Frank Gehry has a few things to get off his chest

Frank Talk

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

By Stéphanie Verge| Photography by Michelle Groskopf
| July 13, 2022

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. Okay.

So what is it about Forma that appealed to you? It started with David MirvishFrank Gehry has a few things to get off his chestDavid Mirvish—avid art collector, theatre impresario, real estate developer, son of Honest Ed—launched Forma in 2012 and, after much ballyhoo and multiple revisions, sold it to another developer in 2017. 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 guysFrank Gehry has a few things to get off his chestAnd by “Finnish guys,” he means Viljo Revell, the architect who transformed downtown Toronto with his 1958 modernist design of New City Hall—a building that later appeared in episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Handmaid’s Tale. 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.

Frank Gehry has a few things to get off his chest

 


“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 linkFrank Gehry has a few things to get off his chestEarly in his career, Gehry was known for using cheap, simple building materials. It worked well for his budget-conscious artist clients but raised eyebrows among the establishment..

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 HallFrank Gehry has a few things to get off his chestGehry was one of four architects on the shortlist for the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which opened in 2003. He won over Lillian Disney, Walt’s widow, with his design for a musicians’ garden., 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.

Fair enough. 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 housesFrank Gehry has a few things to get off his chestInspired by the topography of the American Midwest—flat, broad—the Prairie style was Frank Lloyd Wright’s response to ornate buildings popular in the early 20th century. 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 TeitelbaumFrank Gehry has a few things to get off his chestMatthew Teitelbaum, now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, presided over the AGO’s three-year, $276-million expansion. 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 HellmanFrank Gehry has a few things to get off his chestCreator of the stage plays The Children’s Hour (1934) and Little Foxes (1939), Lillian Hellman was as famous for her outspoken nature as for her writing. 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?

No. 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 Frank Gehry has a few things to get off his chestGehry’s curving, titanium-clad Bilbao museum is one of the most talked about  buildings of the 20th century. After seeing it for the first time, the architect Philip Johnson burst into tears and called Gehry “the greatest architect we have today.” 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 skyscraperFrank Gehry has a few things to get off his chestPhilip Johnson—who appeared on a 1979 cover of Time magazine with a model of the building—and his co-architect John Burgee set their creation apart from the surrounding glass skyscrapers with pink granite and a broken-pediment crown., 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 sculpturesFrank Gehry has a few things to get off his chestGehry’s most famous fish sculpture is arguably the 56-metre-long golden one at the Olympic Village on Barcelona’s seafront. Fish shapes have long appeared in his body of work—as lamps, sculptures, in his buildings and even as part of a jewellery collection for Tiffany & Co. 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 NewhousesFrank Gehry has a few things to get off his chestArchitecture historian Victoria Newhouse  and Condé Nast founder S.I. Newhouse were longtime friends and clients of Gehry’s. 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.

Like Bilbao. That long gallery, I was thinking that. The gallery was to be used differently, but my old friend Richard SerraFrank Gehry has a few things to get off his chestGehry initially wanted Bilbao’s “Fish” gallery to be divided into three parts. He changed his plans—upon request from the director of the Guggenheim Foundation—to accommodate Richard Serra’s 103-metre-long “Snake” sculpture. Gehry and Serra’s friendship was never quite the same. 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. No.

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 DelphiFrank Gehry has a few things to get off his chestThis bronze statue from Ancient Greece depicts a young charioteer after winning a race., 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.

Frank Gehry has a few things to get off his chest

 


“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 LouiseFrank Gehry has a few things to get off his chestAda Louise Huxtable, a prominent architecture critic and writer, won the first-ever Pulitzer for distinguished criticism in 1970. At her memorial, Gehry told the crowd that as a young architect “even though I wished for her attention, I was scared of it.” 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 HewittFrank Gehry has a few things to get off his chestThe play-by-play broadcaster for the Leafs and for Hockey Night in Canada famously coined the phrase, “He shoots, he scores!”, 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 GouldFrank Gehry has a few things to get off his chestTaped in six days in 1955, Glenn Gould’s debut recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations made the 22-year-old Toronto pianist an international star. 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, RonchampFrank Gehry has a few things to get off his chestGehry is referring to La Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut, a small chapel in Ronchamp, France, designed by Le Corbusier and completed in 1954. Le Corbusier’s Dominican monastery in La Tourette also influenced Gehry’s work..

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 TechnologiesFrank Gehry has a few things to get off his chestGehry Technologies developed a suite of tools, including modelling software that was adapted from 3D aerospace tech, to help architects deliver complicated designs., 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 HadidFrank Gehry has a few things to get off his chestEsteemed British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid designed the Vitra Fire Station in Germany, her first major building, after Gehry recommended her for the job. He was also on the jury in 2004 when Hadid was awarded the Pritzker, architecture’s most prestigious prize.. 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 Frank Gehry has a few things to get off his chestThe Eiffel Tower has a total of 1,665 steps. These days, visitors can only ascend on foot between the base of the tower and the second floor—674 steps. 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 WexlerFrank Gehry has a few things to get off his chestMilton Wexler, a prominent L.A. psychoanalyst with a client list that included Carol Burnett and Jennifer Jones, began having sessions with Gehry in the 1960s., 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.

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