At age 93, Frank Gehry, the original starchitect, is as busy as ever, with 17 Projects in the works in 15 cities, including his hometown. He also has a few things to get off his chest
As a child growing up in Toronto during the Depression, Frank Gehry created buildings and bridges—the cityscapes of his imagination—on the floor of his grandmother’s Kensington Market kitchen using scraps of wood and challah dough. More than eight decades later, that boy—now 93 years old and the world’s most famous living architect—has turned his attention to the city of his youth for Forma, a mixed-use project at King and Duncan with a sky-high profile.
The western of the two towers will be Gehry’s tallest yet, clocking in 84 storeys; the eastern tower is 73. Together, they comprise more than 2,000 condominium residences, an area designated for OCAD University, plus commercial and retail spaces. It’s the architect’s first new build in Canada and only his second project here (he completed the expansion of the AGO in 2008).
Forma’s glass curtain wall and rippled steel cladding are intended to play with light by refracting and reflecting it throughout the day—a Gehry hallmark seen in his titanium blue south face at the AGO, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A., the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis. “Every city in the world has its own light,” says Gehry, “and I wanted this building to capture the essence of Toronto.” I spoke to him in late May about his favourite (and least favourite) buildings, his enduring affinity for fish and his desire to live forever.
Forma is being billed as your homecoming. Why did you choose it for what may be your final project in Toronto?
Who said it’s my final one?
I said it may be.
You mean because I’m 93?
Well…or perhaps because you’ll choose to focus on other things in other cities.
So what is it about Forma that appealed to you?
It started with David Mirvish1 who I’ve known for a long time. I used to go to his galleries and I know many of his artists. We talked about building something special together. I drove around Toronto with him, and I looked at some of the new buildings and they looked like a lot of the buildings being built all over the world. There was a sameness to the tower mentality.
I started to think about what I remember of Toronto when I was a kid. I remember the Royal York Hotel, Osgoode Hall, the buildings along University Avenue. There was an architectural consistency to that period, whether you liked it or not. And then along came the Finnish guys2 and they built a city hall that looks like it’s from Mars. Now it feels settled in the heart of the city, but at first it was kind of surprising and in your face, like Whaaa! I’m not so conservative that I would be against it; it’s just that when I was thinking about Forma I was trying to find something that would be like Rockefeller Center in New York. Something that stands out, that maintains its integrity over the years, but has a relationship to the old buildings in the city.
“Every tower in New York comes from a different planet, everybody is competing with each other. With Forma, I’m trying to create community”
What are your thoughts on some of the city’s statement buildings, like the ROM Crystal and the OCAD “tabletop”?
It’s not polite for me to comment on other architects’ work.
Understood. What compels you to accept a project at this point in your career?
I don’t know. I think I’m edited out of a lot of projects already because people think I’m all corrugated metal and chain link3.
Still? Even now?
Yeah. And the presumption is that I wouldn’t be able to stay on budget, which is the opposite of the truth. Every one of our buildings hits the budget.
Really? You must be among the rare few.
Yeah, but I do it. Anyhow, I’m very interested in the community values of buildings in relation to the city they’re in. I try to create an inviting ensemble. The problem for me is that everybody who does a tower tries to make their own thing. So if you go to New York, every tower comes from a different planet, and everybody’s competing with each other in some way. Whereas I believe in trying to create community, by which I mean that I want the building to make sense in its environment but still stand out.
I mean, new buildings stand out in their own way anyway, because the technologies of building and design change. But I think there’s a lot to be said for creating architectural relationships between new and old, without copying pre-existing buildings. You don’t have to copy.
We’re living in an era of rapidly increasing density in places like Toronto, which prompts a lot of restrictions and requirements from planning departments. So how do you, as the architect, balance function and beauty in light of those demands?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right? If I’ve got any talent, it shows. You’re judging after it’s built whether I’ve delivered the things I promised, but there are always other considerations like economics and the marketplace that affect the outcome.
What’s it like to see a building finished, having conceived of it so many years earlier? Forma was announced a decade ago and its east tower won’t be finished until 2028. Disney Hall4, one of your most famous creations, took 16 years to complete.
That’s our reality as architects. We all face a long timeline. Luckily, I have enough projects on different timetables that there’s always something getting built, and that helps satisfy whatever ego needs I have. Something gets finished, everybody loves it or hates it or whatever, but at the same time I’m working on another project for the future. I haven’t been in the situation I’m in now, though, where my age dictates that I may not be here to see something finished. I’d rather not think about that.
I take it you’re not interested in retiring.
No, I think retirement is going to happen to me unwillingly. But I swim a lot and I work out. I’m pretty healthy, though I have started forgetting stuff a little bit. I’m insanely focused on the work, more than on my social life or my family life. That’s the priority.
There have been some extreme egos—I’m not going to mention names—and I don’t know if their buildings hold up. Frank Lloyd Wright had a big ego, but he was communal. He built the Prairie houses5 and he was thinking about the people living in them. You look at his work over his lifetime and there are some beautiful houses and beautiful buildings that are human and inviting. Le Corbusier did fewer buildings, but he did Ronchamp chapel, the monastery. And the big Habitation buildings, which are cold somehow, but apartments in France are like that. There’s something about France that does that.
That’s what you found living in Paris when you were a young architect?
Yeah, the newer buildings were cold, austere. The old ones weren’t.
You brought your own touch to an old building when you worked on the expansion of the AGO. Did it make you think back to when you visited the gallery as a kid?
Yes, it did. And I thought about spending time as a kid behind the gallery, in Grange Park. We came up with some nice plans for the park that weren’t used because the donor, Galen Weston Sr., didn’t like working with me.
There are obviously different taste levels. Matthew Teitelbaum6 had his own vision. I really wanted the walkway—Galleria Italia—to be a sculpture gallery and we talked about it many times. I actually had the American sculptor John Chamberlain loaning us 16 pieces for the opening to do a show the full length of that space, but Matthew didn’t agree with that, so he didn’t do it.
How far are you willing to push back on that kind of thing?
I couldn’t—he was the director. And then the donor for the garden pushed me out. So Grange Park, which I really wanted to do, and had a scheme for that’s quite beautiful, never happened.
You’ve said that a lot of architects practise in fear of clients. You don’t give the impression of being fearful of them, but I imagine you’ve had to compromise over the years.
I like working with clients as long as they want to work with me. Sometimes you think you’re working with someone, like in the case of that Galleria Italia walkway, but then you feel that they’d probably rather you didn’t do a certain thing. I thought my sculpture gallery was an important opening to the city, to the relationship to the buildings across the street on Dundas. But then the space was turned into a café or something. So there was a bit of a disconnect between me and Matthew. I’m sure he’d agree.
You mentioned chain link earlier. It was heavily featured in a house that you designed for your family in Santa Monica in the late 1970s. The American playwright Lillian Hellman7 once left a dinner party at your place because she thought the house was so ugly. That seems a little over the top.
Did you ever meet Lillian Hellman?
I spent a lot of time with that lady. She was off the wall, you know? She would say anything. At the time, she told me she’d gotten sick and had to leave. Later, about four months before she died, I had dinner with her. She reproached me for not calling and I told her I thought she was busy. She said, “No, you’re angry with me.” I asked her why I would be angry, and she said, “Because I left your house when you wanted to show it off to me.” I answered that I thought she left because she wasn’t feeling well, and she said, “No, I left because I hated it.” Typical Lillian. That’s the way she played everything. She gave you a wonderful, loving invite and then she cut you off at the knees. So I didn’t take it personally. I loved her a lot and I loved that about her.
How do you deal with criticism from people who aren’t friends? Like the critic who wrote that Toronto deserved a Museum of Modern Art with the AGO and got a “second-rate Frank Gehry” instead? That can’t feel good.
I never saw that.
You mentioned it in Sketches of Frank Gehry, Sydney Pollack’s documentary about you.
I did? Well, I managed to forget it. I love Toronto. I tried to do my best.
What makes the city special to you?
I was born in Toronto and it was my home until I was in my late teens, so a lot of my feelings about place and space were formed there.
Responses to Guggenheim Museum Bilbao 8 were adulatory and yet you were initially reticent to accept the praise or even admit to liking the building. Is that just a healthy amount of self-doubt on your part, or were you being modest?
I think self-doubt is healthy. Bilbao is the result of—this story is an important one, I think. When MoMA curator and director Arthur Drexler had the Beaux-Arts show in New York in the 1970s, architecture was cold—it was all about modernism after the wars. And the architects were looking for something. The Beaux-Arts show was knock-it-out-of-the-park. Then Philip Johnson did the AT&T skyscraper9, and a lot of architects went PoMo. I was asked to speak at a conference that many of those architects—all friends of mine—were attending. I’m not against postmodernism but I was looking for where to go next.
When it was my turn, I got up and said, “Guys, can’t you find a way to think about the time we’re living in? There’s cars, planes, boats, everything’s moving. There’s a whole different aesthetic. Our job is to create feeling with inert materials, but that can take a lot of different forms. It doesn’t have to be Greek.” And I don’t know why, but I ended it with, “Well, if you go back in time, 300 million years before man, you have fish, and fish are architectural, they express movement. And the world we’re in is full of movement. So why don’t you look at fish?” I have no idea where that came from. It came out of me and then I started drawing fish.
Before that, I was looking at Japanese art. California was very Asia-centric when I started in architecture and so I had been looking at 19th-century Japanese artist Hiroshige’s woodcuts of fish, and they were so beautiful and architectural and inspiring. The fish sculptures10 I became known for happened by accident. In 1983, I was asked to do a thing for Formica Corporation with their new plastic, and I shattered it. So I used the pieces as scales and made a fish lamp. Phil Johnson called me and said, “Frank, stop it. That’s going to derail your career.”
He was afraid you were going to be known as the fish guy.
Yeah. But then one of our friends had a fancy engagement party in New York for her brother, and a lot of people from the art world were invited. The next day, Philip called me and said, “Forget what I said, I want one.” And the American artist Jasper Johns called me and said, “I want a white one.” And the Newhouses11 called and they wanted one. All of a sudden this stupid fun was connecting in a way I didn’t expect.
Did the sudden demand suck the fun out of it?
It made it more fun and more interesting. I made a large-scale fish sculpture for a fashion house in Venice, I made one for the Walker Art Center. I made a fish-shaped conference room for the Chiat/Day advertising agency that you could walk into and it had feeling and warmth and engagement and I was excited about this new kind of language. I then did the fish in Barcelona, which got me into high-tech computer programs that we started developing. That evolved into Gehry Technologies, which made it possible to do those shapes at reasonable prices, and we could meet budgets and do all that. And the feeling of the rooms was great, and it was different. So that led to a lot of what I was doing.
That long gallery, I was thinking that. The gallery was to be used differently, but my old friend Richard Serra12 imposed himself. He made a beautiful show there, I must say. Though he thinks the building is junk, he said.
He’s not mincing words.
Are you able to remain friends with people when they are so blunt?
Yeah, I’m friends with them all. Usually. Mostly.
Maybe you appreciate their honesty?
As long as I can do the same.
So the story about how you were drawn to fish because your grandmother used to buy carp in Kensington Market and keep them in her bathtub is apocryphal?
It’s not true. Well, she did buy them on Thursdays and keep them in the tub overnight before using them to make gefilte fish for Sabbath.
But it has no relationship to your work.
That was more the influence of Hiroshige’s fish, and me looking for a sense of movement in the world and in architecture. My north star forever has been the Charioteer of Delphi13, okay? I have a picture of that sculpture in my office and that’s what I look at. When I first saw it 50 years ago, I realized that you could express feeling with inert materials. How did “artist unknown” create a sense of feeling that made me cry thousands of years later?
You’re as far from “artist unknown” as an architect can be. Do you feel famous?
Not that much. But I know I am famous, in a way, and I don’t like parts of it. Like when people want a building from me and then they want to call it “the Gehry.” I hate that shit.
“I was offered a vanity museum but I turned it down. That’s not me. I need to feel I’m struggling against something to make something”
Have you ever said yes?
No, never. So they say “by Gehry” because I can’t stop them from saying that. Let’s just say I don’t intend to have a vanity museum as a memorial to me. I’ve got a lot of models and stuff that somebody’s going to put somewhere someday, and I’ve been offered a vanity museum but I turned it down. That’s not me. I need the struggle. I need to feel I’m struggling against something to make something. That feels right for me.
Do you still feel like an underdog?
No. Not anymore. I feel very loved. I’m happy. I mean, Ada Louise14 loved me. I recently found a 2001 article she wrote about me. She ended it with “the two Franks make a power pair.” So that was nice.
Being compared to Frank Lloyd Wright is no small homage. Okay, new topic: You’re a big hockey fan.
Foster Hewitt15, Saturday night.
Are you a Leafs fan?
I was as a kid when Turk Broda was on the team. My kids play and I played up until about 10 years ago.
What was your position?
I played forward and I always got a tweener—scoring between the goalie’s legs. I was good at tweeners. That’s hand-eye coordination.
Forgive the personal indulgence here, but you played pick-up hockey with my brother-in-law once. In the early ’80s, at the University of Waterloo, where he was studying. Do you remember the game?
It was after a talk I gave to the architecture students there. I had ringers. I brought Rick Chartraw, formerly of the Montreal Canadiens, to play on my team.
This was a regular occurrence? You playing shinny with unsuspecting architecture students?
I did there. And once in Montreal. I supported an over-35 team in Los Angeles and a lot of the guys—Rick, Mathieu Schneider, Rob Blake—trained at the same gym as me. So I took my team—called the FOG, for Frank Owen Gehry—and we played against the team in Waterloo.
Pitting a team of former NHLers against a bunch of Waterloo kids doesn’t seem like a fair matchup.
Oh, no, it wasn’t. My best friend in high school in Toronto, Ross Honsberger, became a brilliant mathematician and was teaching at Waterloo. That’s how it happened.
It sounds like you made a lot of architecture jocks pretty happy.
Yeah. I loved it. We had a fun night.
You’re also a fan of art and classical music. Who has the biggest ego: hockey players, architects, artists or composers?
I love all of those disciplines. I’m into music a lot. When I was growing up, my family name was Goldberg. Gehry’s a phony name—I changed it in 1954 because my ex-wife was worried about anti-Semitism and thought it sounded less Jewish. So The Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould16 were very important. I still listen to them.
It’s a beautiful recording.
Yeah. But I never met him. Then the Glenn Gould Foundation called me about 10 years ago and asked me to be on the board. I joked that I would, on one condition: that they change The Goldberg Variations to “The Gehry Variations.”
What’s your favourite building in the world, full stop?
Oh my God. Okay, Ronchamp17.
What’s your favourite Frank Gehry building?
You can’t ask that.
Of course I can. I can ask anything I want.
If I answered it, there’d be a lot of mad clients.
Do you have a dream project you have yet to take on?
No. I fester about old stuff, like the walkway at the AGO. I want it to be used for sculpture at least once, to realize that dream. Generally, I’m realistic. One of my kids is an architect, and another is an artist, so I like exploration, I like growth. I got involved with jazz opera with Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding. I’m doing Medea with Peter Sellars in Berlin.
You’re doing the set design?
Yeah. And I don’t think we’re being paid. I’d do most of it pro bono. That’s the kind of stuff I love. We’re also working on the L.A. River Master Plan, which includes things like public parks on raised platforms that will add green spaces to dense neighbourhoods. And we’re trying to build a cultural centre in a high-need part of L.A. County so kids there can access arts education and other services.
If you could design a house for anyone, who would it be?
Nobody. I can’t design houses anymore. They’re too personal.
What advice would you give to architects starting out today?
This is obvious, but I’d say remain curious. Curiosity is great. And be yourself. When I teach a class, the first thing I do with students is ask them to write their signature on a piece of paper. And we spread them out and I say, “They all look different and that’s you, and that’s you, and that’s you, so stay with that forever.”
What is the biggest rule you’ve broken?
It’s more that I try to find new ways of working without destroying tradition. Gehry Technologies18, and the 3D technology that we use, which was used to build airplanes, is part of that. And then I started sharing it with everybody, with Zaha Hadid19. And she took one of our key guys and hired him away. But I loved Zaha, so I wasn’t pissed off. I shared it with everybody because I thought this could be a break in the game. So we do use that to get buildings on budget. Bilbao was $100 million and we built it for that.
The return on Bilbao has been great for its owners.
Yeah, in the billions, right?
Do you think that people are as happy with the fact that you are able to stay on budget as they are with the things you create?
I think they are.
How do you manage relationships with developers, some of whom are notoriously difficult?
I listen a lot. And I show them that I’m responding.
In the early 1970s, you ran all the way down the steps of the Eiffel Tower 20 while stoned. Any thoughts on Gustave Eiffel’s handiwork as you flew by?
No, no, no. I was not thinking. That was rare for me, getting high. My friend Babs Altoon had lost her husband and I took her on this trip. We were trying to forget all her problems, all her wounds, from that loss, so we resorted to marijuana once or twice. But I can’t handle it—I pass out. I’m not a good doper and I’m not a good drinker.
Your longtime therapist, Milton Wexler21, is credited with having a profound influence on your work. Do you agree?
Absolutely. He pulled the cork out. When I started seeing him, I sat in group therapy with a bunch of fancy people for two years without saying anything. And one day they all came at me like The Guns of Navarone and said, “You asshole. You’ve been sitting here in judgment of us for two years and haven’t said a word. Come out, come out wherever you are.”
And were you judging them?
Of course. I was angry.
What were you angry about?
If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have been angry. Group therapy helped enormously. Anyhow, once that confrontation happened and I finally started dismantling the wall around me, I was able to give a lecture without notes at the university.
It freed something up.
It did. Up until that point, giving a lecture was the hardest. Man, that was hard. I would sit and worry. It’s a good thing to tell people that with psychology, once you set yourself free, you can explore and you can let your curiosity wander.
Wexler passed away in 2007. Do you see still see a therapist?
I probably should. I think about it. I saw one of Milton’s students for a while and then that guy died. So I’m running out of names. If you’ve got somebody to suggest…
I’ll think on it.
I believe in therapy because it’s somebody else telling you how you appear and they’re telling you straight. And you’ve got to deal with that.
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Here’s a closing question: When Forma finally opens, what would you like its residents to take away from your work?
That I tried to do things that feel comfortable and right and that make the people living there feel respected.
This interview has been edited and condensed.