WHAT I’VE LEARNED: FRANK GEHRY

Star­chi­tect, 88

Esquire (UK) - - Contents -

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

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