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Frank Gehry: Architecture as 'Service'

Designing buildings isn't all fun and games, Frank Gehry -- perhaps the world's most acclaimed architect -- told a crowd in Low Memorial Library on Oct. 31.

"It's hell sometimes," Gehry said. For one thing, the last few months of his life have been as much about destruction as construction. Two of Gehry's California buildings -- the Santa Monica Place indoor mall and a classroom building at U.C. Irvine-- have been scheduled for demolition.

A more extraordinary episode of destruction occurred when Hurricane Katrina propelled a casino barge onto the roof of an unfinished museum in Biloxi, Miss. Much of the building, designed by Gehry to house pottery and African art, was destroyed. "Maybe they should use the barge as the museum," he joked. "It's bigger, and it's free now."

More dismaying, Katrina knocked down several large trees on the museum property. "The whole scheme was about dancing with the trees," he explained. With the trees gone, Gehry's design -- a series of small pavilions rather than one large structure -- has lost its raison d'être. "I don't know where we'll go from here," he admitted.

Gehry holds the title of Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. He was being interviewed by Kelvin Sealey, host of Citizen: The Campus Talk Show. The forum (simulcast to two other locations on campus) was titled "Architecture in the Public Imagination."

Gehry reported that his Brooklyn project, a planned residential community adjoining a new arena for the Nets basketball team, is posing an even greater challenge than his Katrina-demolished museum. To be built over a rail yard on Flatbush Ave., it is the largest of Gehry's New York projects (the others are an office building for Barry Diller's media conglomerate and an apartment building in lower Manhattan).

"It keeps me awake at night," said Gehry of the Brooklyn development.

While best known for his shimmering forms like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the Toronto-born Gehry, now 76, views himself as an urban planner, whose buildings should enhance their surroundings. "I'm a do-gooder," he said. "I see architecture as a service."

But as people in Brooklyn expect the borough to be all "brownstones and tree-lined streets," Gehry's project has met with opposition from the community. "You can't do that with a project of this size," he said, adding that he had asked the developer, Bruce Ratner, to scale back the
project several times.

Meanwhile, he hasn't convinced Ratner to do something else: bring in other architects to design parts of the project, to ensure a variety of styles. "He wanted to be able to deal with one person, so he refused," Gehry said.

Faced with the challenge of designing the entire project on his own, Gehry decided to develop a "design hierarchy," where several "iconic towers" will be surrounded by "background buildings."

But the dilemma, he said, is that the background buildings end up looking ordinary, like standard-issue housing projects. "Sometimes I think I should be less polite," he said -- implying that life would be easier if his buildings were all attention-getters.

"I'm very insecure about it," Gehry said of the Brooklyn project. "I've brought all kinds of people in to beat me up, because I want to get it right."

In response to audience questions, Gehry talked about his associations with Vaclav Havel (who gave him a lecture on abstraction when Gehry was designing a building in Prague) and Paul Allen, the Microsoft billionaire for whom he designed the Seattle Music Experience, a tribute to Jimi Hendrix. 

Sealey showed clips from Sketches of Frank Gehry , a new documentary from director Sydney Pollack. "My only regret is that I didn't get a pretty co-star," Gehry said, noting that Sean Penn, who starred in Pollack's The Interpreter , had gotten Nicole Kidman.

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Published: Nov 21, 2005
Last modified: Nov 21, 2005

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