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Being Frank Gehry

Paul Goldberger's account of the architect's rise is also a tale of things not going Gehry's way.

By Fred A. Bernstein
September 10, 2015

Paul Goldberger’s Building 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 compromise.)

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 seeking comment.

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 camps.

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 over.

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.


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(click on pictures to enlarge)

Kristen Richards

Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles (2003)