Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry is a compelling biography of
perhaps the world’s most famous architect. And yet it is also, to a great
extent, a list of Gehry’s disappointments.
And not just the disappointments of a young man trying to establish himself in
a notoriously difficult field. Some of the biggest setbacks occurred when the
prodigiously-talented architect was well into middle age. (And they continued
even after he won the Pritzker Prize, the profession’s highest honor, in 1989.)
Among the disappointments?
Around the time he won the Pritzker, Gehry was commissioned to design the Walt
Disney Concert Hall, meant to be a symbol of Los Angeles’s cultural
coming-of-age. But Gehry, nearly 60 at the time, was offered the job only if he
let another firm translate his ideas into working drawings. Miffed, and forced
into compromises that he believed diminished the quality of the building, he
nonetheless devoted thousands of hours to the project. But after five years of
work, the project was shut down amid rumors that it was unbuildable. Gehry’s
first impulse, Goldberger writes, “was to leave town.” He stayed in L.A., but for the next decade he was known there as an architect whose most important
building hadn’t been – and perhaps couldn’t be – realized.
Also in the early 1990s, he designed a house in Brentwood for the L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad. Impatient with Gehry’s process, which involved multiple
re-designs, Broad gave Gehry’s unfinished plans to another architect, who
completed the house “in the style of Gehry.” Appropriately, Gehry refused to
visit the house and considered his design “unbuilt.” But when it came time to
get the Disney Concert Hall back on track, in the late 1990s, Los Angeles Mayor
Richard Riordan required that Gehry work alongside Broad. And within months,
Goldberger reports, Broad was going around Gehry’s back to contractors, forcing
Gehry to resign from the project in protest. (Diane Disney Miller, insisting
that her family wanted a real Gehry building, not a replica, brokered a
How did he fare on the other coast?
In 2001, he was asked by a Lincoln Center board member to sketch some ideas for
revitalizing the iconic complex. One of his sketches showed a glass roof over Lincoln Center’s famous plaza. Gehry wasn’t even sure he liked the idea, but when the
sketch was released to the press in 2002, there was such an outcry that, as
Goldberger writes, “the board ended up not only rejecting the plan but deciding
that it no longer wanted to work with Frank at all.”
In 2003, the developer Bruce Ratner hired Gehry to design an arena and a
cluster of apartment buildings over the Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn. After six
years of work on what would have been the biggest project of his career, Gehry
was fired by Ratner, who was looking to save money. Ratner gave the arena and
tower commissions to other architects, leaving the impression that Gehry’s
buildings were too expensive to build (and that Ratner had used Gehry as
window-dressing, to help win support for the project). According to Goldberger,
Gehry was “devastated.”
Gehry spent 10 years designing, and redesigning, a performing arts center for
the World Trade Center site, his contribution to the post-9/11 building effort.
But in 2012, a new director was hired to run the performance center. Suggesting
publicly that Gehry was over the hill, she fired him without even bothering to
call. Gehry learned of his dismissal from a New York Times reporter
And in the nation’s capital? In 2009, Gehry was commissioned to design a
memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower, which he conceived as a series of murals,
made of metal mesh and raised on pylons in a park-like setting. Gehry knew
there would be criticism. But Susan Eisenhower, the president’s granddaughter,
has compared Gehry’s design to missile silos, the Iron Curtain and, most
devastating to Gehry, who is Jewish, the fences surrounding Nazi concentration
No wonder Gehry told Goldberger last year that he wasn’t happy about having to
tour a retrospective of his work at the Pompidou Centre. “Seeing all my old
stuff freaked me out,” Gehry said. “All those old hurts from the past.”
And yet Gehry lived with the disappointments and carried on. He was saved by
technology (which made it easier for a small firm like his to produce working
drawings for complex buildings), but it was Gehry who discovered the technology
and understood its potential. And he was saved by wealthy benefactors,
including Diane Disney Miller and, most recently, Bernard Arnault, the luxury
goods mogul who commissioned the LV Foundation in Paris. But it was Gehry’s
enthusiasm, faith in his own abilities, and gift for friendship that won them
It isn't easy being an architect – even with Frank Gehry's prodigious talents.
But who ever said it would be?
Fred A. Bernstein has degrees in architecture (from Princeton University) and law (from NYU) and writes about both subjects. Born on Long
Island, he lives in New York City and has two young sons, Aaron and Jacob.
Also by Bernstein:
Op-Ed: Top of the Heap
the Empire State Building has been New York City's GPS, but with spate of
supertalls obscuring the building, it could become hard to tell Manhattan from Kowloon or Pudong or Shinjuku or Canary Wharf.
Preservation Alert: P.S. 199, by Edward Durell Stone
school on Manhattan's Upper West Side could be facing demolition if developer
takes up New York City's offer to sell the site.
Move the Farnsworth House
Mies built the Farnsworth in spitting distance of the mighty
Fox River, and the house is paying price for his hubris.
An Open Letter to Susan Szenasy re: Frank Gehry
Hudson World Bridge: A proposal by architect Eytan
Kaufman to span the Hudson River would be a gathering place like no other
Second Look: Pavilion and Colonnade Apartments by
Mies van der Rohe, 1960
Newark, NJ: Current news about "starchitects" designing high-rise
housing in New York is at an all-time high, but Mies did it across the Hudson River 46 years ago.
Second Look: Tracey Towers by Paul Rudolph, 1972
How did Rudolph, restless and challenging architectural
mind, end up doing subsidized housing in the Bronx?
Op-Ed: The 2012 New York Olympics is lost. Long live
the 2014 New York World's Fair.
Second Look: New York Hall of Science by Wallace K.
Harrison/Harrison and Abramovitz, 1964; Polshek Partnership Architects, 2004
Beauty in Garbage: Naka Incineration Plant by Yoshio
Hiroshima: An incineration plant is devised as real-time science museum and
tourist destination (complete with waterfront park).
Second Look: George Washington Bridge Bus Station / Pier
Luigi Nervi, 1963
One of Nervi's few completed projects outside Italy is superb example of the poetry he wrought from ferro-concrete.
INSIGHT: The Might-Have-Been Memorial