Table Talk | Fall 2021 Issue

Frank Gehry on the Life of Cities

Visionary and humanitarian, Frank Gehry creates buildings and neighborhoods that serve people and satisfy souls

By Jim Newton

NO BUILDING IN LOS ANGELES more brilliantly captures this region than Frank Gehry’s iconic Disney Hall. And no story of a building — the initial uncertainty about its radical look; the protracted government-approval process; the long delays in fundraising; a two-year shutdown of the project beginning in 1994; and then its triumphant resumption, conclusion and astonished reception — better comprehends this area’s frustration and promise.

Gehry himself is a part of that. A native of Ontario, Canada, he grew up here and worked for decades producing important but only slightly noticed work until winning the 1987 competition to build Disney Hall and leaping into the first rank of international architects. Since then, Gehry’s work has illuminated the world. Now 92, he is among the planet’s most sought-after architects, as gentle and humane as he is visionary.

Gehry’s projects are arresting — and sometimes controversial. He famously designed the home of Eli Broad, Los Angeles’ great modern benefactor, only to fight with Broad over costs and delays. Gehry eventually left that project, only to be reunited with Broad on Disney Hall, when Broad helped lead the revitalized fundraising effort that brought the hall into existence. Broad died last April, and Gehry, in this interview, reflects fondly on their past differences.

Gehry and Blueprint editor Jim Newton have been acquainted for more than a decade, first getting to know one another over their shared interest in President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Newton is the author of Eisenhower: The White House Years, and Gehry designed the national Eisenhower Memorial, which, after debates and delays, was dedicated in September 2020 on the Washington Mall. Gehry and Newton spoke this summer via Zoom.

BLUEPRINT: The last time we talked, you were still wading through the debates over the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington. It’s all done now. I haven’t seen the memorial yet, but congratulations.

FRANK GEHRY: I haven’t seen it either. I keep getting good reviews for it. The Eisenhower family loves it. … I’m in good graces with them. I always liked them.

There’s a lot of bad karma in Washington. Those commissions and stuff, and who’s telling who what. It took a long time to cut through it, to meet with the politicians who were involved, who were against it, just to show them and prove to them that we were trying to do this the right way, that we were respecting the family and all that.

BP: As you work around the world, are there things that you find that make some cities great in architecture and others not? Are there characteristics of greatness when it comes to the architectural landscape of a city?

FG: American cities are founded on different principles. Capitalism reigns. I’m not denouncing it. It’s part of our world, but it does set the pace and opportunities for real estate investment and things like that.

Generally, [cities] follow patterns of growth. Wilshire Boulevard forms a strong east-west connection, and Sunset Boulevard and Santa Monica Boulevard and Olympic — they connect the city. I don’t think an architect designed that. Nobody set that up. It’s just natural to the hills and the terrain. And then the north-south streets hit the wall of the mountains, and they go south until they hit the water.

So the natural terrain sets the pattern. And when you build in a city, people take advantage of the natural terrain for views and values. When the city grows like this one did, like all of them do, those values tend to be lost and forgotten. You end up with a mélange: some nice places and some bad places, some places that could get better and some places that seem to get worse.

I don’t think we’re in control that much, architects. We’re after-the-fact. We have to get hired by somebody who comes to a place. If you’re lucky you get selected for something like Disney Hall, or a marina, or the Star Wars guy who’s building a museum. [George Lucas, the Star Wars creator, is bringing the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art to Exposition Park. The museum is being designed by Ma Yasong.] Those are offers of generosity and spirit that help make a place better. So I think it’s same-old: Each generation responds to what’s there.

Eli Broad, for example, was a big influence in downtown, in L.A. I didn’t always like him. I had my problems with him.

BP: I’m aware that you had your differences.

FG: But in the end, we did good. It was because of him that I ended up doing Grand Avenue, the commercial development, which I wasn’t excited about getting involved with, to tell you the truth. I thought, “Big developer from New York, how are they going to play it here?”

But it worked out great, I think. I’m proud of the building. It’s a decent commercial building. It’s not fancy, hey-look-at-me architecture. It’s comfortable and deals with the issues of being at that location and the relationship to the cultural district and to an area that is becoming more and more defined as a cultural area, so this is a commercial piece of a cultural district. … And we were able to keep it at a moderate scale. It didn’t fly out of hand. The buildings are lower.

So to get back to your original question, it’s piecemeal: If you’re lucky, you get a chance; mostly you don’t — most of the deciders aren’t art-smart or architecture-smart. …

[Still], you get these kernels of beauty.

BP: I don’t know that I’ve ever spoken with you about this, though it’s something I’ve talked with Eli Broad and former mayor Dick Riordan and others about, and that’s the idea of Disney Hall as not just a beautiful and historic building but also as a symbol of L.A.’s ability to get back on its feet post-riots and post-Northridge earthquake. It’s your building, of course. Do you look at it that way?

FG: Well, the start of that was way back with Ernest Fleischmann [longtime executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic]. Eli was not involved at that point … nor was he involved with L.A. Phil then. …

I think that when Eli really got interested in playing a role in the city, he already was very involved in contemporary art. He was collecting furiously and famously. He asked me to do [his] house, which was brave of him. It didn’t work out so good. But I was over there the other day, and it looks pretty good. …

Before all that, before Bunker Hill, I used to live on 9th Street and Burlington. We were very poor. I walked to work at a jewelry store on 3rd Street. It was at the bottom of Angels Flight. Downtown was different. At the top of Angels Flight was a beautiful section of Victorian homes. They got moved for Bunker Hill redevelopment. The redevelopment tore out the historic heart of the city and brought all new stuff to it. …

That’s when the lightning struck to do the opera house and the concert hall. … The notion to create a cultural center was starting to foment there with those people [the Chandlers, Fleischmann and others]. Their view of it, for sure, had no interest in Frank Gehry. When I got put in the saddle, everybody — the Chandlers, even the Disney family — was horror-struck. I couldn’t remember ever having had such antagonism. I hadn’t done anything yet. I did a little house in Santa Monica for $50,000 and used corrugated metal and chain link [Gehry’s Santa Monica house was one of his first notable projects].

But culture prevailed. Zubin Mehta and the Phil became very important. People from all over the world would come and play with them. … And it was that which gave them courage to say, “OK, let’s go forward [with a new hall].”

BP: Tell me about the river. What’s the place of the L.A. River in the future of L.A., and what’s the status of your proposal there?

FG: This is the longest story in history.

BP: Well, tell a short version of it.

FG: OK. I’ll try. A couple of guys from Hollywood said they were sent by the mayor to ask me to look at the L.A. River. Nice guys. They said New York had a High Line, and they were doing great with that, and didn’t I think that we had 51 miles of beautiful [river] landscape? Well, it wasn’t all beautiful, but we could make it beautiful — and the river could become a connector of the whole city. You look at it and you say: “God, yes, it could. …”

I had to remind them that the High Line was a rusty old bridge, and they had been thinking of tearing it down. Somebody put some plants on it, and it happened to be in the right space, and it created a beautiful area.

I thought that the river, which I didn’t have personal knowledge of, was a flood control project and had a mandate of its own. But I said I would look into it, and I did. I did it pro bono. We spent a couple of years studying every bit of geography, the social issues along that 51 miles, the economics, the dangers of flooding and what that scene in the community did, cutting through these areas. We brought in experts from all over. We studied it so many different ways.

Everybody wants to take the concrete out and make it a sylvan landscape. The damn problem is that 2% of the time [it floods]. This makes you think, “That’s nothing. We can handle that.” But it’s a terrible thing. Just last year, at the bend in the river in Atwater Village, I saw bicycles in the trees.

BP: That 2% is a bad 2%.

FG: It’s bad, and you can’t get rid of it. So you have to keep the concrete. …

We looked around for solutions, and the one that seemed ready at hand was what’s happening along freeways, where communities, in Seattle especially, are covering the freeway and running parks over the top. And that’s done with a rational budget. You can do it. …

It’s possible to put parallel walls in the river bottom — concrete walls that run parallel to the water — that would give you a post to span the 600 feet more economically. Once you do that, you can put four feet of dirt on the top, and you have a park. … This is the least expensive way to get this. Should you do the whole river? I don’t know. You don’t have to. …

South of L.A. comes up on the map as a serious red zone for lack of open space, pollution from the freeway and other stuff, economic problems. The population is struggling to exist financially. And they don’t have any open space. They don’t have any parks. There are a couple other places along the river, mostly south of L.A. and one area up in Canoga Park. So it seems like, if you could create park space in those areas, you could do a public health service for those communities, and then rebuild them.

So what else could you do along those areas to make it more of a social justice project? You could look into the education issues. What’s happening with schools? A lot of the schools along there — in South Gate, Bell and Bell Gardens, for instance — are having problems, dropouts and so on. So we started a program of turn-around arts — Michelle Obama started it, actually, when she was first lady — that brings an arts educator to these schools and starts to reinvigorate them by bringing arts into the equation, which turns the kids on. They get involved. That’s something I’ve been working on a long time. My sister who is a teacher develops programs around that, art-based learning.

And so we funded 10 schools along the South Gate area with turnarounds. Four or five of them are already in operation. There’s a new transit stop that hits right at the confluence of the two rivers [the L.A. River and Rio Hondo]. We were able to show that we could create 40 acres of park, 30 acres of new park with a cover and connected to spaces that could become parks. That’s within walking distance of South Gate, the center that we’re proposing. That’s within walking distance of the 10 schools that we’re funding. And so you start to create a place that becomes more user-friendly, more uplifting and more health-conscious. … We’ve done it in great detail, and we have a proposal.

We figured out the budget for the cover. It’s about $800 million to get the 40 acres. And the center that we’re proposing, which is a cultural venue with dance and theater and all kinds of other things. We’ve designed it. It would be $150 million for that. And I think we have a third of it. So we’re fundraising.

We’re getting the schools up. We’re looking for housing. That’s another part of it. And I think there are people asking us to help find that. We have governmental help. [County Supervisor] Hilda Solis is supporting it, as are all the supervisors. As is Gov. Newsom, who came to us when we first started this study and said he would be for it a million percent.

BP: This sounds much larger than an architectural project. It’s not a building. You’re really creating a community.

FG: That’s right. We are building buildings, but they’re very industrial. They’re not fancy architecture. They’re very inexpensive, in the spirit of the Temporary Contemporary. It’s warehouse kind of space with as much flourish as we could get.

But we create a street, and the street connects to a 500-seat YOLA [Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles] concert hall, which is just a box with the floating seats that I love to do, hung inside. And it would be spectacular.

BP: I don’t mean to sound ungrateful — just the opposite — but this sounds like a project for government.

FG: It is. [Assembly Speaker Anthony] Rendon has been very helpful. He got the first $45 million or $50 million. He’s very culture-oriented. He’s well-educated in the arts. He also brought in the supervisors and the other people.

The other thing that hasn’t been mentioned is that we didn’t do this in a vacuum. We spent a lot of time meeting with the community leaders in each one of those towns. And they all have very different attitudes. Some of them just want to build casinos and get on with it. But most of them, when they saw what we were trying to do, got into it. We’re not going to lay a thing on them. They are given chances to veto or say things. We’re listening a lot.

BP: What’s your sense of the sustainability of L.A.’s civic leadership in this area at this point? Is big stuff still within the reach of this city and region?

FG: I think there are a lot of people who are [engaged] in this. I see it on the Philharmonic board. There are community leaders like the Coburn family, many others. There are a lot of generous people who have done well in the market and are looking to give back. As did Eli.

BP: What I’m wondering is not so much whether there are wealthy, generous people. I take that as a given. But wealthy, generous people need guidance. If I had a billion dollars and I wanted to make L.A. better or more beautiful, I’m not really sure how I would go about doing that. How does L.A. compare to Berlin or Warsaw or New York City in terms of the engagement of those people?

FG: American philanthropies are so different from the Europeans. In France, for instance, the government picks up everything. Their philanthropy goes to different venues.

I kind of have gotten to know the L.A. group, a little bit of New York. … They’re all different. They have different tastes. San Francisco is very conservative. New York has their favorite architects. I’m not one of them.

BP: You have a couple of beautiful buildings in New York.

FG: Yeah, it seems so. I’m not complaining.

But there are different points of view in different parts of the world. That’s probably the way it has to be and probably the way it should be.

BP: If you were building Disney Hall in Los Angeles today, do you think it would be easier?

FG: I think you would have similar problems. You can see it in these boards in smaller towns. They’re provincial. They don’t have the vision, so they’re going with sort of simple metrics that are leading to just the opposite effect from what they say they want.

That’s scary to me. And you see it in L.A., in some of the communities. It’s the same with American politics that went all the way to the top. After we had Roosevelt and Eisenhower and Johnson and Kennedy, how did we get here?

Every once in a while, somebody appears who has a positive point of view and is reasonably supportive to do something. People like me just wait around for that to happen. I don’t go out looking for it.

The developer world has its political ties and connections and obviously is running a lot of the show. The built environment — most of it is being built that way, for business reasons, and not always with the best of intentions and priorities. It’s hard work. We have to really work hard, and we have to train our offspring to understand that we have to work at it. We have to devote time to it. It’s scary now with the global warming thing and the virus taking front and center.

BP: Are you building buildings differently knowing that climate change is upon us?

FG: I hope so. I think so, as much as we can. There are efficiencies that help. [Note: Gehry developed Gehry Technologies to address ways to make construction more efficient, largely through the improved and increased use of software in design, and more responsive to issues of climate change. He sold the company to a software design firm known as Trimble in 2014. He also has pioneered the use of 3D models to conduct energy analyses of buildings.]

BP: What should Los Angeles be doing more of, or doing better, to prepare itself for the future?

FG: There should be a more even distribution of park space, open space. You get into the design of schools and public buildings and how they’re made, and, unfortunately, it becomes a “taste” thing. It becomes a visual thing, and you can say you don’t like it. Or you like it. Or it’s the architect’s ego, or something else. That’s mostly not true. Most of my profession is hidebound by an economic construct. It doesn’t give you time or space to be egregiously self-aggrandizing. It’s not that kind of profession. People will try to make it that in the press sometimes, but it’s really not. …

God bless anybody who can make a humanistic response that engages people and makes them feel better. It doesn’t have to look like something I like, or that anybody else likes.

It’s a tall mountain to climb. It’s only a small percentage of the architectural profession that gets to really innovate or really address social issues.

I just think [we need] a little more public-serving, humanity-serving attitude. What would be nice for kids to play in? Where would be a nice place to live and stay and meet with other people?

BP: It sounds very simple. I’m sure it’s not simple to execute, but it’s very simple to express.

FG: Yes. It’s up to all of us to sign onto that. That seems to be harder to do. Politics gets in the way. If you talk like I do, [you’re] a socialist. I’m only 92. I have a long way to go.

Jim Newton

Jim Newton

Jim Newton is a veteran author, teacher and journalist who spent 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief, editorial page editor and columnist at the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of four critically acclaimed books of biography and history, including "Man of Tomorrow: The Relentless Life of Jerry Brown." He teaches in Communication Studies and Public Policy at UCLA.

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