5 Takeaways From Gehrygate, and Why He Might Be Right

Written by
Gehry and Zuckerberg with model
Frank Gehry not giving the middle finger. He and Mark Zuckerberg discuss the new Facebook offices. The goal was a relaxed, livable working space, a challenge given the huge floor area. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Frank Gehry recently got caught on camera giving the middle finger to a reporter who asked how he felt about people calling his buildings showy. The blogosphere went crazy, and it was tempting to dismiss the whole thing as just so much sturm und drang in our age of gotcha-on-tape journalism. But it’s unusual for an architect to attract a Bill Maher-level of attention. So DnA cogitated the episode and here is our response:

1) Give the Guy a Break

Who hasn’t said or done stuff when they are very tired — worse, jetlagged — that they regret, and are simply lucky they weren’t caught on camera?

2) He Ain’t Mr Congeniality

That’s not to say this was out of character for Gehry. Brilliant, inspiring, charming and lovable when he chooses, Gehry has made abrasive statements before, and he’ll make them again. It’s part of who he is but he’s not usually being filmed, giving a rude gesture for added measure.

3) But Was He Right About the 98 Percent?

The percentage may be off — certainly most architects I know work extremely hard to create environments that are as good as possible. But his fundamental point, and he has made it in the past, is: most buildings, even entire cities, are, at best, banal and, at worst, ugly to look at and unpleasant to be in. Why denigrate architecture that is aspiring for beauty and an elevated human experience?

4) But is His Work Beautiful and Humane?

In DnA’s view, generally, yes. But there is a seething anti-Gehry flank out there, from the neo-classicists of Washington DC, to the 30-something, neo-Modesty generation, that just doesn’t see it.

If you were an architect or architecture buff who came of age in the late 1970s or ‘80s, when Modernism seemed to have run its course and Postmodernists were slathering boxy buildings with stick-on pediments and porticos, Frank’s radical experiments in form and material were utterly enthralling and game-changing.

Then along came a revival of interest in Modernism coupled with a preoccupation with “sustainability” and the anti-spectacle, return-to-virtue movement was born, while Gehry’s CATIA-enabled buildings were becoming ever more “showy” and he himself was now seen as the establishment.

But what Gehry critics overlook is that he himself has roots in Modernism — trained first at USC, where one of his preferred teachers was the progressive architect Gregory Ain — not to mention a deep understanding of classical architecture and planning.

Underneath the skin of those “spectacles” are generally highly considered, comfortable, liveable spaces.

It’s those virtues that are sadly missing from many, many buildings. And while one can find Gehry buildings that are less successful, it’s these general architectural principles that inform work that is overlaid with his provocative artist’s sensibility.

The “showy” buildings that critics should concern themselves with are those that have tried to play with form without bothering to make a good plan.

Full disclosure #1: I live in an apartment co-designed by Gehry during his Victor Gruen days. From outside it’s the opposite of showy. Inside, it’s just the right organization of space, scale, proportion, natural light, views and cross-ventilation, with some nice details and a fluid connection to the outside; pretty much the basics of a decent home.

Full disclosure #2: I once co-taught a studio at USC with some of Gehry’s partners. As I listened to them crit the students designs’ I learned so much about how the Gehry office thinks. External formal gymnastics was absolutely not what the partners were interested in; far more important was the arrangement of space and the relationship of that space to other spaces, and what the experience of being in those spaces would be.

5) Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

Frank Gehry is an intriguing mix: a prickly, difficult guy who makes warm, welcoming, interesting, places. Let’s give him a break on his bad boy behavior and remember just how few great buildings and builders we have. As one Gehry admirer wrote me, “When you’re a Great Man, you’re allowed to be occasionally arrogant.” 

(7) Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, free concert
The interior of the crowd-pleasing Disney Hall has been described as “a perfect fusion of form and function, the dynamic beauty of the architecture designed to enhance acoustics.” (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)