Frank Gehry at 90: Aging, music and the only building he’d like to design
Frank Gehry, the famed architect of Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall, is celebrating his 90th birthday outside of town — outside of town. He heads to Berlin for a concert in his honor on February 28 at the Gehry-designed Pierre Boulez Salle concert hall.
With all his global projects, not to mention local birthday celebrations, how does he have the time?
And in downtown Los Angeles alone, there’s his long-awaited, $1 billion major residential, retail and hotel complex that broke ground this month, as well as an expansion of the nearby Colburn School, including a 1,100-seat concert hall and other performance venues. And classrooms. .
Grand and Colburn models of varying sizes take up much of the floor space inside Gehry Partners’ sprawling office, but that’s just the beginning. Besides projects planned for West Hollywood and Santa Monica, Gehry points to models of mixed-use skyscrapers in Toronto, residential towers in New York’s Hudson Yards, and a new museum complex near his Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris.
The architect, moving very quickly for a man approaching ninety, then turns to look with great pleasure at a series of photos of his newly built tower for the Loma Arles cultural complex by art collector Maja Hoffmann in Arles, France. “This fulfills my lifelong dream of painting with light,” he says. “Its stainless steel facade changes color in the sunlight. It is Van Gogh’s light.”
After the tour, he stops into his office suite and settles into a cozy conference room lined with books.
Drawing and artists have always appealed to you, haven’t they?
From the beginning of my career, the architects in my peer group didn’t like what I was doing. And then, fortunately, I connected with Ed Moses and other artists here. I found my comfort zone and the love, appreciation and sometimes respect I needed to keep going. They were among them, and they treated me like one of them. I liked the idea of how straightforward their work was. It wasn’t all about theory. It was directly from hand to canvas or sculpture. That was inspiring to me.
How does this directness differ from architecture?
Architecture involves more involvement of other people in your work: the client, the construction department, the engineers. There’s budget, context and a lot of baggage. But in the end, it’s what you do with form and space as you respond to problems, and it’s like art. Architecture is what makes it human, communicates it to people, and connects it to our lives. It’s not just bricks and mortar; It is likely to be uplifting, engaging, and intellectually stimulating.
Similar words are often used in talking about the power of music and musicians.
In designing a building, you’re trying to create a feeling, and when I talk to musicians and composers, they also talk about trying to create a feeling. When I hang out with Esa-Pekka Salonen and talk about music, I feel the same struggle. I feel that the search, his reticence to talk about it, and his joy when it is turned on, are similar to my own feelings. Over the years, people like Esa Bica, Zubin Mehta, Gustavo Dudamel, and Michael Tilson Thomas have greatly enriched my life, and I think what I love most at this age are the friends I have made.
You once described a building to me in terms of its similarity to the Brandenburg Concerto.
I think composition and architecture are very similar in the layers of their ideas towards the whole. Architecture is about creating emotions using inert materials, and music is about making great masterpieces and creating spatial sound environments. Composers and musicians interact with your being, and the spaces in which they play become an important part of that.
You seem to be designing more and more concert halls. I’ve just read that you are working on the design of the Concert Hall at Wimbledon.
In my later years, I’ve been thinking a lot about classical music. I go to a lot of concerts, and my wife Berta also loves classical music, so we can do that together. It’s a mutual pleasure. The culture of classical music and the artists involved in it are also very interesting to me. Instead of existing in the culture of your own profession, it is a good idea to move somewhere else where you enjoy the fruits of it but are not in it. I like things that you can admire and enjoy without getting into the politics of everything that goes on in this world behind the scenes.
Many architects, including you, only become famous when they grow up.
As with all people, architects also get older, and as we do, we tend to be more demanding to do a good job. You don’t usually get recognized until you’re in your 50s, and you have to do a fair amount of stuff before people take notice of you in a serious way.
Do you think a lot about aging?
I’m not retired, so the office is busy, and I feel like I’m having a hard time staying in it. I attribute it to aging, but when I say something like this to any of the senior people in the office, they always say they all feel the same way. The office is so busy, we’re all struggling to keep up. Although aging grabs my attention, with the physical changes and all, I forget about it as soon as I start working.
Where does learning lie in aging?
The most important thing you learn as you get older is to not focus on all the troubling aspects of your life that you can’t do anything about. If you watch the news, there is a lot of negativity in the world that you can cling to. I do that. We all do. But if you get back to work and start making things, it creates a positive corner of the world where you can feel comfort and solace.
What made you decide to spend your 90th birthday in Berlin?
When (pianist and conductor) Daniel Barenboim wrote to me and asked if he could celebrate my 90th birthday there, I said: “Sure. I would love to.” I truly believe that people speak to each other through the arts, and even though I don’t follow religion anymore, I was raised Jewish and definitely have the cultural DNA. Daniel’s West-Eastern Diwan Orchestra is made up of young people from all over the Middle East, and when I read about it several years ago, I became excited about it. I went to auditions and saw these kids from very different backgrounds playing beautiful music together. I was then asked to design their concert hall, and I decided to do it as a gift to them. It’s very special to me.
Is there something you haven’t done architecturally yet that you would like to do?
Yes. I would like to design a church or synagogue. A place of greatness. I’ve always been interested in space that goes beyond something—to joy, pleasure, understanding, discourse, anything space can do to be part of a dialogue. Forget the religious aspect. How do you make a space feel transcendent? How do you create a feeling of comfort with the universe, the rain, the stars and the people around you? It is comfortable to sit in a large room and listen to the rain.
Barbara Isenberg is the author of Conversations with Frank Gehry.
Support our coverage of local artists and the local arts scene by becoming a digital subscriber.
Find our latest arts news and reviews at latimes.com/arts.