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What It Takes: Frank Gehry
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00:00:00 ALICE WINKLER: How do you know when you’ve truly arrived? Maybe it's when you’ve won a string of prestigious awards; maybe it's when you’re one of the only household names in your field; but certainly, it's when you’ve been asked to make a guest appearance on The Simpsons.

00:00:19 MARGE SIMPSON: We asked Frank Gehry to build us a concert hall.

00:00:24 FRANK GEHRY: Behold! The new Springfield Concert Hall!

00:00:28 And none of this would have happened if not for a letter I received from one little girl.

00:00:32 MARGE SIMPSON: I wrote that letter!

00:00:34 FRANK GEHRY: You wrote I was the “bestest” architect in the world?

00:00:37 MARGE SIMPSON: Well, aren't you?

00:00:38 MAYOR QUIMBY: All in favor of building a 30-million-dollar screw-you to Shelbyville?


00:00:44 ALICE WINKLER: If you've never seen that episode of The Simpsons, it's a must. Some rude boys of Springfield skateboard across the bodacious titanium curves and swoops of the new Frank Gehry concert hall.

00:00:57 FRANK GEHRY: Get off my masterpiece, you punks! I'll call your mothers!

00:01:02 JIMBO JONES: Yo, Frank Gehry, like curvy linear forms much?

00:01:06 FRANK GEHRY: Ah!

00:01:07 ALICE WINKLER: Frank Gehry, the architect and designer who has altered the landscape of cities throughout the world, actually played himself in that episode, and he’s the subject of this episode of What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, and perseverance from the Academy of Achievement. I’m Alice Winkler.

00:01:31 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:01:37 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:01:44 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:01:48 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:01:56 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:02:04 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:02:08 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:02:21 ALICE WINKLER: I’m going to be upfront here. It’s not easy to create an audio program, no pictures, about a very visual subject, but lucky for me, Frank Gehry has designed some of the most iconic buildings in the world. Still, if you need a reminder of what Gehry’s buildings look like, pause this podcast and go look up pictures of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, or Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A., the Dancing House in Prague, the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago.

00:03:00 Just look at any building designed by Frank Gehry and marvel. It looks like sculpture. It’s powerful and playful. It’s eccentric. It was created by a dreamer. And, if you’ll indulge me in a bit of poetic license, it all started with gefilte fish.

00:03:22 FRANK GEHRY: She held the Sabbath and did the gefilte fish thing. I don’t know. There was something magical about her that I always felt.

00:03:31 ALICE WINKLER: Frank Gehry is talking there about his grandmother Leah Freedman, who made her own gefilte fish. We’ll circle back to the fish in a moment, but Gehry has a lot of vivid memories of his grandma, sitting on the floor creating worlds with him from roughly hewn blocks of wood. This was in Canada, where he was born and raised.

00:03:54 FRANK GEHRY: The folklore about her was that she was a foundry operator in Poland, in Lodz — L-O-D-Z — a woman foundry operator. She was before her time, and I miss her.

00:04:10 ALICE WINKLER: So back in the old country, Frank Gehry’s grandma was in the business of casting metal into shapes. Now, I don’t think there’s a gene for that, but it’s an interesting coincidence. Then his grandfather, also from Lodz — after fleeing anti-Semitism in Poland and arriving in Canada — opened a hardware store.

00:04:33 FRANK GEHRY: The hardware store is where I got to play with all the gadgets and fix and do pipes and glass-cutting and all that stuff, materials. I was really into that.

00:04:45 ALICE WINKLER: Frank Gehry is nothing if not famous for his use of unexpected materials, or maybe better put, his use of materials to unexpected ends. He’s made bricks look like curtains of fabric, and steel look like sails billowing in the wind. In the 1980s, he was hired by Formica, the company that makes the plastic laminate used for kitchen countertops. They wanted him to design something that would show off their newest line.

00:05:15 Frank Gehry chose to make a fish lamp with jagged scales that glowed when the light shone through. And you know what? Those fish lamps look kind of like the carp his grandma Leah would bring home, alive, to make her gefilte fish. Now you see where I was going?

00:05:36 FRANK GEHRY: Grandma bought the fish. She’d bring it home, put it in the bathtub. Yes, all that — but that happened to all Jewish families. In fact, people have written books about it.

00:05:46 So it’s normal. I don’t think that’s why the fish appeared in my work.

00:05:53 ALICE WINKLER: Maybe not, but when he recorded this interview with journalist Gail Eichenthal for the Academy of Achievement in September of 2016, Gehry seemed to leave open the possibility, at least a little, when she pressed him on it, but you need to understand, the fish lamp was only the beginning. Fish, whether realistic or abstract, became a major motif in Frank Gehry’s work. And if you go take another look at some of his buildings, you might just see that they’re a little fishy.

00:06:27 Well, here’s Frank Gehry’s explanation for the fascination. In the early 1980s, architects were looking for an alternative to the cold and inhuman style of modernism, and they gravitated toward what’s now known as postmodernism.

00:06:47 FRANK GEHRY: I remember being in a lecture somewhere, or in a conference somewhere, and they were all talking about how wonderful the new architecture was, and I objected. I said that the postmodern work came from Greek temples. Greek temples were anthropomorphic, and I said, "If you have to go back, you can go 300 million years before man to fish." And I just said that.

00:07:18 Now, where it came from, whether it came from grandma and the fish, I don’t know. But it was something that interested me because I was looking for a way to express movement with architecture because I couldn’t do decoration that was postmodern. I was looking for something to replace feeling in a building.

00:07:40 ALICE WINKLER: Interestingly enough, although he had no interest in a backward glance at classical Greek architecture, he found his inspiration for the future in classical Greek sculpture, the Elgin Marbles, specifically, that once graced the top of the Parthenon.

00:07:59 FRANK GEHRY: So if you look at the Elgin Marbles, those warriors are pressing the shields into the stone, and you feel the pressure, and you feel the horses are moving, and you feel the — and if they could do that with inert materials, I thought, "Why not see if that could become an architectural direction that would enliven the buildings, humanize them, and create humanity?"

00:08:29 ALICE WINKLER: In other words, Gehry wasn’t interested in the specific designs of the Elgin Marbles. He was just stirred by how solid materials could be made to express movement; and movement, for Gehry, was an essential component of feeling, of play, and he found a perfect vehicle for expressing all of that in the undulating form of a fish. Picture the way a fish moves, the way its body can gently fold side to side.

00:08:58 As Gehry points out, Michelangelo spent years practicing drawing folds. He wanted to achieve the flowing feel of fabric in his work. There’s just something very powerful, Gehry says, about a fold.

00:09:14 FRANK GEHRY: And you know, the reason is, when you’re a baby, you’re in your mother’s arms, and you’re in the fold, and there’s something primitive, beautiful, and “humanity” about it, and I thought the Greeks knew how to express it. Can we do that in architecture? And the fish became — because I used it as a title — or I said that — I then started to sketch fish and realized that there was something there to look at, emulate, and try to play with.

00:09:47 ALICE WINKLER: He started looking at Japanese woodcuts of fish, which he loved. He constructed a 35-foot wooden fish for a fashion show in Italy. Next, he created a fish for a show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

00:10:01 FRANK GEHRY: I cut off the tail. I cut off the head. I got rid of the eyes and everything — made it as abstract as I could — and it still worked. You still felt the movement.

00:10:18 ALICE WINKLER: Mind you, this all came after Gehry was already in his 60s. Now, as I record this episode, he’s 87. TIME magazine’s art critic Richard Lacayo described Gehry as having, quote, "One of the greatest later-in-life creative surges in history. You’d have to compare it to the late quartets of Beethoven," unquote.

00:10:45 So before getting any further into a discussion of these iconic, flowing, Alice in Wonderland-esque buildings that Frank Gehry has been designing for the past 25 years, let’s step back to his architectural beginnings. What interested him about architecture in the first place? Well, in a 1995 interview for the Academy of Achievement, he said he wasn’t doing so well in college, and he was trying to figure out what might ignite a flame in him.

00:11:16 FRANK GEHRY: Just on a hunch, I tried architecture, tried some architecture classes, and at first I didn't do great. In fact, I flunked the first class in perspective drawing, and it really got me angry, so I went back the next semester and took it and got an A. And once I got in it, I was off to the races, except, the first half of the second year, my teacher came in, called me in and said, "This isn't for you. You're not going to make it." And somehow I worked through that.

00:11:49 And that guy works at the airport. I see him every once in a while — the teacher — but he acknowledges his mistake, of course, but I mean I just sort of kept going. It was dogged persistence once I got into it.

00:12:04 ALICE WINKLER: And that persistence was fueled by his broader philosophy.

00:12:08 FRANK GEHRY: What got me excited in the beginning were the social issues. I come from a very lefty liberal family in Canada, and architecture looked like it was the panacea, you know. You could make housing for the poor and make wonderful cities and city planning in the future and so on. That was the initial turn-on, and all the way through — so that lasted me all the way through school, actually.

00:12:37 When I got out of school and started to hit — I hit the brick wall that you can't do any of that. It doesn't exist. You can't do it. There are no clients for social housing in America. There's no program, no nothing. City planning? Forget it. I mean it's a kind of bureaucratic nonsense. It has nothing to do with ideas. It only has to do with real estate and politics.

00:13:00 And I used to say, "I don't want to do houses for rich people." I always said that through school. "I'm just not going to do that." But I started to find some excitement in the forms, the spaces, the being able to conceive of something and then see it built, the process of building, the working with the craftsmen. It's an energy and it's a mind game, too.

00:13:28 It's trying to get these people motivated, and I guess it's like directing a movie. It's similar.

00:13:34 ALICE WINKLER: And like directing a movie, there’s a long process that comes before what Gehry calls the moment of truth. That process includes developing a relationship with the client, investigating possible sites, researching the physical and cultural context of the location, wrangling over budget. But finally, the question is always there: "What are you going to make?"

00:14:02 When Gehry was starting out, he told interviewer Gail Eichenthal, he surrounded himself by artists more than architects, people like Jasper Johns, whose sense of freedom and lack of philosophy he found refreshing.

00:14:17 FRANK GEHRY: And in L.A., when I started doing my architecture, the first few buildings, like the Danziger building, got a lot of criticism from the guys I grew up with in architecture. They were friends; the ones who are alive are still my friends. But they didn’t understand what I was doing, and it was just a little box so I couldn’t understand why there was so much feeling about it.

00:14:43 And I didn’t know how to talk to them about it. I couldn’t get that kind of rap that justified one thing or another, and the artists were making things. It was more hands-on. They were — you know, Larry Bell was working with the glass, and I spent a lot of time in his studio with him, talking to him. And he would take breaks on the guitar and sing about — he’d make up funny songs.

00:15:11 And Billy Al was doing some slick paintings, and there was no off-putting discussion. I mean it was pure, and I liked being with them, and I liked emulating them. It felt right for me.

00:15:43 I think the idea — the issue, though, is: “Is architecture an art?” In the Renaissance, it was an art. Giotto became an architect, and Michelangelo became an architect. All those great guys became architects. So that was a normal thing. Somehow, in our times, it’s become a functional object that we have an AIA. We have organizations.

00:16:14 It’s become very businesslike and is antithetical to being a work of art, and I think, since I had my epiphany about the moment of truth and all that being the same, I’ve tried to keep it on the plane as art. And even though some of the artists are upset about that, or have said publicly I’m a plumber — Richard Serra, for example — that’s what’s kind of been missing in the profession, is that sense of responsibility to that ethos, or whatever it is — that you have a responsibility to make a beautiful building.

00:16:57 GAIL EICHENTHAL: You know, I think there’s also a sense of responsibility about wanting to do something new, not wanting to repeat yourself over and over; that’s been very clear in your career. And I was really, still though, surprised to read a quote from you recently, I think, involving the TED Talks, about — that you always have a sense of insecurity when you take on a new project, almost like it’s your first project, and there’s a sense that you don’t really know where you’re going.

00:17:27 FRANK GEHRY: That’s a healthy insecurity, I think. I think most people who create stuff — you know, I’ve talked to a lot of musicians and people — Wayne Shorter, a great quote is: "You can’t rehearse what you ain’t invented yet."

00:17:56 I think, you know, it’s a kind of an invention trip. It’s not — you can’t talk about it. You just sort of make — you can talk about it but — and it’s not precious. I don’t mean to create a “precious” surrounding it, but it’s simple. It’s unpredictable. It’s questioning. It’s a lot of “Why?” and I guess I grew up with the Jewish Talmud that starts — I mean it’s — almost every other page is “Why?”

00:18:29 My grandfather embedded me with that, so I think that curiosity — “Stay curious.” You’ve heard that. People always tell somebody, “Stay curious,” and it does lead to making something special. Now, not everybody can do that, but I think that aspiration is a good one.

00:18:51 ALICE WINKLER: As Frank Gehry says, it’s almost impossible for him to talk about how he comes up with his ideas, his art, but as he stumbles around looking for the words, he does arrive at some interesting metaphors to describe what he can’t really describe.

00:19:08 FRANK GEHRY: I don't know how to — it's intuitive. You don't — it's very difficult to explain why you do things, why you curve something, or why you — it becomes an evolution of thought and ideas, and I feel like — you know the picture of the cat pushing the ball of string, and you just keep pushing it, and it moves around. Then it falls off the table and creates this beautiful line in space.

00:19:39 I think creativity — I guess James wrote that it was like poking around in a deep well with a big stick, and every once in a while you would pull this stick out and something was there. These ideas are not easy to describe. They're easy to rationalize, after the fact, like the sense of movement is easy to rationalize, or certain materials, or certain constructs and shapes and forms.

00:20:12 But basically, you're looking for — I am — trying to make buildings and spaces that will inspire people, that will move people, that will get a reaction. Not just to get a reaction but to get a positive reaction, hopefully, a place that they like to be in. And my greatest thrill is to still be friends with the clients and people that helped me make these buildings.

00:20:40 ALICE WINKLER: Of course, the kind of people who hire Frank Gehry for a project are open to his experimentation and are looking for something far out of the ordinary, but they are still clients. And clients come with constraints, like budget and the location of the site itself, and if the client is a museum or symphony hall, institutional politics. Don’t those tend to curtail an architect’s creativity and nudge him toward conformity? Gehry’s response to that? Well...

00:21:13 FRANK GEHRY: Gravity is a constraint, but that is, to any artist, manageable. Every artist confronts a series of issues that are constraints. Those constraints are then turned, by the artist, into a positive force to make something — make their mud pie, whatever it is — and I think we learn to do that. So I don't — I think we make it — I mean when — I had a house recently with no constraints, and I had a horrible time with it.

00:21:49 I had to look in the mirror a lot. "Who am I? Why am I doing this? What is this all about? What is the social relevance of this?" There was none, and finally, the owner gave me a quote from Oscar Wilde, which I — but it didn't — I can't remember the quote, but it was, in essence, that everything didn't have to be relevant. You could make a folly, and that there was some value in that, and then I lived on that for a while and made the so-called folly, which he's not going to build anyway. But I think we turn those constraints into action.

00:22:23 ALICE WINKLER: Constraints may be the scaffolding for creativity, but about 25 years ago, advancements in computer technology lifted one constraint that was holding Gehry back from some of his most daring designs, though he is loath to admit it.

00:22:41 FRANK GEHRY: Well, I don't like the computer, except as a gadget to explain myself to the contractors, but I did, in the course of working with it, get into trying to design on it, even though I hate the imagery. And I likened it to, like, putting my hand in the fire and seeing how long you could keep it in there before I pulled it out.

00:23:06 So I would sit at the thing. It took about three minutes or four minutes before the fire got too hot and I'd pull it out.

00:23:13 ALICE WINKLER: His hand adjusted to more heat over time. Remember, he was dreaming of bringing movement into architecture but didn’t yet have a way to make his most elaborate visions a reality, until he was introduced to a company that made software for building airplanes.

00:23:32 FRANK GEHRY: Since I've gotten involved with buildings that have shape to them that are very difficult to describe to a contractor, to a builder, I've made a relationship, by some circuitous route through IBM, to the people in France that make the Mirage airplane, Dassault. And they have a software — or a program, CATIA — that allowed us to describe steel structures and curved structures in a way that demystified them for the builder so that they weren't afraid and didn't add — superimpose — fear costs on the project.

00:24:22 And we've been very successful in that, and I think it's turned the tide. In other words, most architects and contractors are in mortal battle from the day they start. The contractor is scared of the costs and losing money, and the architect is pushing to get his or her dream to fruition, and they're in conflict. And I’ve found, through this funny gadget, that the architect can become the master builder, can become the leader, can direct the project, and the contractor likes it.

00:25:04 They would rather be the child in the equation than the parent, and they'd rather have the conceiver take a parental role. So it's through this technology that I've found, in the few projects now, that it's been very possible to change that relationship in a positive way for everybody.

00:25:30 ALICE WINKLER: The test run for this new partnership with the software company was not actually a building. It was — what else? A giant fish.

00:25:43 This one, a gold-toned abstract beauty of a sculpture, 170 feet long, commissioned for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The new cutting-edge software allowed Gehry to communicate his vision of multiple compound curves to the builder, and its success led Frank Gehry to make an enormous leap. It freed him to create a new architectural language for the construction of what’s widely considered one of the most — if not the most — influential buildings in a generation, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, a city in the Basque region of Spain.

00:26:28 FRANK GEHRY: Bilbao was not quite as bad as Detroit but almost. It was the steel industry gone, the shipping industry gone. It looked pretty sad. People were down — you know, felt let down. The kids were graduating high school and splitting as soon as they could, and the Basques are really a proud culture.

00:26:52 ALICE WINKLER: There was also, at the time, a strong and sometimes violent Basque nationalist movement in the region. One of the hopes of the museum was that it would revitalize the city, bring in tourism and money, and quiet the unrest, all of which it did, but it started when Tom Krens, the Guggenheim Foundation’s director, hired Frank Gehry for the job.

00:27:17 FRANK GEHRY: I went to Bilbao. I meet the people. They take me with Tom to the site in Bilbao, in town, where they wanted to build it. There’s an old 19th-century building that was — the exterior wall of it was left, so it’s kind of like a fence, and then the interior was vacant. Anyway, I found myself at dinner, sitting next to Tom and having some drinks, and everybody was happy and “clink, clink, clink,” and they asked me, "Mr. Gehry, what do you think of the site?"

00:27:54 And I said, without a blink, "That's the wrong site." I said, "The reason it’s the wrong site is that the wall, the 19th-century wall, which fits into the neighborhood perfectly — in order to build a museum like you want, you’d have to tear it down, and that would destroy the continuity of the neighborhood, and I think it’s a beautiful relic. You shouldn’t tear it down, and you can find other uses for that site that are more communal with that wall and can work with it."

00:28:32 And I was sitting there as I was talking, thinking, "When's he going to kick me?" And he never did, and so it went over like a clunk, right? There was this sort of clunk. “Gehry came in. Clunk.” But they were nice. They took us up on the hill overlooking the city. We had a few more drinks. Everybody was sort of, "So, okay, if you don’t like that site, where would you put it?"

00:29:02 And I said — I saw this bridge, and I saw this site with a brick factory, and it looked derelict, and I don’t know what got in me. I said, "There." Now, I don’t usually do things like that. I would have taken, you know — if I’d — in another circumstance, I would have taken more time and said, "Let’s study this one. Let’s study this one." I brazenly said, "There."

00:29:29 GAIL EICHENTHAL: There, right on the river.

00:29:30 FRANK GEHRY: Yeah, right at the bend, right by the bridge. And you could see from the hill, looking down, that there was a straight-line view to City Hall across the river. So I felt like, in Bilbao, that there is some visual virtue in the city, the hills around the bridge, and I assumed that they would clean it all up eventually, which they did, and it would be a big asset for the viewing of art, so that’s what led to the building.

00:30:10 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Talk about the “Bilbao Effect,” the fact that now the name Bilbao is synonymous with your building.

00:30:22 FRANK GEHRY: Well, they asked for that. When I had my first official meeting with the city, when we were selected, they asked me if I could do the equivalent of the Sydney Opera House because they said — and this was the minister of commerce, Jon Azua, who’s still there — that they needed this to be a generator, a commercial generator to bring people.

00:30:51 And you know, what do you say to that? You say, "I’ll do my best, but it’s not a slam dunk. I don’t know if I can do it. I mean I haven’t done it before, but maybe." When the building was being built, the city was skeptical, and there was one article in the paper, "Kill the American Architect." That made me nervous.

00:31:21 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Kill the American architect?

00:31:23 FRANK GEHRY: Yeah. Because they were a hostile culture with each other. The separatist thing was going on, and they didn’t like the idea of somebody coming in from Mars, and they didn’t understand what I was doing. This jumble of metal — "What are you doing?"

00:31:42 It’s only after they saw it, everything clicked, and I could live there for the rest of my life for free. If anybody sees me — I was in India somewhere in a plaza, and some lady saw me. There was a group of tourists from Bilbao. I didn’t know they were over there, and she saw me, and she said, "Gehry, Gehry!" And they all came running, and I had — I was like the Pied Piper.

00:32:09 Obviously, it worked. I’m happy it worked, and I don’t know why it worked. It’s a magic trick, I think. I did my best, and that’s what came out.

00:32:26 ALICE WINKLER: Another bit of magic: the computer software Gehry used to design the building made it cheaper to build. The costs became entirely predictable, and in the end, Gehry says, it was a downright bargain for the City of Bilbao.

00:32:44 FRANK GEHRY: That was nirvana. That was, you know, eureka, the eureka moment, Archimedes, and —

00:32:53 GAIL EICHENTHAL: That you realized it could be built under budget?

00:32:56 FRANK GEHRY: Yes, and so Bilbao — and nobody wants to believe this. It’s the craziest thing. You can’t get people to believe it. It was built for $300 a square foot in '97. That’s it. I can’t help it. It’s fact. Since it’s opened, it’s earned close to four billion euros for the city, which changed the politic. There are no more separatists. There’s a big smile on the community. The building brings in people, and so they're all family now. So I feel loved there, anyway.

00:33:35 GAIL EICHENTHAL: And it occurs to me that there’s a Bilbao Effect in downtown Los Angeles, with Disney Hall, that I don’t think anyone could have anticipated, and certainly there were years when you didn’t even think it would be built.

00:33:45 FRANK GEHRY: Right. The normal — when you do a public building that has a board and people on it, there’s always somebody on the board that’s a builder that knows how to do everything better than the architect, so you have to go through all of that. I mean when I first showed the model, they brought a contractor, who was the biggest contractor in L.A., and I finished my presentation, and the board clapped.

00:34:14 They loved the drawings and everything. They turned to him and said, "What do you think?" And he said, in my office, with me present, "It’s beautiful, but it can’t be built." Well, it’s there, and he’s not, so I think you’ve got to come with reality. You know, when you’re thinking like this, when you’re having — you’ve got to make sure it’s right and it can be built. You’ve got to make sure it’s budget-conscious.

00:34:44 I mean nobody knows this about Disney Hall. It cost 207 million dollars. Period. That was the budget, and we made it. When they talk about it, they add all the other costs that they screwed up in there — over the years that it was mismanaged by people that the Philharmonic trusted — but the real budget was 207. And so I’m very budget-conscious. That means a lot to me, to be able to look a client straight in the face and say, "Here’s what you asked me for. Here’s the money you told me you had, and here’s what it looks like."

00:35:26 Now, in the period of design, they can add to it — I mean, or subtract, and say, "No, I want it higher.” And that costs 20 million more. And you say, "Okay, are you willing to do that?" You know, if you want a marble kitchen top that costs $50 more, well okay, it’s your choice, but you don’t have to do it. I don’t have a gun at your back to say, "You’ve got to have that marble."

00:35:53 And I love that it’s an open — I don’t know how many architects practice like I do. I've always assumed they did, but the clients tell me they don’t.

00:36:04 GAIL EICHENTHAL: The open-mindedness?

00:36:06 FRANK GEHRY: Yeah, and that they’re willing to confront the budget and money as you’re designing it rather than the usual thing. The client loves the object. You put it out to bid, and it’s 30% over budget, and they start talking to the contractor, who says, "Well, if you straighten this out and straighten that out, we can do it," and then pretty soon the contractor is now designing the building.

00:36:31 And you don’t get what you wanted in the first place, but, "Oh, my God, I couldn’t afford it, and I love Mr. Gehry’s work, but I couldn’t afford it." You know, I’m not that guy. I’m not going to go there. I’m not going to let that happen.

00:36:52 ALICE WINKLER: It can sometimes seem like everything Frank Gehry touches turns to gold, but he has had critics, and he has had ups and downs, despite being one of the most sought-after architects in the world. One time, just a couple of years ago, he even lost his temper at a press conference and flipped the bird at a reporter who dared to ask whether his buildings were anything more than spectacle.

00:37:19 Gehry later apologized, of course. Interviewer Gail Eichenthal wanted to know, as their conversation came to a close, whether Gehry thought failure and disappointment were inherent components of his creative process.

00:37:34 FRANK GEHRY: You know, I'm searching for — you know, you start on a track with the beginnings of an idea, and then I'm searching for how to manifest it. And I try a lot of things, and sometimes things look like I've seen them before, or they feel lacking in importance or integrity or whatever stuff, whatever yardsticks I have in my head that I keep applying.

00:38:11 I also create crises myself. As I’m working, I’ll get finished and feel very satisfied about the direction something’s going, and then a day later I find — in my head, I figure out some kind of missing link, something I wasn’t aware of, and then it blows it all up in my mind. And I come in, in a very bad mood and don’t know what to do, and I pull the team around and — I have a lot of talent here in the club, so to speak.

00:38:48 And so that's been helpful, but I think it’s healthy to question. Usually, it turns out better after I go through this thing.

00:39:01 GAIL EICHENTHAL: It seems to me that as an artist and as an architect, you have to always sort of negotiate with an interior critic. This would be true of a novelist; true, as well, the idea that sometimes the critic needs to be quiet, and other times the critic needs to come out. And I wonder how you deal with that in your own creativity because you seem to be a somewhat self-deprecating person.

00:39:30 FRANK GEHRY: Yeah, I’m more critical than any of you guys could be, but the thing I don’t like is the cliché critic thing that — the latest one was, on Bilbao, they had a list of all the great buildings of the century, and Bilbao's there, and there's a little thing, and it says it’s a great building... “Of course, it’s messy, and of course it’s wasteful of materials and egregiously over-spatial.”

00:40:08 It said something very negative, and the person that wrote it — I called the editor, and I said, "Prove it. I challenge you to prove it." And I think there's a snarky reporting — which you’re aware of, I’m sure — that doesn't do anybody any good. I mean we can be critical. I like to hear people’s criticism if it’s not snarky, and if it’s not based on some kind of feeling that’s pro forma: "Frank Gehry did the building. Therefore, it’s got to be wasteful. Therefore, it’s got to be expensive."

00:40:51 I’ve tried this in a lecture with business people. I started the lecture, and I said, "Before I lecture, what I’d like to ask the audience: How many people here think my buildings are expensive?" And everybody puts up their hand. "How many people here think I’m a prima donna?" Everybody puts their hand up. Well, both things are not true. So if critics did their homework, then we could have a real discussion. They could disagree with the forms and the character, the space, or the direction it took, but get the other facts right.

00:41:31 GAIL EICHENTHAL: What about the critic within yourself who has somehow enabled you to create a world of amazing buildings?

00:41:40 FRANK GEHRY: The critic in myself is terrible, the worst critic. Some days I’d like to shoot him.

00:41:49 GAIL EICHENTHAL: You once said that when you first saw Bilbao, you saw the mistakes.

00:41:54 FRANK GEHRY: I came over the hill and saw it there, and I said, "God, what have I done to these people?" Disney Hall, I sat there with Ernest and Deborah, and Esa-Pekka was conducting with the first rehearsal.

00:42:11 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Ernest Fleischmann, Deborah Borda...

00:42:12 FRANK GEHRY: Yeah.

00:42:13 GAIL EICHENTHAL: ...and Esa-Pekka, the conductor.

00:42:15 FRANK GEHRY: Yeah, and I was watching the bass player because I knew the bass response was the most difficult. And so they started, and the bass guy, I was looking at him, he saw me, and he went — and then Esa-Pekka stopped after about ten minutes and turned around and said, "I think we’ll keep it."

00:42:38 GAIL EICHENTHAL: Thank you for your time and your great works of art.

00:42:42 FRANK GEHRY: Thank you.

00:42:53 ALICE WINKLER: Architect, designer, and artist Frank Gehry. He spoke to the Academy of Achievement in 1995 and again in 2016. If you want to learn more about him, head over to And please, let us know how we’re doing. Leave your comments on iTunes or Stitcher or any of the great places you find your podcasts. I’m Alice Winkler, and this is What It Takes from the Academy of Achievement.

00:43:23 And it’s always good to end with a little gratitude, so to the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation, thank you for funding What It Takes.


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What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.