How the Talmud helped shape Frank Gehry

From his Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles to his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Frank Gehry is an architect people think they know — until he surprises them again.
September 8, 2015

From his Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles to his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Frank Gehry is an architect people think they know — until he surprises them again. Among his newest reveals have been Paris’ innovative Fondation Louis Vuitton art museum and, closer to home, a new Facebook headquarters building in Menlo Park, Calif., which includes a large, open work space and a nine-acre rooftop garden. 

A career retrospective of Gehry’s work opens Sept. 13 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), offering close looks at the creative process behind these and other highlights from the Canadian-born, 86-year-old architect’s lengthy career. Exhibited last fall in somewhat different form at Paris’ Centre Pompidou, which organized the show in association with LACMA, the exhibition chronicles Gehry’s work from the early 1960s to the present, including more than 60 models and more than 200 drawings, many of them made public for the first time.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, design sketch of riverfront elevation, Bilbao, Spain, c. 1991 © 2015 Gehry Partners, LLP. Image courtesy of Gehry Partners.

The architect’s process starts in the huge Playa Vista-based Gehry Partners office complex, a cavernous former industrial space where architects, designers and others work on projects in development and taking shape all over the globe. Inhabiting the large studio these days are drawings and models for such current projects as high-rises in Toronto, a concert hall in Berlin, an arts complex in Arles, France, the renovation of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a possible new home for Gehry and his wife, Berta, designed by their son Sam Gehry.

I recently visited Gehry Partners to chat with Gehry about the exhibition and its subject.  

Barbara Isenberg: LACMA’s career retrospective and your receiving the third annual J. Paul Getty Medal both happen this month. How do you feel about being so celebrated in your adopted hometown? 

Frank Gehry: I had a very good reception with Walt Disney Concert Hall. It was pretty exciting, and we’ve done a few other things people here seem to like. 

BI: Gehry Partners has designed 11 of LACMA’s exhibition installations, including six you personally have done with LACMA Senior Curator of Modern Art Stephanie Barron. Yet, when it came to designing LACMA’s presentation of your work, which Barron also curated, you stepped aside, and David Nam, a partner in your firm, oversaw it instead. Why?

FG: I did not design this one because I can’t go backwards. It’s nice to have a show, believe me. I’m flattered. I love it. I’ll go to events and be happy and proud. But I didn’t spend a lot of time with the show here or in Paris. My head won’t let me spend time looking backwards.

BI: The exhibition does include several of your early Los Angeles projects. You set up your first architecture office here in the early ’60s and have, essentially, been based here ever since. What impact has that had on your work?  

FG: When I opened my office in Los Angeles, the American architectural world was focused in New York and not paying much attention to what we were doing out here. We were under the radar, which allows you a lot more freedom. I valued that, and I think it’s still true. Most people here aren’t getting attention, and there’s not much focus on the L.A. architectural scene. So, we can function without a spotlight on our work.

BI: You, however, seem to always wind up in the spotlight. For instance, you’ve been in the news a great deal in recent weeks about your pro bono involvement in what L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti calls a “master plan” for the Los Angeles River. How did that happen? 

FG: I was selected because they were looking for somebody who has experience with changing the city, as I did in Bilbao, and doing things at that scale. The L.A. River is, first and foremost, a project for water reclamation, and the amount of water lost that goes through the river into the ocean is enormous. If you reclaim it and can later use it, it reduces the amount of water we need to take from the San Joaquin Valley. It’s a big deal, economically important and politically feasible. This study, which is formatting the basic problem, would lead to a better understanding of how to do that. It will enable other people to work on designing parks and such. It’s not precluding anybody. 

BI: We’ve talked in the past about how your interest in such diverse projects reflects the curiosity you’ve had since you were a boy growing up as Frank Goldberg in Toronto. You’ve traced that inquisitiveness back to the many hours you spent with your grandfather, a talmudic scholar, in his home and hardware store there. 

FG: It seems to me that the Talmud spurs curiosity. That’s what “why?” does: Why is this? Why is that? The Passover seder is also about why: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” It’s built into the Jewish culture. I’m an atheist, but I believe in the culture. I grew up with it. So it was natural that I question everything. 

BI: How is that reflected in your work as an architect? 

FG: I’m never willing to settle. I make a model, look at it, find some value in it and save that value. Then I move on to the next model. It’s an iterative process, and ultimately I come to a conclusion. But all the questioning and constant trying to up the ante result in the best expression for the client.

The Talmud also talks about people and relationships — about how we should talk to each other, how we should live together, why it has to be this way or that way — and I think I follow that tradition in my work. Now some people, when I do that, don’t understand what I’m doing. Even though I explain it to them in advance, they say, “I liked the last one better. Why did you change it?” It’s hard to get people into it. I think that’s the biggest problem I have: being understood for that process. The general culture of architecture is that the architect makes a thing and gives it to you, and you have to say, “Oh, my God, you’re a genius,” and you’re intimidated to live with it without questioning. I don’t feel that way about working with people. 

BI: How do you keep inspiration going when there are so many frustrations and disappointments? Disney Hall took 15 years to build and open after your selection as its architect in 1988, and your long-controversial design for the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C., which was finally approved in July, also seemed like it would be in limbo forever. 

FG: The process is fairly normal. There are ups and downs, like everything in life. I just focus on the end game. Sometimes there are rocky roads. Sometimes it goes easily.

BI: Does it get easier as you age, or more difficult? 

FG: As you get older, you’re confident that you’re going to get it done. When you start out, you really never know whether you’ll realize projects. I’ve always been careful about who I work for and the projects I take on. I usually have a pretty good relationship with the clients that I work with. We’re all in it together. 

BI: Is the most exciting thing you’re doing always what you’re doing now? 

FG: I think that’s true, but what I’m doing now maybe lasts three or four hours, and then I go to the next “now,” because there’s more than one project here. 

BI: Does success come with a down side?

FG: That’s something I’ve observed as a negative when you’re younger. But architects usually peak when they’re older, and by that time, you are emotionally more solid and realistic about what’s going on.

BI: What sorts of discussions are you having at Gehry Partners about your legacy? 

FG: We’re very concerned, obviously. I’m 86, and I’m still working. The office is running pretty much like a Swiss watch. It’s very well organized, and we’re trying to figure out what happens next. Who takes over? Who does what? We’re working with lawyers to set up a proper succession. 

BI: What do you want to be remembered for?

FG: I don’t think much about being remembered. Occasionally I do — you can’t help it. But I’m not focused on that as a goal. I’m more focused on the immediate.  

The Frank Gehry exhibition at LACMA runs from Sept. 13-March 20, 2016. For ticket information, visit lacma.org. On Jan. 10, 2016, American Jewish University presents “Inside LACMA’s Frank Gehry Exhibition,” the first in a series of “Art Matters” Conversations With Barbara Isenberg.

Barbara Isenberg is an award-winning journalist and the author of the Los Angeles Times bestseller “Conversations With Frank Gehry” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) and, most recently, of “Tradition!: The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of Fiddler on the Roof, The World’s Most Beloved Musical” (St. Martin’s Press, 2014).

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.