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Book Review: A Perspective from One Elevation: "Conversations With Frank Gehry" by Barbara Isenberg

Gehry's conversations offer portraits of an astute listener as well as talker, an architect as aware of his flaws and limitations as of his virtues.

By Norman Weinstein
April 21, 2009

This selection of Barbara Isenberg’s Conversations With Frank Gehry (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), published with more than 200 photographs in Knopf’s typical classy fashion, represents a major advance in that uneven book genre of “Architect Talks.” For comparison, look at Gehry Talks: Architecture + Process (Universe Publishing, 2002) in which interviewer Mildred Friedman erases her questions and the interview context, offering solely Gehry’s monologues, resulting in a book-length set of uninterrupted public speeches. In contrast, Isenberg not only keeps her sharp questions front and center, reminding the readers that these are intelligently interactive interviews, but includes (whenever apt) Gehry’s non-verbal expressions during interviews as a sub-text.


With a plainspoken directness certain to embarrass his TheorySpeak colleagues, Gehry’s comments center on his lifelong learning, his innovative projects, and his assessment of his legacy. There are levels upon levels of insights to be culled from his candor, but one glimpse into Gehry’s world made pellucid I’d like to concentrate upon: his view of architecture as service. In answer to Isenberg’s probe about how he has seen architecture as a service business, Gehry responds:


“I’ve always thought about architecture that way. You get a client, and that client might be one person or a group of people. The client needs a building, and you design, produce, and deliver it. You try to be within their budget, serve their purpose, and solve their problem. There is a responsibility beyond that to the community, both the community close in and the community at large...”


Truisms. But then Gehry nuances the energy he brings to work that clarifies for him the architect-client relationship:


“There are two kinds of energy. There’s the energy that probably comes from my mother pushing me for many years to do something, and I guess I’m afraid to disappoint her even though she’s gone... But there’s also the energy of the work that grows out of the excitement of the project. A lot has to do with the people involved and their willingness to play with me. I think the best buildings come from that.”


Isenberg then asks him to define “play,” and Gehry responds: “It’s questioning. It’s fun. Well, it’s partly fun. It’s looking for something. You don’t know what. And in architecture, you’re doing it with a lot of other people.”


Play in terms architectural projects is a high-stakes play, like pro sports in terms of millions of dollars hanging in the balance. And as Robert Campbell, architecture critic for The Boston Globe, noted, daring architects and daring clients working together enter into a complex tango of expectations and misunderstandings. So while Gehry doesn’t have much to say about MIT’s suit against his firm for “design and construction failures” surrounding the Stata Center – no surprise since litigation isn’t the time to publish your legal defense – it is worth thinking about Gehry’s sense of client relationship as high-risk play, but play entailing intense responsibility to clients and the larger community, a responsibility Gehry actualized through his pro bono work for health centers.


This is precisely the point John Silber and his NeoCon friends like Tom Wolfe and Roger Kimball ignore in their cartooning of Gehry as a wholly narcissistic and indulgent prankster. In Silber’s accusations about Gehry in Architecture of the Absurd: How “Genius” Disfigured a Practical Art (Quantuck Lane, 2007), Silber can’t come to grips with Gehry’s buildings as the creative exercise of his play with clients and their play with him. Since Silber and colleagues wear their proto-capitalist ideology on their sleeve, they have to somehow project onto Gehry the intimidating selfish megalomania that they might discover by looking at themselves in a mirror in order to explain how Gehry has thrived on the open-market.


No better refutation of Gehry as “impractical” or “absurdist” exists than Isenberg’s book, which includes the details of how Gehry invited massive MIT campus input into the Stata Center at the concept stage. Gehry’s conversations with Isenberg offer portraits of an astute listener as well as talker, an architect as aware of his flaws and limitations as of his virtues. His words are refreshingly free of cant and jargon, ideological agendas, and academic jargon juggling. If only Gehry’s fans and critics, let alone fellow architects, could communicate with such forthrightness, if only...



Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for the Christian Science Monitor and Architectural Record. He authors’s exclusive series “Words That Build,” and consults with architects and engineers about communication. He can be happily interrupted at


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(click on pictures to enlarge)