WHAT I’VE LEARNED: FRANK GEHRY
The world conquering architect on Chuck Norris, Don Quixote and the absence of God
I took karate with Chuck Norris and got all the way up to brown belt. I have the broken ribs to prove it. I haven’t kept in practice, but I could still do 40 push-ups in one shot. Maybe a few more.
You’re more inclined to jump in the water with a bunch of characters when you’re younger. I don’t mean that literally. You go to places for no other reason than that’s what all your friends are doing. It’s about being together, feeling part of a gang and meeting interesting people. That goes away. And a lot of those friends are no longer here. I’m living longer than I’m supposed to.
I’ll have a glass of wine or a tequila maybe twice a week. I don’t smoke cigars any more. No drugs. I don’t even take painkillers. I’m nervous about that for some reason.
I’m very bad with clothes. I hate shopping for them. When I was out with the boys dating they used to drag me over to Beverly Hills and get me all duded up. I’d wear a Borsalino hat and I looked cute as the dickens — I think. Now I’ve got enough clothes to wear something different every day for a couple of weeks. Guess what? I pick two or three things and all the rest of my stuff is just hanging there.
A British critic once said, “He’s a onetrick pony’s one-trick pony.” My daughter was dying when that happened [Gehry’s daughter, Leslie, died of cancer in 2008], so my defences were down and I didn’t take it very well. I’ve never had somebody that I respect say something really biting. Not yet, anyway. You can be the first.
I grew up in Toronto. At the time, slot machines were legal in Canada, so my father had maybe 40 or 50 of them placed in restaurants and he would collect the money from them. That didn’t last long. He did a lot of things but never very successfully. One thing he did that was quite special was dressing windows for a grocery store. I think he would have liked to have worked more on the artsy side, but he didn’t have the education. My mother always wanted to go to law school, but women didn’t go to college in those days.
My favourite thing to watch on television is Foyle’s War.
I was having trouble with the first wife and probably drinking a little and running away from things. One day a friend of mine said, “I’m taking you somewhere and I want you to shut up.” He took me to Milton Wexler, who was a psychoanalyst. He treated many Hollywood people. I had private sessions for a couple of years, and then started in a group of 15 people. This was in the early Eighties. The miracle of it was that if they turned on you, it was 14 people against one and you couldn’t dismiss what they were saying. It really worked. Before that I was not able to give speeches. It made me more confident and loosened me up.
I used to go sailing by myself. It clears your mind and you come back feeling like everything’s going to be OK. Now I go with friends, mostly architects or artists. We gossip about everybody: “Did you see what Norman Foster did this week?!”
All of us sit around and fester over whatever it is that makes us angry. The control is inside you — you can change it at the flip of a switch, but you don’t do it because for some reason you enjoy feeling sorry for yourself.
I had a cousin who was a chemical engineer. They were looked up to in our family, so I thought I wanted to do that, too. In high school, I went to visit a laboratory for chemical engineering and that was terribly boring. They were preparing paints for automobiles. The guy that took me there, at the end of it he said, “I don’t know what you’re going to be, but this ain’t for you.”
Did I feel ready for fatherhood? The first time around it was complicated. We had two girls. Problems with the wife shortly after, and then leaving when they were aged 12 or 13. All the things that rain upon you from that kind of experience, which are mostly bad. The kids hate you, the mother… you know, all that stuff. The new batch is great. One of them’s working with me — he’s an architect — and the other one’s a painter. I think we hang out together more than I did with the first group.
Thirty per cent of the construction industry is waste. If the budget is $100m, then $30m is for nothing. Lost. With the technology we’ve developed, a lot of that waste has been cut down. I take real pride in budget control. If you ask somebody if the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao was an expensive building, then 90 per cent of people would put up their hands. It was built for $300 per sq ft. It’s a really inexpensive building. Nobody believes that. Is this true? Could this be true? It’s fucking true!
I wouldn’t say I’m a fully-fledged, card-carrying atheist, but on the other hand I don’t really think much about God. I went to Hebrew school and I had bar mitzvah in Canada and up until that point I was quite religious. A friend and I shared a physics class and we decided to prove there was no God. We went through the Bible and found 130 or 150 — I forget exactly how many — contradictions, wrote them all out, made this little book and delivered it to our teacher. We were both declared atheists and none of the girls in the school would date us. That was terrible.
I have two books by my bedside: Don Quixote and Alice in Wonderland. You can find today in Don Quixote: the miscommunication, the misunderstanding. It’s all there. Cervantes was on the money.
The challenge of designing and making something is like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Somehow it all comes together and — voilà! — it looks good and everybody likes it. I don’t know how that happens.
I love ice hockey but I can’t play any more. I have what every old guy has: back problems.
Don’t overload all your problems on other people. Most of the problems you’ve got are usually stupid things you build up in your own head, and aren’t really that relevant. Real sickness — when you lose a kid — that was horrible. I spent almost every day at the hospital with my daughter for three or four months. That was really hard. Except for things like that, I think we’re lucky to be here.
‘Designing is like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. It all comes together and —voila! — it looks good. I don’t know how that happens’
Frank Gehry photographed in his office, Los Angeles