Working Notes of a Practising Neo-Generalist (#28) — Frank Gehry and moving between fields

“Only in 1997, when the Bilbao Guggenheim opened to worldwide acclaim, Gehry’s blend of energy and competence, and his ability to bring a unique architectural vision to reality were finally recognised. He was sixty-nine,” Philip Delves Broughton writes in How to Think Like an Entrepreneur. (Photograph: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 1997, by Frank Gehry. Courtesy of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain

“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6:21 (translated by Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, New York)

Frank Gehry and moving between fields

Philip Delves Broughton’s How to Think Like an Entrepreneur (The School of Life/Pan Macmillan, 2016) contains a moving chapter, entitled The Old Man and the Fish, about the Canadian-born American architect Frank Gehry.

Delves Broughton writes how Gehry, after graduating from the architecture school at the University of Southern California, sought the company of artists and architects, but found himself marginalised by both groups. “The architects tried to belittle him by calling him ‘artist,’ while the artists called him a ‘plumber.’ But Gehry drew his energy from straddling these worlds. As with the Nobel Prize winners studied by J. Rogers Hollingsworth, Gehry was moving between fields, marginalised and keenly observant.”

In the mid-1960s, Gehry played a unique role in the Los Angeles art scene that centred around the Ferus Gallery. In an article for Vanity Fair, adapted from his book Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), Paul Goldberger writes:

“Gehry was always a bit different: there was nothing about Gehry that was blasé or cool. He was eager to learn. In the beginning, it was enough to make [Billy Al Bengston], one of the de facto leaders of the group, ask [Ed Moses], ‘Who is this little putz you keep bringing around?’

‘I said, This is Frank Gehry — he’s a friend of mine, an architect who is very interested in painting,’ Moses said. ‘It was very unusual for an architect — most of them never got out of their own territory.’

[…] To the artists, he seemed to be always around, listening with a careful ear, looking at everything everyone else was doing. ‘Frank had an insatiable appetite,’ Moses said. Gehry was comfortable with the artists in a way that he would never be with most architects. ‘There was a powerful, powerful energy I was getting from this scene that I wasn’t getting from the architecture world,’ Gehry has said. ‘What attracted me to them is that they worked intuitively. They would do what they wanted and take the consequences’ — something that most architects, in Frank’s experience, were less and less willing to do. ‘Their work was more direct and in such contrast to what I was doing in architecture, which was so rigid,’ Gehry said. ‘You have to deal with safety issues — fireproofing, sprinklers, handrails for stairways, things like that. You go through training that teaches you to do things in a very careful way, following codes and budgets. But those constraints didn’t speak to aesthetics.’

Gehry appropriates the techniques of art, but that no more makes him an artist instead of an architect than the ability to make meaningful spaces within a work of sculpture makes Richard Serra an architect instead of an artist. Gehry uses art to architectural ends: to solve the fundamental architectural problems of creating objects that function well for a particular purpose, are well constructed, and have a meaningful relationship to the world around them. His journey has always been guided by intuition, not by information and neither, despite the critical role digital software plays in his work, has it been driven by technology. Technology for him has always been a means, not an end; a way of getting ideas out of his head and into the built world. The starting point is always inside his head, in an imagination that is always seeking to push on — to find some new way of making space, some new way of making shapes.”

It wasn’t until the opening of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 1997, that “Gehry’s blend of energy and competence, and his ability to bring a unique architectural vision to reality were finally recognised. He was sixty-nine.”

Photograph by David Lauridsen

“I’m like a pussycat with a ball of twine. It goes over there, and he jumps over there. It falls on the floor, and he goes there. I’m opportunistic. Once I understand the problems, I try things. I see what works and what doesn’t, and then I try again. When it looks like something I’ve done before, I abandon it. I have learned to trust my intuition.” — Frank Gehry, Harvard Business Review (November 2011)

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