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Architecture: The Frank Gehry Experience

11 minute read
Richard Lacayo

When his uproarious new building, the Experience Music Project, opens later this week in Seattle, it will be easy to forget that Frank Gehry, who is the world’s most famous architect, was once just the world’s most famous strange architect. That was in the 1980s, when to some people his angular rethinking looked all elbows. That was also when his mixture of high concept with cheap materials–chain link fencing, corrugated metal, pressed plywood–was getting his work labeled “populist,” which generally means brainy but cheap. In 1981, when he was named Architect of the Year by his peers in California, he figured he should use the opportunity to accept his prize with a talk titled “I’m Not Weird.”

“I was always mentally ducking,” he says now. “People would yell at me and say, ‘You can’t do that.'” Nobody says no to Gehry anymore, certainly not since the triumph three years ago of his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. His hurtling design there was certified at once as “the most important building of our time” by Philip Johnson, the very gray eminence of American architects. It may also be the most purely delightful. With its improbable towers tilting against themselves and its titanium sheathing in full refulgent glow, it brings on a question that the world has not enjoyed asking itself since the first moon landings: If this is possible, what isn’t?

The new Guggenheim has also flooded tourists into Bilbao, provided backup curves in a Mariah Carey video and was featured in the most recent James Bond film. What this means is that Gehry has managed to be both intellectually respectable and popular, not just populist, a balancing act that makes his tilted towers look easy. Richard Meier is the great American architect whose stately modernist buildings, most of them in a white so ideal it could be used for the table settings at Plato’s Symposium, are the very opposite of Gehry’s Baroque tumblings. Yet even Meier is happy about the way Bilbao has made architecture “part of public discussion again. All of a sudden people will say, ‘This is architecture. It is not just building.'”

You could say that about the Experience Music Project, Gehry’s first major public building to open in the U.S. since he did Bilbao. Located at the foot of that beloved American knickknack, the Seattle Space Needle, the EMP is an “interactive” rock museum costing $240 million (more than $100 million for Gehry’s building, the rest for the museum installed within it). The money comes by way of Paul Allen, the billionaire Microsoft co-founder, who has his own rock band, a lifelong thing for Seattle native Jimi Hendrix and enough cash to indulge his pleasures in a big way. There may be no bigger way to do that than to hand yourself over to Gehry, whose work is the pleasure principle engraved in stone, twisted glass, titanium and crimson stainless steel. Gehry tells a story about one of a German client who came to him after seeing an earlier Gehry building in Switzerland: “He said to me, ‘That one was Wow! Now give us Wow! Wow! Wow!'”

The question now is whether such excitement will last, inspiring a School of Gehry, with others adapting his aesthetic vision. The 20th century, which began in the coils of Art Nouveau, has had its share of architects who pursued a sculptural, curvilinear style: Gaudi, Wright, the late-period Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto. They left admirers yet still got pushed to the sidelines. But the Bilbao Guggenheim has raised the prospect that Gehry’s work is not merely interesting; it’s the wave of the future, and not just because it was plotted out with the same up-to-the-minute computer programs used to design fighter jets. In the decades after World War II, the glass-and-steel boxes of modernism, with their vocabulary borrowed from factory sheds and their spirit from rational, square-shouldered corporations, seemed perfectly matched to the 20th century industrial economy. But as manufacturing gives way to the intangibles of e-business and the public square dissolves into the borderless Internet, Gehry’s formulations speak to the ways in which people and ideas circulate today. And far better than the sharp-edged cartons of modernism, his funky materials and visual ruckus accord with the disorder of real life. “Democracy creates chaos,” he says. “It creates collisions of thought, and it’s exciting.”

All that made Gehry a good choice for EMP, even if he says he was never much of a rock fan (“In the 1960s, I was into jazz. I was already an old fart”). This building has some of the same features that make the Bilbao Guggenheim unforgettable, like the roller-coastering silhouette of its metal exterior and an interior atrium that lifts the eye up through magnificent flights of space overhead. Because it lacks Bilbao’s high towers, it goes too soft in places, especially along the collapsed souffle of its long, low-rise street side. But what it nicely announces is the roughshod essence of rock music. It’s hard to put rock into stone. Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a serene geometric formation by I.M. Pei, who designed the glass-and-steel pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre. Pei’s black-tie modernism has its virtues, but it’s an odd choice for a rock monument. Gehry’s metal wiggles say, “Shake, rattle and roll.”

Gehry has made his career in a profession in which fame comes late. (Who’s going to trust a kid with a $100 million construction budget?) At 71, he’s entering the kind of late-life creative surge in which Matisse produced his colored paper cut-outs and Wright found his way to Falling Water and the Guggenheim in New York City. Last September, Gehry’s new Vontz Center, a molecular-science lab in modules of ballooning brick, opened at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. Around the same time, one of his avalanching designs was selected for an addition to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, an otherwise imperturbable neoclassical structure. Work is under way on the $230 million Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which was delayed for years by concerns that the majestic billows of Gehry’s design would cost too much to build. And construction will start soon on a computer-sciences building for M.I.T. in Cambridge, Mass., a project shaping up to be as beautiful as Bilbao but in utterly different ways.

In April, Gehry also unveiled his model for yet another Guggenheim, this one in lower Manhattan, adjacent to the Brooklyn Bridge. Whether it gets built will depend on Guggenheim director Thomas Krens’ ability to persuade enough people that New York City, which has a Guggenheim annex in SoHo, needs a third branch. Gehry’s design will also have to overcome critics who say it will dominate the Manhattan skyline, which takes some doing, but a building by Gehry could do it.

And then there’s his new DG Bank headquarters, nearing completion in Berlin, which contains between the unexpectedly plain walls of its central courtyard a freestanding auditorium in the rough shape of a giant horse’s head. “That’s the most mystical thing I’ve ever done,” says Gehry. “The best shape I’ve ever made.” He designed it on a computer screen, which is rare for him. Though computers are essential to plot the specs for his complicated forms, in the design phase Gehry works like a sculptor, drawing and building three-dimensional models, one after another after another. The earliest ones might be so loose that he makes them with crumpled wrapping paper and soda bottles.

It’s not hard to think of that horse’s head as a roaring id exploding within the confines of a placid exterior. That’s how a lot of big bankers think of themselves anyway. But Gehry sees it as “a warm and enveloping place,” something that would make you feel “like you were being cradled in a beautiful space.” Maybe Gehry should have designed the Esalen Institute, given how much he talks about spaces that hug people. But sitting with him last week in the cafeteria he created for the headquarters of the Conde Nast publishing firm in midtown Manhattan, you could see what he means. The blue titanium walls bulge toward you like expectant mothers. The circular banquettes are surrounded by floor-to-ceiling sheets of plate glass, but each of them is uniquely curved and torqued so that together they form a voluptuous encirclement all around you. For some architects, it’s enough to return you to your youth. Gehry brings you back to the womb.

His own childhood was spent in Canada, first in Toronto, then in the small Ontario mining town of Timmins. For a while his father worked for a pinball and slot-machine supplier. In a later job he won awards for window display and made homespun artworks. When he died, Gehry’s mother went to work for a Los Angeles department store and rose to be head of the drapery department, where she did domestic interiors. “So the creative genes were there,” Gehry says. “But my father thought I was a dreamer, I wasn’t gonna amount to anything. It was my mother who thought I was just reticent to do things. She would push me.”

In Los Angeles Gehry absorbed the catch-as-catch-can charm of the built environment of Southern California. After getting an architecture degree at the University of Southern California, he studied for a while at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Not long after, Gehry also changed his name from Goldberg. “In Canada when I was a kid, I remember going to restaurants with my father that had signs up saying NO JEWS ALLOWED. I used to get beaten up for killing Christ. My ex-wife said to me, ‘You don’t really wanna put your kids through this.’ But I’ve always regretted changing it.”

In the 1950s, when Gehry returned to Southern California to start work as an architect, the prestige of classical modernism was as high as it would ever be. Even after he started his own firm in 1962, his private-home projects and small public buildings largely satisfied modernist expectations that any structure should be a spare, unified form clearly expressing its underlying function. All the while, Gehry was powerfully interested in painting and sculpture and the rising West Coast art scene. He counted as friends some of its emerging stars, including Billy Al Bengston, Ed Moses and Ed Ruscha. What he really wanted was the freedom they had to play with surrealism, assemblage and pop imagery.

So Gehry begin to insinuate odd bits of business into his designs: exposed studs and other things that a “properly” finished house would conceal. “I was trying to humanize stuff,” he says. “Clients would always ask for buildings that were warm, and I would take notes at our meetings and write, ‘Warm again.'” Nice neat modernism was notoriously cool. Raw was his path to warm.

Eventually he decided to look for freedom in his own backyard. Literally. In 1978 he renovated the small Santa Monica house where he still lives with his second wife Berta, turning a conventional pink Dutch colonial into an explosion of cinder blocks, corrugated steel and chain link. It instantly became one of those places that some say is an icon and others an eyesore. But its picture appeared everywhere, and it put him on the map of cutting-edge architects. Not long after, he decided to follow his bliss and do only the kind of work he wanted. He cut his office from 30 workers to three and started over. That was the road that led to Bilbao, Seattle and points farther out.

Around age 60, when most men are easing into nine-hole golf, Gehry took up ice hockey. He did it because it was a game his grown sons liked, but also because he loves to skate. “I once asked my skating teacher, ‘When am I gonna look cool?’ He said, ‘Never.'” Never? Somebody show that man a Gehry building. Frank Gehry is one of the coolest guys in the world. –With additional reporting by Daniel S. Levy/New York

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