Frank Gehry wanted to be a scientist when he grew up. But after blowing up a part of his house, at age 14, he decided against it. He’s gone on to create some mindblowing buildings, including the Guggenheim at Bilbao and LA’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. This wildly entertaining conversation with Richard Saul Wurman (then host of TED) touches on many topics, including the power of failure, the importance of collaboration, and the need for architects to bring personal expression to the table. (Recorded February 2002 in Monterey, California. Duration: 22:00.)
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Gehry: I listened to this scientist this morning, Rick, and Dr. Molis was talking about those — his experiments — and I realized that I almost became a scientist. When I was 14 my parents bought me a chemistry set. And I decided to make water. So I made a hydrogen generator, and I made an oxygen generator, and I had the two pipes leading into a beaker, and I threw a match in. And the glass — luckily I turned around, I had it all in my back, and it was about 15 feet away — the wall was covered with — jeez, it — I had an explosion.
G: People in the street came in. Knocked on the door to see if I was okay. Huh. So I — I am curious.
W: I’d like to start again with — start this session again. The gentleman to my left is the very famous, perhaps overly famous, Frank Gehry. And Frank, you’ve come to a place in your life which is astonishing. I mean it is astonishing for an artist, for an architect to become actually an icon and a legend in their own time. I mean, you have become — whether you can giggle at it because it’s a funny — you know, it’s a strange thought — and you’ve had not rock star status but celebrity status in doing what you wanted to do for most of your life. And I know the road was extremely difficult. And it didn’t seem, at least, that your sellouts, whatever they were, were very big, that you kept moving ahead in a life where you’re dependent on working for somebody. But that’s an interesting thing for a creative person. A lot of us work for people. We are in the hands of other people. And that’s one of the great dilemmas. We’re in a creativity session. It’s one of the great dilemmas in creativity: how to do work that’s big enough and not sell out? And you’ve achieved it. And that makes your win doubly big. Triply big. Not quite a question, but you can comment on it. It’s a big issue.
G: Well, I’ve always just — I’ve never really gone out looking for work. I always waited for it to sort of hit me on the head. And when I started out I thought I was — that architecture was a service business, and that you had to please the clients and stuff. And I realized when I’d come into the meetings with these corrugated metal and chain-link stuff — and people would just look at me like I’d just landed from Mars. But I couldn’t do anything else. I just — that was my response to the people and the time, and actually it was responding to — to clients that I had, who — that didn’t have very much money so they couldn’t afford very much. I think it was circumstantial. Until I got to my house where the client was my wife. We bought this tiny little bungalow in Santa Monica for like 50 grand. I built a house around it, and a few people got excited about it. I was visiting with an artist, Michael Heizer in the desert near Las Vegas somewhere. He’s building this huge concrete place and it was late in the evening. We got a lot to drink and we were standing out in the desert all alone and he said — thinking about my house — he said, did it ever occur to you that if you built stuff more permanent, somewhere in 2,000 years somebody’s going to like it. So I thought, Yeah, that’s probably a good idea. Luckily I started to get some clients that had a little more money, so the stuff was a little more permanent. I don’t see it the way you — you characterized it, Richard. Obviously, I’m — for me, every day is a new thing. I approach each project with a new insecurity, almost like the first project I ever did. And I get the sweats. I go in, I start working, I’m not sure where I’m going. If I knew where I was going I wouldn’t do it. When I can predict or plan it I don’t do it. I discard it. So I approach it with the same trepidation. Obviously, over time, there’s — I have a lot more confidence that it’s going to be okay. I do run a kind of a business. I got a 120 people. And you got to pay them. So there’s a lot of responsibility involved. But the work — the actual work on the project is with, I think, a healthy insecurity. You’re not sure. And when you look at it — when Bilbao was finished, I looked at it, I saw all the mistakes. I saw — they weren’t mistakes. I saw everything that I would have changed and I thought of — I was — I was embarrassed by it. I felt an embarrassment. How could I have done that? How could I have made shapes like that or done stuff like that? It’s taken several years to now look at it detached and say, as you walk around the corner and a piece of it works with the road and the street and it appears to have a relationship, that I started to like it.
W: What’s the status of the New York project.
G: I don’t really know. Tom Krens came to me with Bilbao and explained it all to me and I thought he was nuts and I didn’t think he knew what he was doing. And he pulled it off. And I think he’s Icarus and Phoenix all in one guy. And he gets up there and he comes back up. They’re still talking about it. September 11th generated some interest in moving it over to — to Ground Zero. And I’m totally against that, but — I don’t know. I just feel uncomfortable talking about or building anything on Ground Zero. I think for a lot of long time, maybe.
W: The picture on the screen is of the Disney — isn’t that — is that Disney? How much further along is it that — and that? When will that be finished?
G: That’ll be finished in 2003. September, October. Luckily, today, most of the people I’m working with are people I really like. Richard Koshalek is probably one of the main reasons that Disney Hall came to me. He’s been a cheerleader for quite a long time. There aren’t many people around that are really involved with architecture as clients. You know, if you think about the world, and even just in this audience, most of us are involved with buildings, not with art. Nothing that you would call architecture. And so to find one — a guy like that — you hang on to him. He’s become the head of our center and he’s — and there’s a building by Craig Ellwood there. And I knew Craig, and respected him. And they want to add to it. It’s hard to add to a building like that. It’s a beautiful minimalist black steel building and Richard wants to add a library and more student stuff. And it’s a lot of acreage. And I convinced him to let me bring in another architect from Portugal, Alvaro Siza.
W: Why’d you want that?
G: I knew you’d ask that question. It was intuitive. Alvaro Siza grew up and lived in Portugal and is probably the — considered the Portuguese main guy in architecture. I visited with him a few years ago, and he showed me his early work and his early work had a resemblance to my early work and it had to be — had to go — when I came out of college I started to try to do things contextually in Southern California. And you got into the logic of Spanish colonial tile roofs and things like that. And I tried to understand that language as a beginning, as a place to jump off. And there were — there was so much of it being done by spec builders and it was trivialized so much that it wasn’t — I just stopped. I mean, Charlie Moore did a bunch of it, but it didn’t feel good to me. Siza, on the other hand, continued in Portugal, where the real stuff was, and evolved a modern language that relates to that — that historic language. And I always felt that he should come to Southern California and do a building. And I tried to get him a couple of jobs. They didn’t pan out. And I liked the idea of collaboration with people like that because it pushes you. It’s like — I’ve done it with Klaus Oldenburg and with Richard Serra, who doesn’t think I’m an — doesn’t think architecture is art. Did you see that thing?
W: What’d he say?
G: He calls architecture plumbing. It’s a way of — for me, it’s a way of trying to understand the city. The issue of city building in democracy is interesting because it — it creates chaos, right? Everybody doing their thing makes a very chaotic environment, and if you can figure out how to work off each other — I mean it’s not that if you can get a bunch of people who respect each other’s work and play off each other — you might be able to create models for how to build sections of the city without resorting to the one architect, like the Rockefeller Center model, which is kind of from another era.
W: I found the most remarkable thing. A preconception of Bilbao was this wonderful building — go inside and be — extraordinary spaces — I had seen drawings you had presented here at TED. The surprise at Bilbao was in its context of the city. That was the surprise. Of going across the river. Going on the highway around it. Of walking down the street and finding it. That was the real surprise of Bilbao.
G: Well, you know, Richard, most architects, when they present their work, most of the people we know — you get up, and you talk about your work, and you talk about — it’s almost like you tell everybody you’re a good guy by saying, Look, I’m — I’m worried about the context, I’m worried about the city, I’m worried about my client, I worry about budget, I’m on time, blah blah blah, and all that stuff. And it’s like cleansing yourself so that you can — and by saying all of that means your work is good, somehow. And I think everybody — I mean, that should be a matter of fact, like gravity. It should — you’re not going to defy gravity. You’ve got to work with the building department. If you don’t meet the budgets, you’re not going to get much work. If you don’t — if it leaks. Bilbao did not leak. That — I was so proud. The MIT project, they were interviewing me for MIT and they sent their facilities people to Bilbao. I met them in Bilbao. They came for three days.
W: This is the computer building.
G: They were there for three days and it rained every day. And they kept walking around. I noticed they were looking under things and looking for things, and they wanted to know where the buckets were hidden, people putting buckets out. I was clean. There wasn’t a bloody leak in the place. It was just fantastic. But you’ve got to — yeah, well, up until then, every building leaked.
W: Frank had a sort of — sort of had a fame — his — his fame was built on that in L.A. for a while. You know, Frank, you’ve all heard the Frank Lloyd Wright story when the guy — the woman called and said, “Mr. Wright, my — I’m sitting in the couch and the water’s pouring in on my head,” and he said, “Madame, move your chair.”
G: So, some years later I was doing a little house on the beach for Norton Simon, and his secretary was kind of a hell-on-wheels type lady — called me and said, Mr. Simon’s sitting at his desk, and the water’s coming in on his head, and I told him the Frank Lloyd Wright story.
W: Didn’t get a laugh.
G: No. Not now either. But — but my point is that — and I call it the “Then What?” Okay, you solved all the problems, you did all the stuff, you made nice, you loved your clients, you loved the [?], you loved the city, you’re a good guy, you’re a good person… and then what? What do you bring to it? And I think that’s what I’ve always been interested in, is that — which is a personal kind of expression and it — Bilbao, I think, shows that you can have that kind of personal expression and still touch all the bases that are necessary. Of fitting into the city — that’s what reminded me of that. So, and I think that’s — that’s the issue. It’s the “Then What?” that most clients who hire architects — most clients aren’t hiring architects for that. They’re hiring them to get it done, get it on budget, you know, and not — you know, be polite — and they’re missing out on the — the real value of an architect. In a certain point a number of years ago people went back — Michael Graves was in fashion before teapots. I did a teapot and nobody bought it.
W: Did it leak?
W: People wanted a Michael Graves building. Is that a curse that people want a Bilbao building?
G: Yeah. I’ve gotten calls since Bilbao opened, which is now four or five years ago. Both Krens and I have been called with — I don’t know — at least a hundred opportunities. China, Brazil. Other parts of Spain. To come in and do the Bilbao effect. And some I’ve — I’ve met with some of these people. Usually I say no right away, but some of them come with pedigree, and they sound well intentioned, and they get you for at least one or two meetings. In one case I flew all the way to Malaga, with a team — because the thing was signed by — with seals, you know, very official seals of the city, and that they wanted me to come and do a building in their port, and I asked them what kind of building it was, and, “When you get here, we’ll explain it.” So, four of us went. And they took us — they put us up in a great hotel. We were looking over the bay. And then they took us in a boat out on the water, and showed us all these sights in the harbor and each one was more beautiful than the other. And then we were going to have lunch with the mayor. And we were going to have dinner with the most important people in Malaga. And just before going to lunch with the mayor, we went to the harbor commissioner, and it was a table as long as this carpet. And the harbor commissioner was here, and I was here, and my guys, and we sat down and we had a drink, water, and everybody was quiet and the guy looked at me and said, “Now what can I do for you Mr. Gehry?”
W: Oh, my God.
G: So I got up. I said to my team, “Let’s get out of here.” We stood up. We walked out. They — the guy — the guy that dragged us there followed us. He said, “You mean you’re not going to have lunch with the mayor?” I said, “Nope.” You’re not going to have dinner with all — They just brought us there to, you know, hustle this group, you know. To create a project. We get a lot of that. And you’ve got to really — luckily, I’m old enough that, you know, I can complain I can’t travel. I don’t have my own plane yet, but…
W: Well, I’m going to wind this up and wind up the meeting because it’s been very long, but let me just say a couple words.
G: Can I say something? Are you going to talk about me or you?
W: Once a shit, always a shit.
G: Because I want to get a standing ovation like everybody, so –
W: You’re going to get one!
G: Wait a minute, wait a minute –
W: You’re going to get one. I’m going to make it for you.
G: No, no, wait a minute. Oh, no, no, no, no.