Frank Gehry's Lifelong Challenge: To Create Buildings That Move With sculptural swoops and sweeps, Gehry, now 86, changed the course of architecture. Paul Goldberger, who has known the architect for 40 years, has written a new biography called Building Art.

Frank Gehry's Lifelong Challenge: To Create Buildings That Move

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We have a conversation now with a man who built a piece of our world. He is the architect Frank Gehry.


If you ever visited the Disney Concert Hall here in Los Angeles, you've seen his work. Its curving roof panels bring to mind towering waves at sea.

INSKEEP: Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain looks like a building seen through a fun house mirror.

MONTAGNE: A big new biography explores the architect's long life. He is now 86. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg sat down with Gehry and his biographer, Paul Goldberger.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: The world's most famous architect sounded like any proud family man the other week, greeting Paul Goldberger.

FRANK GEHRY: Sam is at the hospital with Joycie. They're giving birth just at this very moment.

PAUL GOLDBERGER: Oh, my God, congratulations.

STAMBERG: First grandchild, a girl, it turned out.

You sound as if you know one another, guys.

GOLDBERGER: Only for 40 years.

GEHRY: He's close in the book. He's close. He's getting there.


STAMBERG: Well, that's what I wanted to ask you, Frank Gehry. What did you learn about yourself from this book?

GEHRY: Well, I guess I do have an ego somewhere that comes out. And I hadn't realized that I turn stuff down quite the way I do.

STAMBERG: He has walked away from big jobs, wanting more collaboration or more control.

It seems to me that your personality is a mensch wrapped around an iron and ambitious will.

GOLDBERGER: That's a pretty nice phrase. I wish I had thought of it.

GEHRY: (Laughter) Well, yeah, I guess so. I really wanted - want to make architecture. I love the relationship with the clients. I love going to Bilbao and people come out and hug me. You know, we all need love. And it's nice to get it for doing things like that.

STAMBERG: Frank Gehry's buildings are - wait for it - lovable, thrilling, audacious, glowing. They capture movement, energy, light. He's taken hits from other architects and critics over the years. The buildings don't work inside. They're too hard to construct. But stubbornly, passionately, he has held on to this goal to create buildings that inspire emotion.

GEHRY: If you look at a great work of art in bronze from 600 B.C. and it makes you cry, some artist way back then was able to transmit emotion through time and space over years to today.

STAMBERG: Architecture can do that, too, Gehry believes - create emotion with inert materials. Paul Goldberger's penetrating biography is called "Building Art: The Life And Work Of Frank Gehry." And the art part, beauty, was in Gehry's DNA from the beginning. Born in Toronto, as a little boy, he watched - this is a famous story by now - live carp swimming in his grandma's bathtub on their way to becoming gefilte fish. He loved the shapes and movements they made. Later, fish became a motif in the buildings he designed. After he moved to Los Angeles at 18, his closest friends were artists, not architects.

GOLDBERGER: Their commitment to ordinary materials, to fresh ways to solve problems, making beauty out of the ordinary affected him very, very profoundly.

STAMBERG: Take chain-link fencing. To the ridicule of many, Gehry used it early on in houses and commercial projects.

GEHRY: I found the material that everybody hated, that was used ubiquitously by all cultures throughout the world, and that disconnection between those two ideas interested me. So I started looking at how I could make chain-link - 'cause I hated it, too. Why not try to make it beautiful?

STAMBERG: Over the years, Frank Gehry's materials got more sophisticated. Most recently, billowing, soaring glass and wood at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. Before that, supple stainless steel, sensuous on Disney Concert Hall. And glowing silver titanium swirling in curves on the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

GEHRY: I was trying to express emotion. And the curves were from the fish - were a sense of movement with inert materials, which the Greeks did, the Indian cultures did it. We're living in a culture in a time where movement was pervasive. Everything is moving. And so if we hook onto that and use it as part of our language - our architectural language - there's some resonance for it.

STAMBERG: Movement, emotion, unusual materials, going against current thinking. These lifelong Gehry themes got transformed when digital technology came along. Biographer Paul Goldberger says digital let Gehry catch up with his artist friends through architecture.

GOLDBERGER: Frank was trying to conceive in his head shapes and forms and curves that were not particularly realizable by engineers.

STAMBERG: Software from the aerospace industry let Gehry move his dreams into realities. With digital, he and his staff could engineer what sometimes started as squiggles on paper and convert them into structures that would stand up. They made buildings that had never been seen before, buildings that make you gasp. Fame, admiration, engulfed Frank Gehry, but Paul Goldberger publishes a revealing quote that shows Gehry can't take unmitigated joy at his accomplishments. The quote, "I wish I could live in the place people are making for me."

GEHRY: I'm much more a worrier. I spend a lot of time worrying about making sure the projects are right and that they're not just a doodle.

GOLDBERGER: You said - actually I - the exact quote was "I wish I could enjoy it like you're supposed to. I wish I could be that guy at least for an hour."

GEHRY: Right.

GOLDBERGER: "I wish I could live in the place people were making for me. I want to be popular, but I don't trust it."

GEHRY: (Laughter) Exactly, yeah.

STAMBERG: And maybe that's really at the core of who you are and how you approach your work. That is it's never finished, really. It's never perfect.

GEHRY: Right, it can never be perfect by definition. It can't be because we're defective creatures somehow.

STAMBERG: Well, thanks for all the defects, Frank Gehry.

GEHRY: (Laughter) You're welcome.

STAMBERG: "Building Art: The Life And Work Of Frank Gehry" is biographer Paul Goldberger's portrait of a man who helped to transform architecture in our time. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

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