INTERVIEW BY TOM DOWNEY
PHOTOS BY MICHAEL RYTERBAND
For his latest book, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger dives deep into the rich life of Frank Gehry.
Paul Goldberger has called Frank Gehry the leading architect of his generation. Goldberger himself occupies roughly the same position in the world of architectural criticism. The parallels between the two men don’t end there: Just as Gehry’s work bridges the gap between the popular and the professorial, Goldberger is adept at moving from the mainstream media into academic circles and back again. His recent and definitive biography of Gehry, Building Art (Knopf), is his first book of that genre. Goldberger viewed Gehry’s personal residence, built in Santa Monica in 1978, shortly after it was constructed, and was immediately struck by the genius of the work—and the man behind it. He’s been following Gehry’s architecture ever since.
Goldberger has also authored multiple works of criticism and narrative about architecture, including Up From Zero, his 2004 account of the rebuilding of Ground Zero. He moved from being architecture writer at The New York Times, where he won a Pulitzer in 1984, to 14 years at The New Yorker, and finally to Vanity Fair, his home since 2012. His next project is a book about the way that the changing geographical positions of baseball stadiums—from urban to suburban and back to urban again—track the way in which American cities have been viewed variously as utopian, dystopian, and then utopian once again. He is on the board conducting the search for an architect for Barack Obama’s presidential library, the first such search to be open to non-American architects. Surface sat down for lunch with Goldberger in New York to discuss his Gehry biography and his opinion on the state of architecture today.
Which building brought Frank Gehry to your attention?
His own house, which goes all the way back to 1978. It was pretty clear that something amazing was going on. It was different from what everyone else was doing.
When did you first see it?
I saw it when it was pretty much new. I’ve been watching him for a really long time now. We met by chance at the beginning of my career and relatively early in his, although he’s a lot older than I am. I wrote a piece about the Ron Davis house in Malibu for The New York Times in the mid ‘70s. It was just the beginning of my career and the first time one of his buildings was published in a national general-interest publication. In a way, we’ve grown up parallel.
His Guggenheim building in Bilbao changed that city forever. It turned the Basque region into an international destination after opening. What makes a building able to transform a city and become instantly iconic? Are other any other examples that come to mind?
Maybe the Sydney Opera House. There have been iconic buildings in cities that needed them in quite the same way. A building in London or Paris is not needed to put them on the map, but Sydney is a different story. There aren’t a lot of examples in this country, and I would say in terms of Bilbao, it was a sort of extraordinary coincidence of circumstances that made it happen. It was not the so-called “Bilbao-effect.” It’s not something that’s strictly reproducible, which is why it disappointed people when they expected it to happen over and over again. It just doesn’t work that way.
Why do you think it worked?
For a few reasons. Frank Gehry’s career was at a particular moment where he had a number of ideas that were just coming in full flowered maturity. Technology was making it possible for the first time to do certain things that had not been possible before, so that was a coincidence of time. You can imagine certain shapes, but not build them, at least not in practical and economic ways. Technology coincided with its own maturity in architecture. Also, the city was very eager to redefine itself in terms of tourism and was prepared to pay for a very special building and allow a significant amount of leeway in the process of creating it. And there’s the fact that they had the Guggenheim as a client, an institution that really wanted to do the same thing, that wanted to use this building in the same way—to increase its own international profile—and was prepared to invest seriously. The Guggenheim was given the right by the region to manage the project entirely, but they paid for it. All those situations were unusual and not likely to be reproduce.
In some ways, it’s like the High Line in New York. It does nto take away the talent of the people who created it to say that there was an extraordinary amount of good fortune in the way of certain things coming together at the right time, in the right place, with the right people and the right ideas. That does not mean that those ideas can be dropped anywhere and have the same effect.
Do you think Gehry’s aesthetic works in places like New York?
I don’t want to say his aesthetic can’t work, and we’ve already seen evidence of how he adjusts it and tweaks it for New York. I think there is no question that he is naturally more of a foreground that background architect. I mean, that’s fine. We’ve got plenty of people to do background, and that’s another misunderstanding about him that I hope the book corrects. Nobody said that every architect should do what Frank Gehry does. His work is a thing unto itself.
What about the history of commissioning outsiders to do work in foreign cities? It’s similar to what’s happened to food. It used to be that if you were a chef in America, you learned to cook in America. Then 30 years ago, American chefs started making trips to France.
You’re getting at a much bigger question, which is: Are we losing regional cultures?
It seems like that process has accelerated in architecture.
Well, look music. It’s been international for a long time and big names travel all over the world performing. Art and museums certainly have a very international scope.
Of course. But what about the things that are at the frontier of art? Which, to me, architecture is.
Architecture is absolutely global. Whether it’s more so than other endeavors, I’m not totally sure. I think it’s inevitably global, though. Are we at risk of losing certain regional and national characteristics? Yes. But that’s a cultural problem that goes far beyond architecture. And it’s a genuine loss, even if there are tradeoffs for it, if nevertheless we are getting something in return, which I think we are.
The great question is whther in a couple generations there will still be national and regional sensibilities of the sort we are used to seeing. The first generation of Japanese architects to work around the world could be said to have brought a Japanese sensibility elsewhere. But, when we have had several generations of that, will there be such a thing as a Japanese sensibility to start with?
Speaking of Japan, that country is standing out in producing a huge number of top-tier architects. Why do you think that is?
The fact that it has always been a visually sophisticated culture has to count for something. It’s also a culture that has carried with it a kind of internal gyroscope of consciousness of space. It’s very hard to live in Japan and not be conscious of space—what it implies and public domains—that both the presence of history and the indifference to history.
At the end of the day, I don’t know that anyone can truly know what brings forth a particular kind of flowering at any one time, but I’ve tried to figure that out about a lot of things. Why did music flower in London in the 1960s? Why did architecture flower in Chicago in the beginning of the 20th century? Why did paintings happen at a certain time in Paris? And then in new York at a different time? It’s an incredible question to which there is no clear, simple answer—ever. That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it and have plenty to say. It never comes down to one secret sauce that gets passed from city to city. Like Bilbao and the High Line, I think it’s usually a whole set of conditions that just happen to overlap or coincide at particular times. Economics is part of it too. If I were a believer in astrology—which I’m not—I would say that the stars are in alignment at certain places at certain times.
Do you think that Gehry was cognizant of the things that you are now explaining about the success of Bilbao before he took the job?
I don’t think so. He took it because it was a great job and also a chance to make more of a mark internationally. It wasn’t his first international building he had down a few others, but his bar was rising and he knew it was an opportunity to do the biggest and most important thing.
Another part of it was that Bilbao came at a time when his Walt Disney Concert Hall was having a lot of different callings. Not long after Bilbao started, the concert hall stopped and didn’t resume again until after Bilbao was finished and acclaimed by the world. It became too much of a civic embarrassment for Los Angeles, this building they had actually started before Bilbao, which had run into a combination of political, financial, and technical problems. It was never officially abandoned, but it eventually grounded to a halt. It restarted when they’d been saying that Frank Gehry buildings are too difficult, too expensive, too impossible, too this, too that, and now this little-bit town in Spain had built one, and L.A. his own city—hadn’t. That was especially the argument that was made by both political and philanthropic people in L.A. to get it started again. It restarted after Bilbao and eventually was brought to a very happy conclusion. It was a 16-year arc, which Bilbao fell right in the middle of. In those years, Gehry was very eager to get out of Los Angeles. He felt like a pariah in his home city. His building was the butt of jokes. It was a very hard time.
Do you think clients these days still have a willingness to let an architect experiment even while considering the money end of the impulse?
It’s uneven and very spotty. It existed for a brief time in China. I think it’s faded already, but there was a narrow window in China. The window began when they had enough money and ambition to do certain things, and it’s beginning to close as they develop too large of a middle class for the economy to produce enormous, ambitious things on the backs of vast armies of underpaid workers. I’ve never forgotten what somebody told me in 2008, when I came to visit the new Beijing airport by Norman Foster before it was finished. I was told that at the peak of construction—do you know how many workers they had?
50,000! At the peak! That’s how they wee able to produce this thing in no time. The timeline from conception, through design, through building, to the opening of the Beiking airport was shorter than the time period of the environmental review process for Terminal 5 at Heathrow.That’s funny.
It’s very funny. You know, democracy isn’t always the best thing for architecture, but obviously it’s the best thing for a lot of other reasons, and we hardly want to give it up to make more buildings.
China is also now increasing and beginning to develop its own generation of good Chinese architects, many who have been educated here in the U.S. That’s a real difference from a few years ago. The difference from China and Japan is, of course, that Japan has been developing very strong architects on its own for a long period of time. China has only begun to do so in the last generation.
The architect-selection process can be so telling—or not.
I’ve been serving as a consultant to the board of the Obama Foundation, in the search of an architect for the Obama Library in Chicago, and its unlike any other presidential library—the search is international, not national, at the president’s request. I don’t think you could be cosmopolitan in 2015 without looking globally. This doesn’t mean they are going to make a choice that isn’t American, but it means they absolutely want to look at a field that’s global, and then make a decision about what they want to do.
Who are some architects you look at as being the most expressive of not only the place they’re working in, but also of where they come from?
We want to talk about other people other than Frank Gehry, but I would have to say he certainly would be on that list. You see a little bit of Los Angeles in everything he does. He was so shaped by the roughness and funkiness of the city. I don’t know whether anybody really represents that well.
I remember Gehry telling me that when he got the job to do the 8 Spruce Street apartment building, he started looking at skyscrapers in New York in a way he never had before. He spent a lot of time walking around and just studying them. I think to some extent hes done that all along. Studying all kinds of precedence. Not to mimic, but just to know.
The really interesting question, though, is whether anybody truly represents a place anymore, or embodies it in their work. I’m thinking of most of the best architects I know, and I don’t think of them as particularly doing that. But I don’t know if architects necessarily have done that in the past that much, either. Look at McKim, Mead & White doing traditional and classical buildings as well, if not better than, anybody else around—and becoming quite famous for doing that work. It was primarily in New York, but a fair amount of it was elsewhere in the U.S. Did that represent the people of New York’s sensibility, or was it something else? Henry Hobson Richardson, who created that style—we actually call Richardsonian Romanesque—was based in Boston and did some amazing work all over. But is there something particularly Bostonian about that? I don’t think so.
Was there something American about it?
Yeah, I think there’s something very American about taking historical precedence and making it a little bit more picturesque, softer, and integrating different things. Treating history like a buffet table that you can pick and choose things from and combine them on your plate in an interesting composition—that’s a very American trait.
Where does Gehry come into this?
Gehry is very interested in things feeling comfortable and almost sensual. A lot of what he does is really a form of decoration and is against the old, orthodox, modernist doctrine, which is all about the structure and purity, directness and simplicity and transparency—as a Robert A.M. Stern mansion would be.
The thing, to me, that distinguishes Gehry is that with a lot of other people’s buildings, there’s a level of abstract thought required to really appreciate them; with Gehry’s, that doesn’t happen so much.
That’s another thing that I tried to talk about in the book: Gehry’s work is, in fact, accessible. And it’s rare that work that serious and that innovative—and that much part of the avant-garde—is also as accessible. I think that’s something he very much wants historically. He’s an intellectual when it comes to vivid reading and breadth of knowledge, and where he gets his ideas. But his work is not particularly intellectual.
Who precedes him in this vein?
I’m not sure that there’s been an American, at least since Frank Lloyd Wright, who has this quality. The only American architect of equal stature and quality, to me, between the two Franks, is Louis Kahn. But Louis Kahn’s work was never particularly accessible, actually. It’s very beautiful and very powerful and very moving. But most of the time you kind of have to know more about architecture to get into it and be thrown into orgasmic delight.