“I would like to make a building as intellectually driven as it is sculptural and as positive as it would be acceptable to hope,” said architect Frank Gehry over two decades ago.
In January of 1990, Ross Miller spoke to Gehry at length for Interview. Gehry had just won one of architecture’s highest honors, The Pritzker Prize, but the buildings Gehry is best known for today had yet to glimmer in our skies. What followed was a deeply philosophical discussion about his optimism for the future and his edict that architecture has a responsibility to respond to the humanity streaming in and around it. Lofty as it sounds, over the last 20 years Gehry’s visions have materialized before our very eyes. Anyone who has witnessed the shimmering façade of the Walt Disney Music Hall in downtown Los Angeles at sundown will agree that a building can be both beautiful and functional.
Perhaps the news that Gehry will design Facebook’s new 420,000-square-foot campus extension in Menlo Park, Silicon Valley, is of no surprise. The structure boasts the largest open floor plan in the world and a roof that curves and blends into the hillside covered with trees, where collaboration and ingenuity will be fostered while providing the community with public walking trails.
The Master of Mud PiesBy Ross Miller
In the second of Ross Miller’s conversations with ground-breaking architects, Frank Gehry opens up about his playful forms and LA styles, urban and suburban.
Over twenty years ago, Frank Gehry began to change the way architecture is practiced. His recent achievements, including winning the 1989 Pritzker Architectural Prize, architecture’s highest honor, have further confirmed his approach to the profession, modeled more on the independent artist with his canvas than on the corporation. He has effectively resisted the gigantism that has seemed to accompany architectural success in the 1980s, and he has been able to retain the freedom of a small atelier while meeting the demands of increasingly large commissions.
Living near Los Angeles, America’s most improvisational city, Gehry has always been an experimenter. Driving a truck as a young man, studying urban planning, designing and manufacturing a successful line of corrugated-cardboard furniture, and consciously working at different scales have provided his mature architecture with an unusual degree of risk.
He first came to public notice with the design for his own home, different at once because it was not a pristine new structure but a remodeling of an innocuous frame house in suburban Santa Monica. But this was no ordinary remodeling. Even after completing in 1978, it still appeared to be under construction, wrapped in materials out of an industrial catalogue. In a city that was rapidly gentrifying, trading its senior citizens for flotillas of children in Aprica strollers, Gehry’s gesture ran counter to the prevailing ethos of material improvement. The house retains its essence as a perpetual construction site, a place of work, not consumption, exemplifying Gehry’s contradictory mixture of the ordinary and the avante-garde. Combining modernist form-making with common materials, he had the courage to exploit the implicit freedom of the American middle-class neighborhood, where people paint their houses pink and park boats in the driveway.
In recent years Gehry has combined his interest in off-the-shelf industrial materials with a commitment to build in the inner city in, for example, the Frances Howard Goldwyn Hollywood Regional Library (1983-85) and the Loyola Law School (1983-84). Both commissions are fitting into existing but marginal neighborhoods—the library in Hollywood and the school in downtown LA—and the architecture never suggests domination of the power of the client. Gehry recently completed the Vitra Furniture Museum in Basel, Switzerland, and is currently at work on the Chiat Day Moja advertising firm in Venice, California, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Disney Administration Building, and several private residences in LA.
Gehey’s designs have helped reshape Los Angeles and, in places, encouraged the city to think of itself not only as an accident of urban sprawl but as an example of a new kind of urbanism that focuses on reviving the street. In commercial and domestic commissions, he has favored problem solving over the grandiose scheme, choosing to work on the reduced scale of the neighborhood rather than the inflated scale of the skyline.
ROSS MILLER: Post-modernism approaches the past with apparent reverence only to use it as a stylistic, grab-bag way. In its radical use of materials and form, your own house in Santa Monica is a very personal piece of architecture which encourages debate. A conventional house is contained by a wrapping of corrugated metal and chain-link fence. What are the uses of the past, as you see them now?
FRANK GEHRY: Well, I think my attitudes about the past are very traditional. You can’t ignore history; you can’t escape it even if you want to. You might as well know where you come from, and you might as well know that everything has been done in some shape or form. For example, studying Roman churches in the early 1960’s, particularly their sculpture and ornamentation, suggested to me the possibility that decoration didn’t have to become pretty and sweet and sugar plum fairies. It could exist with toughness in architecture.
MILLER: Your work, compared with many of your contemporaries’, tends not to be phobic about the vernacular of the near past, the flotsam and jetsam of the culture that get worked into your architecture.
GEHRY: It’s the near past one minute after you do it. The present is filled with flotsam and irony and chaos and disorder in all arenas, political and sociological. And this is reflected in every form of the arts. I think we have to work in the present even if it’s awkward, even if it’s not necessarily good, even if we don’t understand it ourselves. You only find out 10, maybe 20 years later what was going on.
Everybody needs a model of some kind—when you’re a child you need parents. My models are artists. I found myself starting architecture with a deep social, Jewish, liberal conscience, and the belief that architecture is for the people; it’s to make nice. It was a do-gooder base; I was born and raised that way. I was for blacks, whites, Italians, Poles, whatever. I struggled with that for a number of years. When I went to Harvard and studied planning, I found I didn’t have the skills or the strength to become the kind of public person who could go out and lobby government agencies. And my intuitions led me back to making mud pies—forms. But the people whose idealism I related to weren’t architects; they were artists. It wasn’t like they were changing the world; it was small in a microcosm.
There was a guy named Ed Moses in LA whom I get close to, who was working very directly with materials—very expressive and hands-on. I would see him out every day, and I would see the output. He had total control of his life. He mixed the paint; he smeared it on. It was direct, it was gratifying, and it was idealistic. It didn’t deny any of the things in my background. A lot of the other artists around, like Larry Bell and Billy Al Bengston and Robert Irwin, were doing the same thing in their own way. They included me.
I don’t make things with my hands, although I studied woodworking and made furniture. I would have people around me who could make stuff, and I would sit and sketch. It wasn’t the normal architect’s contractual relation. The jobs were small enough that I could edit a little bit as I went. But all through the early period, there was frustration because I didn’t have the clients who would give me the freedom that Ed Moses had when we went to his studio and painted on the canvas. I was yearning for the moment when I could do that.
MILLER: How did you get free?
GEHRY: I built my house in Santa Monica. I didn’t have a client to tell me no; I had my wife, who would push me forward when I felt like chickening out. There was a very direct connection to the building, to the craft, and to the materials, from the guys who were building the house through John Fernandez, the contractor, who is a painter and a sculptor. There was a feeling of consensus. I didn’t have a lot of money, so we just made what we could. That allowed me to get into my own…call it middle-classness. You know, when you move into a neighborhood like that and see the camper trucks outside, and the boats, and the lawns, and the old Ford jacked up on blocks sitting in the grass, you know that’s your pew too. It was no accident that I was there: it was economic reality—that was what I could afford.
MILLER: I think that’s an important admission. Because this work came about a decade after Robert Venturi co-opted the use of the vernacular, as he understood it in Las Vegas. He gave an artificial hierarchy to the vernacular. Venturi as an architect-guru talked about neighborhoods and then transformed them into completely different settings, stripping the iconography from the culture. He admired the kind of shit-kicking freedom that he saw on the street, and then he brought it safely into the museum or incorporated it tastefully into his own “serious” architecture. I think part of what’s informing your current work is a confession of what you call your own middle-classness, which includes both that sense of a Jewish-liberal consciousness and a curiosity about American trash.
GEHRY: I am optimistic about the trashiness. It turned out that a lot of my neighbors were very much lie me politically and socially. They were the ones who hated the trashiness the most. It’s funny. They were angry. The lady who we bought the house from still writes letters to the LA Times knocking me whenever she can. She’s still mad about this little house.
MILLER: How did the work in suburban Santa Monica inform your later work—for example, the Goldwyn Library and the Loyola campus in urban Los Angeles?
GEHRY: I have always had an interest in city planning and urban design. When I began working as an architect I was involved in many projects that had a large-scale urban relationship. I got a lot of experience working at that scale and wanted to do it again.
After I did my house I tried to see every event in a piece of architecture as a painting: the corner window, the front window, the kitchen window. As I experimented with my own house, I was trying very hard within the wood, glass, and metal technologies to invent a new landscape for each piece.
MILLER: Los Angeles provides the opportunity and the context for these experiments that make them more than formal exercises. It’s the only major American city where an architect still has the freedom to build out rather than up, and the only place where the edge condition, the deformed part of the city, can be treated this way. I am thinking particularly of Olympic Boulevard and that dense corridor in which you built the Loyola Law School campus. The architecture encourages a perception or expectation of a larger space. It carves out a sense of place in what has been called the ugliest part of Los Angeles. Why does it work?
GEHRY? Well, “the ugliest part of LA” is where my family settled when we emigrated from Canada. I lived two blocks from Loyola. You can’t change that neighborhood in one fell swoop. It was the same thing at the Goldwyn Library in Hollywood. I try to deal with the present; the context is the context. But this is not the way most architects, particularly Europeans, have worked. Their efforts have been measured against existing rich and beautiful facades. Thiers is a different game. I rejected the European approach that would have made a big plaza and created a ceremonial entry to a hermetic space. I accepted what was around me at Loyola. It was done by the times and the world, and that’s it. Trying to make it into something else was no right. Compositionally I do not exclude the building across the road; I explored that composition. I looked at it in model. I went there and spent time thinking about those relationships.
MILLER: You work seems consistently to go against the accepted logic of exclusion or separation. The new work is fitted into the old city fabric without the romance about junk that often accompanies avant-garde rediscovery of the vernacular and without the violence done to neighborhoods by the imposition of high-tech towers.
GEHRY: At Loyola I even included the old parking garage. I included the old university library. It’s an awful building. I could have spent 5 or 6 hundred thousand dollars remolding that box—in fact, they expected it. I chose not to because the total budget of $6 million was damn tight for what they wanted to do. I didn’t want them to give up any of the things they wanted for some cosmetic reason.
MILLER: But like any new building, this architecture still exudes and defines.
GEHRY: The exclusion came in trying to create a campus, not just a group of buildings. How do you create a place that has some sense of security and yet still connects with the city? That was the budget issue. So I took the Burns building [which houses the Dean’s and other administrative offices] and turned it’s back to the street. That was my contextual move. If you go to the backside, it relates to those buildings on the street. I didn’t want to upstage the neighbors. I put the bucks where it was most appropriate and made a kind of stage set where all the buildings turned into an interior court. That’s Hollywood.
MILLER: When you enter you feel you are passing into another zone, a privileged space that is not itself immune from the surrounding environment, signified by a series of truncated columns, a chopped-up classicism that implies to me a certain kind of loss. You are not nostalgically trying to recover an ideal past through image or style. It is an ordered space within a city that seems to have agglomerated haphazardly around it.
GEHRY: LA is close to the Orient in aesthetic, I think, and always has been. There’s an order that David Hockney and many artists have when they spend time in the Orient. It’s a kind of order that’s very hard for Western-trained minds to find. It’s a cloud; you don’t know what it is. Every angle is different, but it’s very controlled and ordered environment—like Oriental paintings that are so episodic you can spend days reading them. You get a whole tour though hills and towns, and it’s not centered; it’s not based on perspective. I guess because I grew up architecturally in LA, my sense of order is different form Western classicism.
MILLER: However, within that Eastern aesthetic there is a very fixed and rigid narrative. We know beginning, middle, and end, for instance. One’s experience of these paintings is very calm even though the passage is sometimes roundabout. How do we allow a narrative in our own city that reassures at the same time as it challenges? How do we build a narrative for urban architecture where there is no cultural consensus?
GEHRY: Well, I think the clues are in our life, and you just guess. What is our relationship to the culture? It’s very small and yet it’s microcosmic. I accept limitations like bad workmanship and limited budgets. I accept that I have to drive a car though I’m screwing the ozone layer. I’m in constant guilt about that. All of us should be. I think you’ve got to accept that certain things are in process that you can’t change, that you can’t overwhelm. The chaos of our cities, the randomness of our lives, the unpredictability of where you’re going to be in ten years from now—all of those things are weighing on us, and yet there is a certain glimmer of control. If you act a certain way, and talk a certain way, you’re going to draw certain forces to you. If you are sloppy about your life, a certain sloppy reaction will result. If you’re skillful about certain things, a certain careful reaction will come to you. You get an opposite and equal reaction, as it were. So the order is in how you deal with the environment of people around you.
MILLER: does any of this directly affect your architecture?
GEHRY: I’m terribly insecure about a lot of things. All the nice things that have happened in terms of my work lately haven’t changed that. Each time I sit down to design a building, it’s a new challenge, a new insecurity. I just went to look at a building of mine that’s under construction. Right up until the other day I thought it was the best thing I’d ever done. But it looked terrible. It’s just in that stage. I go through this all the time. I’ve learned that I’m not in control of the stuff around me, but still, in a larger sense, I am.
MILLER: Los Angeles has always dealt with the problem of disorder by recentering itself. That was reaffirmed in Blade Runner, where the Bradbury building downtown had become an exotic ruin as the new city had shifted into the air. Historically, the city has moved further and further west from the Wilshire district to Santa Monica.
GEHRY: But the real city is very simple. It’s organized along Wilshire Boulevard, which is linear from downtown to the beach. The people who live south of Wilshire Boulevard are less affluent than those who live north of it. That’s the structure of L. A. Now it’s trying o become a city downtown. So they tear down one of the great heritages of LA., Bunker Hill with its Victorian houses and the old Angels flight [made famous by Raymond Chandler]. It was wanton destruction of the real LA The one piece of culture and history, the one element we could hang onto, we destroyed in one fell swoop. Now it’s all high-rise buildings. I’m happy that it happened in one sense because I’m going to build Walt Disney Concert Hall on that site, but I’m not happy in the larger sense of its effect on the city. LA is trying to become New York. If Bunker Hill still existed, the city would have remained LA.
MILLER: What is that impulse to raze and to burn?
GEHRY: I guess that too is a built-in impulse. I don’t think we know how to control that, and I don’t think we have any value system inherent in our culture that can address that. We can only try.
MILLER: By doing “good works”? Performing well-meaning acts that sometimes get confused or, at the extreme, are farcical?
GEHRY? Yes. I’ve heard people say we must protect winos in Venice Beach. Is that a value in our society—to have winos in Venice Beach? Those winos are also druggies. They’re killing themselves. They’re sleeping in the cold. Yet there are politicians protecting them because winos should have access to the beach. Now I don’t know where to come down on that one.
MILLER: Well, that’s part of polarity we’ve been discussing, that kind of sentimentality, which describes a lot of central-planning schemes that always start out with central-planning or city-planning schemes that always start out with self-aggrandizing programs that historically have not worked. Then on the political right, there’s a love or order and control. What’s obviously missing is a middle ground that confronts the question of how much disorder a neighborhood can sustain. It’s the architect who is asked to intervene in a condition that resists change. The buck stops with him. But why is he necessarily more prepared than the rest of society? What we’ve seen in the last twenty years most dramatically is how difficult it is for architects to find a means of restraint. Their intervention tends to be total. It has destroyed whole neighborhoods. And where the contextual question is raised, it’s begged either by sentimentality or by a sense that because we can’t cope with the nature of the city as we find it, we’re going to set up an object that either opposes it or condescends to it. Where is the middle ground?
GEHRY: It’s only an ideal. You can make a kind of picture, which is what some people do, and then say, “If you don’t want to make this picture, I’m not going to practice architecture. I’m a architect, and I won’t practice until you buy my picture.” That I find disturbing and unrealistic and a cop-out of “I can’t do anything about it, so I’m going to play in the real world,” which is what I say—I accept the forces and try to apply a certain measure of idealism. The idealism is in the formal arrangement, the relationship to the city, the use of materials that are available to me. That’s where I say our powers are limited. Perhaps all you can do is take the edge off it.
MILLER: Isn’t it mad to ask an architect to solve problems that cannot be solved because no social consensus has formed to compel action?
GEHRY: I think that architects function on many levels. I function in my architecture with my talent—making mud pies, I call it, and they’re personal mud pies that are a reaction to what’s around me, to a client, to a budget, and to a social condition. I get excited about combining these elements and coming up with some kind of formal construct, hands-on, with all the materials. On the other hand, I’m more accepting of people with different views that I used to be. I can listen to and work with a client who is an arch-Republican. But I stull bring my social conscience to bear on a project. If it has anything to do with the military or with social segregation, I can’t get involved. So there’s that level. And I vote, and I’m involved in politics, and I have an understanding of the social consequences of my work.
MILLER: There are two good architectural examples of both the success and the problems that grow from the questions you raise. One was the aborted plan for Camp Good times appeared at first to be an ideal collaboration between you and the artists Claes and Coosje Oldenburg. You and the Oldenburgs saw a camp for terminally ill cancer patients, young kids, in a way that disturbed your clients, and the clients rejected the scheme when they saw it in model.
I see this as a clash of readings of what America is about today. In the end the clients rejected the work because it did not conform to their fantasy of dying. You and the Oldenburgs stressed pleasure without education. Your images of buildings as milk cans and lit, fishlike forms seemed to them frivolous, no uplifting.
GEHRY: The key antagonist was Dustin Hoffman, who was a major contributor. He had a preconception about this and he represented not only himself but the people on board. They all felt the same thing, but he’s the one that put the knife in it. I discussed it with him on all the levels that we didn’t agree on. Artistically, how did he feel? What would he do in his work in a similar situation? Ironically, in his work he can be an avant-garde kind of artist. Would he use anachronistic symbols as a driving force in his work? We discussed that. He wouldn’t. He agreed with me. Would he treat terminally ill children differently than normal children? You treat them like kids! They are kids. They’ve got a problem and they can’t deal with it. But you have to try to deal with it-the fact that they can’t go up hills graded more than a certain percent, that they’ve got to have a place where they get their medical or chemical fix every day. What the Oldenburgs and I did was try to deal with that reality, at the highest level of our artwork. Now, if our work was wrong, it was wrong, but we didn’t want to talk down to kids. In our deliberations, in our meetings with the kids and with the board, we discussed all this in great detail. The kids were into robots and Star Wars. To have Huckleberry Finn on the raft was Disneyland—it was not dealing with them fairly. And when we got into this issue, we backed off because Claes, Coosje, and I did not want to be in the position of getting into a stylistic or philosophical battle with Dustin Hoffman about a camp for terminally ill kids. The most important things was to get on with it and give them a camp-which they still don’t have.
I think that unfortunately the issue with the camp became a power trip on the behalf of Dustin Hoffman. I don’t know the man that well, but when he and I met we went through the project issue by issue for three hours. I showed him slides of my house, I showed him slides of my work, and I said, “they’re not luxury places. You’re dealing with the aesthetic of log cabins in my time-today. You’re dealing with the raw timber, the rough carpentering.” He agreed with all that. And he agreed that the camp should go forward and that all the issues that we discussed were just a matter of a difference of opinion, and the difference of opinion had been articulated. I said to him, “Are you so sure you’re right?” And he said, “No,” And I said, “I’m not so sure I’m right. Where do we go from here?” And he said, “Well, as far as I’m concerned, you and the committee should just go ahead as you thought because neither one of us is sure, period.” But within 48 hours he was back on this either-or thing—do it my way or not at all. So that’s when the Oldenburg’s and I dropped out.
MILLER: You had more success with the Yale Psychiatric Institute, where you faced at least two problems simultaneously: building in New Haven and reexamining the nature of disturbed young people and, by extension, their relation to architecture in the form of an institution that is supposed to help care for them.
GEHRY: Here there’s a paradox. It’s a commentary on our society. The budget was substandard to start with. If an intellectual center like Yale has to deal with a substandard budget for a facility as crucial as this, one has to wonder. Finally they came through. But it wasn’t just the university. It has more to do with the state, the bodies that govern the amount of money that can be spent on these facilities versus their income and so on. I think Yale would have put some bucks into it; they felt like I did. But the state wouldn’t.
Yale required a different aesthetic because it related to a traditional college. I tried to deal with the Yaleness of it and model it on the college courtyard. When I came to the client group, I found some very intelligent people who were at the forefront of thinking about how to deal with schizophrenic adolescents. I spent a long time listening to them, going to the wards, meeting the kids, differentiating between the types, the age groups, the patterns. And I tried to incorporate that into the design.
The central principle in the theory we had about these kids is that you constantly point them one notch further back to normality. If a kid is bought in in a strait-jacket and is lying down on the floor of an empty room, that’s the depths, that’s the pit. Within ten minutes they bring into the room a kid who was in there two days ago, who got out of that room. And that little girl or boy stands in the room for an hour or so next to this sort of lifeless body on the floor and communicates in some sense that there is a move up after that. “I did it. I was there last week, and I’m standing up now and I got out of that door.” They are constantly presenting those kinds of ideas. So the central force or organization in making Y P I was to continue that kind of thing. From the dormitory window, for instance, the patient could look out onto the courtyard. You could see the recreation building. You could see the kids out in the yard. You could see activity, and you would look out and think, Boy, next week I may be able to go there. There is something to live for.
We wanted them to feel that they were part of the city, that they could relate to the city beyond. You weren’t put in a big building that had a wall around it. You could see everything from this site. You could see the medical school; you could see the ghetto, you could see Yale, the freeway, the water. There was a connection to reality.
MILLER: To a world they would rejoin?
GEHRY: To the street, to the reality of the environment. Not to the sugarcoating. It was an idea of being inclusive, dealing with the neighborhood, good and bad. Those issues were discussed with the therapists and dealt with head-on. The other issue was with how you enter such a facility when you come with your little kid, and you’re distraught because the kid has to be put in this place. How to parents feel when they arrive? Is it obvious they’re going there? I tied to blur that edge by making a relationship to a bookstore, by making a relationship to a garden, by making a relationship to an office building. So you enter a foyer—you could be going to the offices; you could be going to the bookstore; you could be going anywhere. It’s a place where you would feel comfortable hanging out. You wouldn’t feel like you were being stigmatized, that you were bringing your kid to an asylum.
MILLER: What about your projects in Europe and the U.S. for Disney? Disney is the purveyor of mass-market pleasure and pleasure on a timetable. You enter through a turnstile, you have a predictably pleasant experience, and you leave; it’s the World’s Fair everyday.
GEHRY: And I admit, that I found that cynical. It’s a cynicism that I can’t get out of my head.
MILER: Why do you think they chose you?
GEHRY: I think the present regime at Disney is driven by a different kind of intellect. It’s got this Hollywood money but also a very high level of perfectionism. It’s a different vision than the Disney family had before. [Disney CEO] Michael Eisner and I would like to draw away this power and force in a more realistic architectural vein—without denigrating the Mickey Mouse theme. I think Eisner is intellectually stimulated by architecture and art. He see the project as an architectural tour de force in some sense. Now, I’ve tried to talk him out of it. If a bunch of us are going to play in this playground, it’s more interesting to say: “How would a bunch of guys like Gehry, Graves, Venturi, Isozaki, Rossi come to this? What would they bring to it?” It’s sort of World Fair-ish, and it could be interesting if you don’t make it something it can’t be.
They’ve asked me to do an entertainment complex. They’ve asked me to do it my way. They’ve given me a site, and they’ve said, “Make it sculptural and wonderful your way.” They looked at my work in great detail, and everything I’ve put on the table has been excited to them. The architects for the hotels and the other buildings are being given themes, like Metropolis and Wild West. That’s not to say that the interiors of my buildings won’t be themed heavily—eventually they will, I think, but I won’t do it.
MILLER: Does part of the reluctance that you have about these projects have something to do with the nature of Disneyland, specifically its celebration of mindlessness? In a Disney environment real architecture is absent. There is no tension between public and private, building and street. All such distinctions melt. The past, present, and future there are all being written by Disney simultaneously. You’ve bee awarded a kind of goofy freedom without resistance that might in the end prove to be tyrannical in its own way.
GEHRY: [laughs] I don’t know. Michael Graves has done a few buildings for them that are under construction, the big hotels in Florida where he is drawn into a Disney World kind of vocabulary. I mean, the jury’s out. We’ve got to see them finished and see what they look like. They’re heavy on metaphors. I don’t know what any of this stuff we’re doing means to architecture. It’s another case of looking in the mirror and finding out what you are in a sense. Who am I in relation to this? Why am I so judgmental about Disneyland? To me the interesting thing about this project is that it’s in France, and France is a heavily judgmental environment about what it means and what it’s doing to the French culture. Those aspects are interesting to me. I would like to make a building as intellectually driven as it is sculptural and as positive as it would be acceptable to hope. I think the danger is—and this is probably what will happen—that when it’s done the concept of Disneyland will be so overwhelming that whatever you do will be co-opted and denigrated architecturally in some way. I think Michael Eisner wanted to Claes and me to work together because he loved the camp. Claes said no, that anything he did would be absolutely closeted. And he’s dead sure that’s what’s going to happen to me.
MILLER: I wouldn’t bet against him. Look at recent history: there have been two powerful Pop-art movements in America. When the museums discovered Warhol and his group, the first movement was already decades old. In fact, the real Pop-art movement in America is almost as old as the romance with popular culture and kitsch. Disney discovered kitsch in mid-America and represented it without any irony.
Oldenburg and you do a very different thing. The memory of the vernacular object in high art must always be present in the re-creation. Warhol was less successful in the sense that there was more of a commercial message associated with his refiguring the image. Even thought when you look back at his work, it’s at least tenacious. But architecture tends historically to be co-opted very quickly. You’re all playing the Europeans a really dirty trick, and a wonderful one at that, because for a hundred years they have taken American culture the same way the East coast in the last forty years has taken California culture—taken it and transformed it just a little and then sent it back to us “improved,” made “classy.” Here the Europeans are getting it full force, complete with squeaky mice and the carnival aspect of American culture. The vernacular has always been problematic for artists who grabbed at it and yet didn’t want it to spill over too much band pollute their work. They still wanted to be taken seriously.
GEHRY: Disneyland is very precious, you understand, precious because it’s contrived, careful, studied; it’s got a whole language and history.
MILLER: Well, it’s the only effective form of central planning left, it seems to me.
GEHRY: And it also has very harsh rules. The most fun I’ve had in my life, architecturally, is when we had a series of meeting s with Bob Venturi on Eurovision. And as part of it we had to collaborate with Stern, Graves, Venturi, and Tigerman. And everybody was too deferential. I wish we could have brought the work to a more successful conclusion.
MILLER: You had too many architects?
GEHRY: But what Venturi did was interesting. He came in with a big idea for a ceremonial allee. And all along that allee, he created a procession of Disney figures as billboards-flat, 150 feet high, stuck on poles. He out-Disneyed Disney. It was an incredible proposal. He presented it like a Princeton professor, and et it was so compelling. I was on the floor! I was holding my gut! I couldn’t burst out! It was to die to see the incongruity of Bob Venturi eloquently presenting this allee of Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
MILLER: You could always take this show on the road-next stop, Beijing, with cutouts of Marx, Mao, and Gorby.
GEHRY: Yes. But the Disney people really went for it at first. Intellectually, they loved it. Michael Eisner thought it was great. But it didn’t fit the rules. They can’t do it. That’s the denigration of Disneyland. It’s cynical; it parades the cynicism. But intellectually it was very exciting. I think that was a historic moment.
I have to do my building within that context. For example, if you were to take my Kobe restaurant in Japan, the fish and stuff, and build it there, it would be a disaster. But in the context that it was built, it really works. It’s very compressed. You can walk down the street and not even notice it, which is interesting. A friend of mine went there, wandered around for four hours, and couldn’t find it. In Disneyland that would be a disaster. It would be all the wrong things. It would be confrontational to Mickey Mouse. It would co-opted by Mickey Mouse. The thrust in my work is strangely to be ordinary in my theme, to back off. By being ordinary, you’ll be standing out in a way. It’ll make a statement.
The Disney concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles is another issue. Disney’s widow gave money to the county, a gesture she thought he would have made if he were alive. He liked music; he like LA; he supported the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. And LA needs a concert hall.
You’ve got a difference here to Disneyland and Disney World. In my meetings with Mrs. Disney, I found her sense of modesty unique. Usually the people who give money aren’t modest. You could imagine Walt Disney’s wife giving money and wanting to make a big splash for his memory. It’s not about that at all; it’s just the opposite. It’s everything I believe in. She liked the modesty of the proposal. She said she wants it to be excellent, beautiful, great musically. Her values are in the right place. She wants to give people a facility that works and is the best concert hall in the world, and that’s disarming.
MILLER: Well, it’s interesting too that this aboriginal class of money-makers in Los Angeles is now old enough to respond to an environment that’s caught up to them, in a sense. There’s enough urbanism in Los Angeles now to support the Goldwyn Library, which comes from another one of the robber-baron fortunes. Los Angeles had them later than the East Coast and Mid-west. What was happening in Chicago in the 1880s when Louis Sullivan got the commission for the Auditorium Building? What was happening in New York around the time Carnegie Hall was built? Fortunes were being transformed into something that had to do with the public good and the quality of the city. And architecture was right at the center of that gesture. So in a way what you’re describing anecdotally about Mrs. Disney is part of a larger phenomenon—the transformation of money into culture.
GEHRY: Well, I think of the attitudes that Disney had toward his legacy. And it’s probably because he lives on in so many areas already that there’s a comfort that he is not going to be forgotten no matter what. A year ago the Disney family would have been shocked by the thought of Frank Gehry designing a building in memory of Walt Disney; and I think they were in shock. So the fact that they went through a process where they bought in experts and dealt with them—they accepted and trusted them—and came to the conclusion that I was the architect to do the project was very enlightened. They felt that if the hall is architecturally, acoustically, and musically excellent and relates to the city urbanistically, the memory of Walt Disney will be associated with that.
MILLER: What do you think it takes to encourage that sense of public-spiritedness and that kind of philanthropy on a larger scale?
GEHRY: I have a theory or a feeling, and it relates to the issue of collaboration, why I continue to seek out collaboration on all levels with all kinds of people—not just artists and other architects. This idealist theory is that the whole can be greater than the sum of it’s parts, that we all have something to put in the pie to make it better, and that the collaborative interaction works. To this day I’ve never found that collaborating with a high powered artist like Claes Oldenburg has denigrated me in any way, that it has hurt me or undermined anything I’m about. In fact, it’s been pure, straight-line growth at a high, steep angle.
MILLER: Well, architecture itself is optimistic. It has to be because it’s based on building something new, progressing in some way. But the shadow of architecture is always loss, and great architecture memorializes that sense of loss. I there’s a notion of that at Loyola. In my view, those columns should not be read as postmodern. They’re not decorative, but commemorative. There’s something ancient about them, and yet, because of the cheap materials they’re made of, they evoke the disposable present. So we’re in a new place, but we have a sense of longing or mourning about architecture’s inevitable displacement of something that was there before. I think that the cities that have great power for us are the traditional, great cities-Rome, Paris, London. But the American city is now old enough-even Los Angeles can claim age—that the sense of loss must be recognized. This side of architecture must be incorporated in some way, or else we’ll have soulless buildings. I think that this whole conversation had been about soul and about incorporating the idea of mind in building.
GEHRY: I agree with what you just aid, Ross, but I’m sorting it out. Are we missing something? Is our earth used up? Should we be going to outer space? Should we perhaps be putting all this information on the head of a pin—which, theoretically, with computer miniaturization, we can do—and go to outer space with it? Do we know where we are?
MILLER: I think that we’re in a dehydrated culture that can take world culture, freeze-dry it, and put it on the head of a pin. Architecture should concern itself with rehydrating culture. The issue I’m raising is: Do we know yet whether we’ve lost the ball game? Is the greenhouse effect real? Are we in the last stages of things? Would it be useful to explore those issues? You might examine why you are drawn to the apocalyptic.
GEHRY: Do those issues say something different about how we should deal with high rises? Or how we deal with a camp for kids? Or how we build a hospital?
MILLER: Yes, I think that sensibility is always incorporated into the best kind of architecture. The notion of loss is not signified in a billboard of wide-eyed child with a tear coming down her face. It’s in the acknowledgment that these architectural gestures are very human and flawed and perhaps will ultimately fail, but that they’re made anyway—in a real environment, in real time. The utopian search for a universal architectural principle reflects this. The worst aspect of the international movement—I refrain from calling it an international style because it was born of an obsessively, powerfully political era—was its attempt to universalize. Thankfully, I think we’re beyond that. We see now that these gestures are often very private, an interaction with the world as we experience it, and they do not finally have to contain a large hope for the world. Nor do they necessarily have to include an apocalyptic belief that the world is about to end tomorrow. I think art is really about the problematic, about failure, about loss. And this is particularly true of architecture because it is the only art that people move through. They kick the doors, and they scrawl on the walls. I think that these questions must always be there. So where do you look for answers?
GEHRY: I’ve learned so much about clarity from Bob Mapplethorpe. Why did we have to lose him? AIDS has taken so many creative people away from us, it makes you want to run. Maybe I’m always looking for a new frontier. The Disney thing is a kind of frontier. I keep fantasizing about going to Australia. LA used to be my frontier, and not it’s become a place. Should we get out? Frontiers are all kinds of things. Doing a building in France is a frontier. Or doing a high-rise building when I’ve done only small buildings is another kind of frontier. But then, I guess I want to run away from the things taking Bob Mapplethorpe away. Not that I feel personally threatened-I feel globally threatened by that.
MILLER: I think the insidious aspect of AIDS is that as human beings we were willing to accept the kind of Jonah-like or Job-like condition of the world, but AIDS affects us individually. Mapplethorpe, as an avant-garde photographer and a performance artist in his own way, really existed on a frontier of his own experience. He was not engaged directly with the world in the way that an architect by necessity is, but even that posture is undermined by a virus. In the face of all this, perhaps the question to end with is: Given that architecture is an insanely optimistic endeavor, what is the source of your optimism?
GEHRY: I think one of the reasons I teach and stay in touch with the university is to tap into youthful optimism. People say, “Why should you teach? Why should you mess with these guys? Why not go out and practice and do work day in and day out on your own?” You get older. You become cynical. You become jaded. You can’t help it. It seems to be the way Jewish liberals end up. But when you go into a class at Yale, say, and you meet a bunch of kids in their twenties, they’re vibrant, intelligent, talented, and they’re talking about the future. And you can say, Well, I was there, and look at me. If I could do it, they can do it. And maybe they’re going to do it better. Multiply that in your mind times the hundreds and thousands and millions of kids like that. [laughs] You’ve got to feel the world’s going to go on. It is a guard against cynicism. It stops you short. God, when I was their age we were threatened by the bomb, Hitler, polio. We were threatened by terrible political upheavals and anti-Semitism. It’s short-sighted to think they’re not going to deal with similar problems, because they are. So teaching taps you into this optimism. I also did something a lot of people my age are doing these days: I had another life—a new wife and young kids. I can’t see them without feeling that there’s a future out there. You have to be optimistic. I still have all these doubts and conflicts, but the bottom line is, I believe in the future.
THIS INTERVIEW INITIALLY APPEARED IN THE JANUARY 1990 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.
For more New Again, click here.