Frank Gehry’s View From the Top

The master architect talks about his early stays in Paris and the French landmarks he loves and created

Frank Gehry has designed some of the most daring buildings in contemporary architecture, playing with technology and constantly defying categorization. The Canadian-American architect, born in 1929, creates experimental, sculptural structures that are sometimes controversial but always fueled by his love of art and jazz. In awarding him the 1989 Pritzker Prize, architecture’s most prestigious award, the jury described his style as “refreshingly original and totally American.”

Gehry also has a penchant for France and its artists, having lived and worked there, and subsequently created some of its most exciting buildings. From the glass sails of the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris to the Luma Tower in Arles, Gehry describes his approach to shaping these modern French landmarks, the ways in which the country and its artists have inspired him and how it all began in Paris, 60 years ago.

SABRINE KASBAOUI I’d like to better understand the nature of your links to France and its culture, a country where you have carried out several architectural projects. You lived in France for a year in the early ’60s – what did you learn from that experience?

FRANK GEHRY I made the decision to leave my job at Victor Gruen’s office in 1958, but I was running a lot of projects, so I gave them a year’s notice. My wife at the time had a pen pal in Paris called Marc Biass, so we decided that, when my year was up, we would move to Paris – my wife, myself and my two little daughters.

We moved into a basement apartment in Meudon – the deuxième sous-sol! And I commuted into my office at 79 avenue des Champs-Élysées, above Mimi Pinson. I didn’t make much money, so my wife and I had to skip at least one dinner a week to make ends meet. It was a struggle, but on the weekends, we would set out in our little Volkswagen Beetle to explore the wonders of France. I had come out of the modernist movement. All of my architecture professors preached the gospel of minimalism, and my architectural history professors had projected dull black-and-white slides of the cathedrals and monasteries that were lackluster at best.

When I saw these buildings in person, I went crazy. They were so full of life and intensity, stoicism and romance. The Romanesque work in the south was particularly eye-opening to me. Le Thoronet really humbled me with its powerful humanity.

Victor Gruen visited me in Paris toward the end of my time in Europe. I took him to Marly-le-Roi, where we had a picnic. He asked me if I would open an office for him there – a very lucrative position – but the whole experience in France had changed me. I turned him down and resolved to open my own firm when I came back to L.A. So, France kind of set me on my course.

Frank Gehry's Fondazione Louis Vuitton

SK You say that Paris is your favorite capital. What, in particular, do you like about it?

FG Paris is not a hard city to love. When I lived there for a year, I walked everywhere. For all of its formality, the city is so welcoming – there is an ease with which monuments and important buildings are integrated into the city. Public parks and squares here are master classes in urban planning, but they are also well loved and well used. Parisians use their city – every inch, and I love that.

When I walked through the city in my younger years, I loved seeing the buildings of this very organized city on the diagonal – seeing the pileup of buildings on the bias.

SK In a conversation with Jean-Louis Cohen for the Collège de France in 2017, you explained that you always return to France to find a source of inspiration. Can you tell us about the visit to Dijon that you made with the art historian Irving Lavin and how it nourished you?

FG Just get a book on Claus Sluter’s work. It will nourish anyone who sees it. It’s the most beautiful work – the way he sculpted drapery was just incredible. I just went back with my wife to see it. The pieces are not monumental, but the effect is otherworldly.

SK Which French artists inspire you the most? For example, how did Charlotte Perriand’s apartment, which you had the opportunity to visit, affect you and perhaps inspire you?

FG I was invited to her apartment by her daughter, Pernette, and her son-in-law, Jacques. It’s a really small, modest space that she designed down to the inch. It’s a really special place. She designed a little dining table that is in a tight little space, and she put a concave curve in the table, so that you could pass by it without bumping into the edge – really subtle, but beautiful detailing. That spirit is all over the apartment. She was experimenting with composition and materials. It’s beautiful and comfortable.

For all of its formality, Paris is so welcoming – there is an ease with which monuments and important buildings are integrated into the city. Frank Gehry

SK Similarly, how did the conductor and composer Pierre Boulez represent a kind of hero for you, and how did designing an auditorium in his memory feed your architectural gesture? What did you admire about him?

FG I met Pierre when he was doing his infamous Rug Concerts at Lincoln Center. He removed the front orchestra seating and filled in the hole with foam, then put listeners on rugs at the same level as the orchestra. It was revolutionary – you didn’t do that at Lincoln Center or anywhere else in classical music. He instinctively solved the problem with the hall while also making his music more accessible. I didn’t know him, but I felt emboldened to go up to him to tell him how impactful the concert had been on me. We struck up a friendship that lasted 40 years. He was fearless to the end.

When Daniel Barenboim decided to make his little hall in Berlin and name it after Pierre, I was so honored to be a part of it. I took the final model to Pierre’s house in Baden-Baden just before he died. He didn’t get to see the final building, but the inaugural concert included the most beautiful performance of Sur Incises – so he was with us.

SK Similarly, how did the site of the Jardin d’Acclimatation, inaugurated in 1860 by Napoléon III and Empress Eugénie, affect you on your first visit there? And how were you inspired by the glass architecture and gardens of the late 19th century to design the spectacular glass vessel that is the Fondation Louis Vuitton? Did you envision it as an architectural symbol for Paris?

FG Bernard Arnault took me to the Jardin d’Acclimatation to show me the site, and I started crying. I was dreaming of Marcel Proust and feeling his presence very strongly. I imagined him walking these same paths. It was very emotional. The site still holds the weight of all this history, and I felt the pressure to do something special – something that would recall this history while also dreaming of the future. The glass was certainly a response to the garden pavilions of the 19th century. I wanted to be as unobtrusive to the Jardin as possible, and the glass lent itself to this. Those original glass structures were some of the most innovative buildings of their day – the ironwork, the clear span structure, the curving glass, etc. They were exciting to be in and beautiful to look at. This direction made the city officials happy, as they did not want anything to disrupt the public’s enjoyment of the park. The glass pavilion fit with their image of the Jardin. The only issue with this was that the program of the Fondation was for an art museum, which needs solid walls. The solution was to create two layers – the solid layer of the galleries and the glass “sails.” The sails create canopies for the rooftop gardens. We added a small amount of reflectivity to the sails, so they also reflect the beautiful, changing Parisian sky and the surrounding trees.

Time will determine whether it is an architectural landmark for the city.

Frank Gehry's Cinémathèque Française, Paris.
Frank Gehry's Cinémathèque Française, Paris.

SK The Luma Tower was inaugurated this summer. How were you inspired by the works of Vincent Van Gogh, notably The Starry Night, and the emblematic landscape of the Alpilles to create this work? And how did these works and landscapes guide your choice of materials? How did you evoke the local roots of this ancient city?

FG Before Van Gogh, the Romans were in Arles, and they left their mark. They have an amazing amphitheater and their colosseum in the center of the city, both still quite actively used. I was initially responding to that Roman context and to the ambitious program of the client, Maja Hoffmann. The original site was down in the Parc des Ateliers, but after many years of work, it got moved up to the Avenue Victor Hugo. The site kind of determined the configuration of the building, which ended up being a bit more vertical than previous iterations. With the tower, I wanted to talk to the Roman aspect of the city and the surrounding Alpilles. We thought about a lot of materials, but I kept coming back to the light of Arles. We wanted to find a way to capture the light that all of the Impressionists had painted under – Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gaugin. This led us to creating the blocky language of the metal panels. Each of those panels is set at a slightly different angle to the others. The metal is slightly deformed, so this helps hold the light.

The building changes all day long – every season. It goes from purple to blue to yellow to orange to pink. It’s really quite a beautiful effect. In one of the night shots, it felt like we had captured the light that Van Gogh was painting in Starry Night.

SK Few cities can boast of having a monument designed by a Pritzker Prize winner. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which you designed, transformed the profile of the city. With each of your new projects, the question arises: will there be a “Bilbao effect”? Do you think Arles will become world-famous because of this one building?

FG Arles doesn’t need a building to make it world-famous. It’s an incredible place. I hope that we have added to the city and created something of value for the people that live there and those that visit.

SK In France, some people want to rebuild Notre-Dame de Paris identically, while others have more contemporary visions of its future. Which camp are you in?

FG There are already more than enough voices chiming in on this topic. You don’t need an outsider giving more advice.

SK From the first sketches to the realization of a building, the road is long. Is there a stage of the process you prefer?

FG It’s all exciting. I love everything about designing and building buildings.

SK You were born in Toronto, and your family, who later emigrated to the United States, was penniless. What role do you feel your childhood played in your destiny?

FG My father got sick, and he lost everything. We had to start over in Los Angeles, and we lived in a very small apartment. I had to get a job as a truck driver and work my way through college. It was difficult, but we made it through. Having been there – with nothing to lose – I have never
been afraid to go back to nothing. I have taken my firm down to three people because I wanted to focus my work on less commercial projects. It was hard, but it paid off. Once you jump off the cliff, you keep looking for cliffs.

SK You once said that you wanted to create an architecture of joy. What makes you happy?

FG Classical music and reading and my family.

SK And unhappy?

FG Not working.

This interview was first published in Mastermind 10, November 2021. Purchase your copy here.

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