not a need to use their individual signatures. Whenever people meet to talk about a project, even stuffy old businessmen, they say that they want to create something new. Insurance executives get to a retreat and what do they talk about? How do we make things better? The experts come in and have everyone free-associate. They even call it play – “let’s play around with this idea.” We’re wired that way from childhood; childhood play is nothing more than an expression of our individuality and preparation for human interaction. Everybody’s an artist. Unfortunately we don’t treat them as such. My solution? I hide.
PLAYBOY: When you’re not hiding, but traveling, do you feel differently depending on whether you stay in a beautiful hotel versus a standard Holiday Inn?
GEHRY: Generally people are more impressed with the services and the comfort issues than the design. If there’s fruit you feel welcome. I tend to go to very old-fashioned hotels. I’ve stayed in the Philippe Starck hotels with tiny rooms and I bump into everything. I love his work a lot, and we’re good friends. But when I go to some of those hotels I come out with black-and-blue marks. There are also places that are so designed they’re unlivable. I used to rail against the Farnsworth House by Mies [van der Rohe]. If you lived in that house and you came home and took your clothes off, where would you put them? You couldn’t just throw your coat on the chair. It would spoil the design.
PLAYBOY: Lie Vkan der Rohe, some architects do plan every detail, including the furniture and art on the walls. Don’t you?
GEHRY: I don’t. A friend of mine who worked with Mies had the Mies ensemble — a settee, two chairs, and coffee table – in front of the fireplace in his apartment. He’d complain that it wasn’t comfortable. I said, “I’ll show you what’s wrong.” I took the settee and pulled it around, put a chair on either side of the fireplace, and did this and that. He agreed that it was so much better. The next time I went back it was all put back the way it had been. I asked why and he said, “That’s the way Mies wanted it.” Mies was dead by then. I don’t think he would have cared.
PLAYBOY: On the other hand, how does it feel if someone with terrible taste decorates one of your buildings?
GEHRY: It’s up to them. It’s why I won’t design the interiors. People ask me to and I say no. I don’t want to control everything like Mies and Frank Lloyd Wright did. I’ll say, “I’m going to design the container and you make it your own.” I don’t impose myself in that way.
PLAYBOY: Some critics of your work have charged that your designs are about art and not functionality; about design, not people.
GEHRY: Art is about people. I think it’s a lamebrain discussion about whether architecture is art or not. Richard Serra says it isn’t because I put a toilet in it—he called me a plumber — but that’s pretty simplistic and illiterate. The great thing is that artists dismiss me as an architect. I’m not in their box. And architects dismiss me as an artist, so I’m not in their box. I don’t know whose box I’m in and I don’t really care. In the Renaissance there wasn’t really a distinction. Bernini was an artist and he made architecture. Michelangelo did some great architecture. The backside of Saint Peter’s is about one of the finest pieces of architecture I’ve ever seen. The architect Borromini’s Quattro Fontane, a little church in Rome, is one of the most beautiful rooms in history.
PLAYBOY: Isn’t it annoying to create what you consider a piece of art and then have a client say, “My wife needs a bigger bathroom.”
GEHRY: In the Sydney Pollock documentary about me, Tom Krenz, the Guggenheim director, says I have the biggest ego in the world, and that it manifests itself when you come to me and say, “I don’t like this,” or, “I want a change.” He says I relish that because my ego’s so big that I think that I can solve whatever you throw at me and make it even better. It’s true.
PLAYBOY: In your opinion are your best buildings ones where you’ve given the freest rein?
GEHRY: No. The best are the result of collaboration with a good client.
PLAYBOY: What about a bad client?
GEHRY: I do my best to choose carefully. If I don’t feel that collaboration is going to happen, I say no. Think about it. These projects can involve a five to seven year partnership. If you don’t feel comfortable with someone, you can’t get rid of them. I just walked away from a job for that reason. Every one of these is an emotional investment. It’s like falling in love. You’ve got to really believe in it and you’ve got to like the people you work with.
PLAYBOY: After the initial stage of signing on to create a building, is there usually a moment of epiphany when you first envision the overarching design?
GEHRY: I have moments. I do get excited. It’s when I have the idea – the structure, the form, the body language, the way it fits, the way it deals with the functional elements, with gravity and the realities of construction, and I know it’s affordable to the client.
PLAYBOY: What if you come up with an exciting idea that because of engineering or cost is impractical to build?
GEHRY: I’m preprogrammed emotionally and intellectually not to go down blind alleys. I don’t waste the time. I automatically edit out whatever’s impractical. By the time I get to what I call the candy store, when it all comes together, I know I can do it. The rap on me on the street is the opposite—that I’m impractical. The rap is that I’m more expensive, that it’s too complicated, and that I run over budgets, which isn’t true. None of that’s true.
PLAYBOY: From where do the big ideas come from? Is it true that you saw what became Disney Hall in a crumpled up piece of paper?
GEHRY: That’s mythology. I wish I could do that, but it’s not true. That’s from The Simpsons. On the show I crumple up this letter and there’s the Disney Hall. If only it were that easy. The Disney Hall was never a crumpled piece of paper.
PLAYBOY: What was the biggest challenge designing Disney Hall?
GEHRY: I spent a lot of time with musicians and learned how often they’re frustrated in these rooms because they can’t hear each other. That was one challenge. Another was performer-audience connection. Shakespeare said it: “All the world’s a stage. All the men and women are the players… blah blah blah . . .” Both the audience and performer want that connection. I’ve experienced it myself giving lectures in various auditoriums. If the room was friendly to a relationship between lecturer and audience, you felt everything– the tension, the appreciation. And I think the audience would feel it, too. I carefully analyzed the halls that work for musicians and audiences and those that don’t. I spent a lot of time talking to musicians and people who make up the audience. As a result I designed Disney Hall to be extremely intimate, with an intense connection between performers and audience. It was challenging for many reasons, including how difficult it is to build anything these days.
PLAYBOY: Why is it difficult these days?
GEHRY: When you were a kid if you went to Montreal to the Forum or hockey game at Maple Leaf Gardens, which I did, there was a great feeling. The new stadiums don’t have it. Why don’t they have it? Building codes.
PLAYBOY: What’s wrong with building codes?
GEHRY: The exiting requirements, fire codes that spread everything out and push people further and further away from the stage and each other. That’s 90 percent of the problem.
PLAYBOY: How did you solve it for the Disney Hall?
GEHRY: I compressed the space but found ways to include the required exits and accessibility and everything else. I convinced the clients that it was worth it even though we wound up with a few fewer seats than they originally wanted. The plan was for 2500 seats. I finally got in 2385. I made it all work without compromising intimacy. In fact, the only complaints I got, which were few, are about that very issue. People who are claustrophobic wouldn’t go to Disney Hall because they feel threatened. I’m sorry about that. We’ve found places where they can sit where it isn’t a problem. Otherwise people – musicians and audience – respond to the intimacy. We worked with acousticians, of course. We made a 1-10 model of the space and they electronically took the oxygen out and put in nitrogen; nitrogen’s one-tenth the density of air. An orchestra played a Mozart sonata. It was another part of the process of fine-tuning, all of which resulted not only in the design of the space, including the risers on which the orchestra sits and a million other things, but other acoustic changes. It was all incredibly complex. It’s not just about crumpling a piece of paper. And it had to fit the budget, which it did.
PLAYBOY: When a building as complex as that is completed, are you sort of amazed that you pulled it off?
GEHRY: I am.
PLAYBOY: And proud?
GEHRY: It takes three or four years before I get there. My first reaction is, “Oh, my God, what have I done to these people.”
PLAYBOY: Sometimes do you wish you could have another go, that you could improve on a design?
GEHRY: Every time.
PLAYBOY: Which of your buildings is your favorite?
GEHRY: It’s like asking which of your kids is your favorite. Even if I had one I wouldn’t say so.
PLAYBOY: But are you particularly proud of the most famous ones—the Bilbao, Disney Hall, your original Santa Monica home?
GEHRY: There are the obvious ones, but I’m also terribly proud of others. One that comes to mind is the Maggie Centre in Scotland, which I did pro bono. xxxx
PLAYBOY: Which are your favorite of the world’s buildings designed by other architects?
GEHRY: The easy one is the chapel at Ronchamp by Corbusier. One of my unsung heroes is Erich Mendelssohn. I met him when I was a student and he was a cranky old man and every unpleasant. But if you go to the Einstein Tower in Potsdam, you see an enormous intellect at work with a language that was totally personal and new. There’s a sense of urban design and a sense of theater and procession I hadn’t seen before. His drawings are expressive and beautiful. If he’d had the computers we have now, everything I’ve done he would have done before me. I would have had to figure out something else.
PLAYBOY: What newer buildings do you like?
GEHRY: At first I didn’t cotton to Mees’ Lakeshore Towers, but when I went there and saw how they come down on the slab of Travertine, 1-7/8 inch thick, I turned around. I thought that was an incredible statement of modesty and power, not resorting to the usual pedestals and the other aggressive things that modernists do. It was so subtle, understated, and powerful as hell. Rem Koolhaas certainly achieved an incredible piece of sculpture in the tower in China, Beijing, the CCTV. Also in Beijing, of course the Birds Nest (stadium built for the Olympics) by Herzog and Meuron. I like a lot of young people like Zaha Hadid, who did the MAXXI Museum in Rome. They’re finding their way and I have great respect for them.
PLAYBOY: After years of debate and revision, what’s your opinion of the Freedom Tower that will go up at ground zero in New York City?
GEHRY: I don’t know. I mean, a friend of mine did it. [It was Daniel Liebeskind.] It’s probably okay.
PLAYBOY: We’d have thought that 911 would have stopped what seemed like a perpetual competition for the world’s tallest building, but skyscrapers keep getting taller.
GEHRY: Yes, the race still continues in a way. My tallest is the seventy-six story Beekman in New York; it’s being finished now. The client said that at 76 stories it is the tallest apartment building in New York, and I said, “Why don’t we make it two stories shorter so it’s not, because if Trump hears that, he’s going to try and beat it and I don’t want to bother him.” Already somebody’s doing a taller one. It’s a hilarious thing about erections….
PLAYBOY: What’s your opinion of the current world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai?
GEHRY: It’s big and kind of ridiculous. When you get up to the top, there’s no space.
PLAYBOY: Though buildings are getting taller, did the destruction of the World Trade Center change architecture in other ways? Is it looked as an anomaly or do architects and engineers now take into consideration the possibility of a similar attack?
GEHRY: You have to pay attention to it. I would certainly raise that issue with the structural engineers that I deal with. Everybody takes it into account. It’s now possible to do a lot better with engineering.
PLAYBOY: What’s changed?
GEHRY: Everything – design and technology and materials have changed since the World Trade Center was built. A lot of it has to do with computers that allow us to be far more efficient as well as structurally sound.
PLAYBOY: Exactly how have computers changed architecture?
GEHRY: They allow architects to remain paternalistic instead of being marginalized by the contractors and managers.
PLAYBOY: How are architects marginalized?
GEHRY: Until now, you hired an architect and they designed a building you liked. You put it out to bid to contractors and the bid comes in high. You don’t have the high. What do you do? You turn to the contractor, who begins telling you how to cut costs. The contractor becomes parental and architect becomes infantilized. The contractor, who doesn’t know why these shapes are the way they are, attacks anything that’s different and says, “Look, do this and do that and we’ll fix the budget.” With computers we can work everything out from the beginning. For example, the Disney Hall models were presented to the Board in my offices some years ago. The contractor, who was well known to the Board members, came to the meeting. The board all ooh’ed and aah’ed about the model and loved it and then they turned to the contractor and said, “What do you think?” This guy, in my office, in front of them, in front of me, said, “Looks great but you can’t build it.” I was ready for him. I’d made a 20-feet-long, 12-feet-high mock-up built of all the hard parts of the building. It was in the parking lot. We all went outside and the contractor looked at it in front of the board. I was playing got’cha, and I got him. We were able to build it because computers demystify the complex, so it gives you more freedom. Before we built anything we worked it all out on computers until we knew exactly what would and wouldn’t work and how much it would cost. Architects are back in control even though people still love to tell us what won’t work. They’ve always done it. They told Frank Lloyd Wright, too.
PLAYBOY: What did they tell Wright he couldn’t do?
GEHRY: For example, hee was told the materials he wanted to use weren’t feasible. He didn’t have computers then, so for the Ennis House and Falling Water he just ignored them and made them himself. He made concrete blocks, defying the engineering intelligencia. In fact, the blocks didn’t last; they failed and had to be fixed years later, but he didn’t have the technology we have now. It doesn’t matter that they failed. Who cares? He built the houses for people who lived in them, enjoyed them, and loved them. The concrete failed after they died. They fixed it, and they’re still icons. In this case who cares if many years later the materials had to be fixed? But if it was the World Trade Center that failed, that’s a whole other story. People get killed.
PLAYBOY: Would you feel responsible if a building of yours failed?
GEHRY: When I teach at school and see these kids coming through, I look at them and say, “You’re walking into a bloody cannon and you’d better start looking at the realities, and if you’re really serious about being an architect, you’ve got to learn how to take responsibility.” It’s not fluff; you can’t just crumple paper. You’ve got to do every detail on every bloody piece of the building. You’ve got to know how the engineering works. You’ve got to know how these fittings go together. You have to master the mechanical, electrical, acoustical—everything.
PLAYBOY: After all these years, why do you still teach aspiring architects?
GEHRY: I love it. You feel like you can make a difference in someone’s life. When I start my class, I ask the students to write their signatures on a piece of paper and put them on a table. I have them look at them and I point out, “They’re all different, aren’t they?” “That’s you.” “That’s you.” “That’s you.” “That’s you.” And I say, “That’s what you have to find in architecture. You have to find your signature When you find it, you’re the only expert on it. People can say they like it or don’t like it. They can argue about it. But it’s yours.” In one class, the students had to build a model of a concert hall in Istanbul for the Divan Orchestra. It was a theoretical assignment. A young lady from Iran who grew up in a very literary family that is involved with ancient art from that region was the class. She knew the area, she knew the history, knew everything about the government and the nearby Palestinian- Israeli conflict. She designed a building that contained all that she knew, but was too rigid. She couldn’t figure out how to solve it—as I said to her, to find her signature in the building. One night she at her apartment she had a dinner party for the class. For dessert, she’d made a meringue. It was a beautiful meringue. It had a beautiful shape, was exquisitely beautiful. I said, “There’s your concert hall.” And it became it. She presented a meringue for her final project. It really worked and looked beautiful.
PLAYBOY: Merinque? Why is that different than looking at a piece of crumpled paper?
GEHRY: All right. So I admit that it’s true that you never know where something may begin. It could be anything or nothing.
PLAYBOY: In general, do architecture schools inspire people to, as you describe it, have their own signatures?
GEHRY: Sometimes, but it should begin much earlier, with arts education in the American school system, which is sadly deficient. When I was a child I could do math and art, so I had left- and right- brain capabilities. But I’ve seen my children, who are more right brain, struggling. My son was told he wouldn’t make it through high school, but he dogged it through and ended up being accepted to ten major art after the high school adviser said, “Please don’t apply. You’re going to be very disappointed.” That kid’s a painter now.
PLAYBOY: Compared to other arts, in addition to art architecture is based in math and engineering. A right-brained architect may make beautiful buildings, but they may not be practical. A left-brained architect could make efficient and well working buildings, but they may lack originality and beauty.
GEHRY: Partnerships can solve the problem. I’ve seen some. But generally in our world, whether in architecture or almost anywhere else, we devalue the artist and schools at whatever level shut people down. In a high-school class I visited was a14 year old girl. Her mother worked, and this girl had to take care of the baby. She was completely shut down, insecure, and self-deprecatory. She’d hide in the corner and wouldn’t say anything. I had the students make a city and I got them a bunch of boxes full of chicken wire, trash, and other materials. She sat in the corner and didn’t do very much. I noticed and decided to give her a box and paintbrushes and paints. I asked her to paint it. We put the box in the final model and it was beautiful. Everybody saw how beautiful it was and told her. It brings a tear to my eyes to think about that moment. She became the class artist. She changed before my eyes. Her confidence, her sense of possibilities. There are thousands of kids like that.
PLAYBOY: In your life did you have an equivalent teacher – encouraging, inspiring?
GEHRY: The ceramics teacher who sent me to architecture class. I was at night school taking art classes. I was 18 or 19. The teacher was building a house by a well-known Californian modernist architect, Rafael Soriano. I guess something I was doing or saying resonated with him, because he took me to see that house.
PLAYBOY: Is architecture something you’d thought about before in your life? Growing up, were you aware of architecture?
GEHRY: Not very much.
PLAYBOY: What was your childhood home like? Were your parents involved in the arts?
GEHRY: My mother was interested in classical music. She studied violin when she was a kid. She took me to concerts. She also took me to art museums. She’d taken me to the Gallery of Ontario, which I coincidentally ended up remodeling. I used to go to the lectures at the University of Toronto on Friday night, which was date night. I attended a lecture by a gray-haired old man from Finland, who later I discovered was the architect Alvar Aalto, but I didn’t know it then. I was very moved. I wasn’t interested in architecture, but it was a moving thing I’ve never forgotten. Meanwhile my father was in the slot-machine, pinball-machine business until they were declared illegal in Canada. He didn’t have education. He failed. He got sick. His brother picked him up, brought him to California, because that’s what they did to people who were sick. I came to California. I became a truck driver.
PLAYBOY: How did you get from truck driving to architecture?
GEHRY: I got into architecture school at USC and then did graduate work at Harvard in city planning. When people condemn me for designing iconic buildings in cities and not having an idea what a city is, they didn’t do their homework. I started in urban design and city planning. It’s just that when I got out of school, there wasn’t much of a market for that; there still isn’t.
PLAYBOY: Finally when you decided on architecture, did you know what type you to do?
GEHRY: I’m a do-gooder liberal, because that’s why you go into architecture, at least I did –to do things for people. I think most of us are idealists. You start out that way anyway. I didn’t have any interest in doing rich people’s homes; I still don’t.
PLAYBOY: And yet you’ve done many.
GEHRY: Not lately. I stopped. In the early days, I had to do them.
PLAYBOY: Everything changed for you when you built your own home in Santa Monica, famously made with chicken wire and corrugated metal. What inspired you to the use of those materials?
GEHRY: It goes back to what we were talking about earlier: denial. Here we are surrounded by material that’s being manufactured in unimaginable quantities worldwide and it’s used everywhere. I don’t like it and no one likes it and yet it’s pervasive. We don’t even see it. I noticed and started finding ways to beautify it. I wanted to take the curse off the material. It’s also why I made cardboard furniture. Cardboard’s another material that’s ubiquitous and everybody hates, yet when I made furniture with it everybody loved it. In the art world Robert Rauschenberg had been combining common materials and people thought it was art and beautiful, and it was. If he could do that, I could emulate him.
PLAYBOY: More than thirty years before the green-architecture movement, you were recycling materials. The most dramatic recent change in architecture follows that model; in the age of global warming, it’s the trend toward environmentally responsible design. Why then did you criticize LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a certification of a building that meets green standards?
GEHRY: I was just saying that one has to question the LEED criteria, and a lot of people are abusing it. They’ve figured out ways to take advantage of it because it’s the trend, which doesn’t always mean that a building is as good environmentally as it could be. That’s what I was trying to say. I’m not an expert on it. Generally I support LEED. All I know is for years we’ve been talking about environmentally responsible architecture, and we’ve done it. My house from 1978 would probably get LEED platinum. For years really good architects have dealt with environmental responsible design – materials, energy efficiency, all that – before it became the trend. Frank Lloyd Wright always did.
PLAYBOY: Early you said that the people who commissioned the Bilbao said they wanted a Sydney Opera House, which meant that they wanted a building that would become an icon and symbol for a city. The Guggenheim accomplished that for Bilbao and now many cities want what’s been named the Bilbao effect. It transformation of a place a lot to ask of architecture?
GEHRY: It’s not new. The Bilbao effect is the Parthenon effect. The Chartres Cathedral effect. The Notre Dame effect. The press labeled it The Bilbao effect, I didn’t name it. It’s nothing new that architecture can profoundly affect a place, sometimes transform it. It’s like architecture and any art can transform a person, even save someone. It can for children – for anyone. It still does for me.