'Creativity is like a pussycat with a ball of twine'


Frank O. Gehry, FAIA, heads Gehry Partners, LLC, Los Angeles. A native of Toronto, he earned his BArch from the University of Southern California and studied city planning at Harvard. He is the recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the National Medal of Arts, and the AIA's Gold Medal. Gehry is known worldwide for such projects as the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain; the DZ Bank Building, Berlin; Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles; and the Jay Pritzker Pavilion and BP Bridge, Chicago. Following is an abridged version of his recent comments to an audience at the Chicago Public Library.

On becoming an architect: I moved to LA [in 1947] because my father got sick, and I ended up being a truck driver. I do remember way back my mother had a lady who analyzed my handwriting, and she said I was going to be a famous architect (audience laughter). At USC, I got excited about Japan. I studied Japanese literature, music, art, and I played in a gagaku orchestra. In gagaku, there's an instrument that looks like a frying pan, so when you hear the music go “yea-yea-yea-yea” [screeches] and then “bing bing,” that's me (laughter).

On the Guggenheim Bilbao: When I started in practice, in 1962, and some local architects started making fun of my work. At the same time, the local artists were coming around and loving it. The artists were much more into materiality, and they became a bedrock for me. So when I became involved with Bilbao, it was like a homecoming.

The Basque culture is very black and white: You don't sign contracts, but they hold you to your word. They said, Make us the Sydney Opera House. I said I'm not going to guarantee anything like that. The rest of Spain was pulling ahead culturally, and their two main industries, shipping and steel, were slipping, and they desperately wanted to stay in the game. But three months before it opened, I looked at it and I thought, What have I done to these people? When it opened, all the museum directors from around the world passed a resolution not to build another museum like Bilbao. But the artists loved it.

I wanted the building to express movement, as in Shiva figures—you're sure they turn on you. It appealed to me to try to figure that out, and I think I did find a way to express movement.

On the creative process: I get a job, and a program—so many square feet for this and that. There's a site and a relationship of the site to the building, and there's a budget. Then I build a site model of 10 blocks of buildings, then one of two or three blocks of buildings, so I can understand the site. So it's a pretty well-informed mind that starts to sketch. I fantasize about what might happen, and I do 20-30 drawings that look like scribbles.

What I'm trying to do is solve a client's problem and meet their budget, but the free association is done in the sketches and sometimes in the models. [Creativity] is like a pussycat with a ball of twine. It's opportunistic—you go here and there, and pieces start falling into place, and then it has its own momentum. The budget, the availability of materials, the engineering issues all impact it, and I take all that seriously, but I keep my eye on the goal that the finale has to be a representation of this kind of thinking.

On client relations: I tend to be careful, because the only way to make a good building is to have a good client relationship. You need to have a strong commitment and a trusting relationship that carries through from beginning to end, so that they're happy that the building works technically, and that it doesn't leak (audience laughter), and that it's reasonably close to their budget (laughter). You have to deliver on all those scores or you won't have a happy relationship.

On the profession of architecture: It is a profession that gets marginalized by the construction industry. We have to change some of the contracts and some of the [aspects] with the insurance industry, and I'm trying to change that.

On the green building movement: When I was starting out, in the '60s, we talked about those issues but no one paid any attention to them. The [sustainability] issue is a political one, and a lot of LEED buildings really don't save energy, and the costs are enormous. Still, you should do everything you can.

On his Guggenheim Abu Dhabi: There's no museum in the world that shows globalism in the art world, and this museum is going to represent all parts of the world—Israel, Lebanon, Syria, South America, Asia, as well as the European artists. That's exciting to me, and they have the resources to build such a building.


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