Los Angeles — Frank Gehry, in dark blue sports jacket, charcoal gray slacks and protective hard hat, trots through the concrete shell of what soon will be the city's grand new concert hall. With a clutch of photographers at his heels, he stops to answer a question: Where will the "center" as in the heart and soul of this building be?
America's leading architect pirouettes and points to a debris-filled area that appears to be smack dab in the middle of nowhere. A moment later, as a furious round of photo-taking subsides, a playful Gehry notes that the spot looked as good a place as any for the "center" to be.
You suspect, though, that he knows exactly where the heart and soul of The Walt Disney Concert Hall will be when it opens two years from now. During the past 12 years, he has watched the odd-shaped edifice of tilting steel and concrete slowly move from his imagination to the center of the downtown skyline of his adopted hometown.
Gehry, who envisions his buildings as sculpture, wants to give Los Angeles a concert hall like no other. When he first tinkered with ideas for its design, his thoughts turned to the sea.
"I started thinking of billowing sails and being a sailor. ... I started thinking of the concert hall, the stage and the seating as like a barge. I call it a ceremonial barge for traveling to music."
He actually designed two buildings in one, he says. And when people pass from the plaster outer building into the rich, wood-paneled theater-in-the-round music hall, the idea is that they'll feel as though they are leaving one building behind and perhaps one experience behind, as well for another, more transcendent place.
If he pulls it off, it could be the crowning achievement in a long and brilliant career. But the white-haired, bespectacled Gehry dismisses such talk with a polite smile.
"This was designed 10 years ago, so a lot of crowning achievements have happened since," he says, chuckling softly.
Stacking up the prizes
Since he won the competition to design the building in 1989, the 72-year-old Gehry has been on one incredible roll.
That same year he received the Pritzker Prize, which in architectural circles is akin to winning the Nobel prize. Ten years later he received the American Institute of Architects gold medal, and there were fistfuls of other prestigious honors presented in the years between. Last year, he was awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects gold medal and the Americans for the Arts lifetime achievement award.
Then there are his buildings, which have won more than 100 awards and given him the aura of a rock star among fans of architecture. The structures are instantly recognizable with their powerful geometric forms and materials that lend an unfinished look.
He cites no particular influences on his work, at least among other architects. He has said often that he felt like an "outsider" during his early years in the profession, when he struggled to make a living, and even during his first flush of success in the 1970s and '80s, when his more innovative designs were sometimes dismissed as just goofy looking.
Artists seem to have been the real influence on him, and he acknowledges being intrigued by the process of creating sculpture. He's collaborated with such sculptors as Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen and established close ties with numerous West Coast artists.
His masterwork is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, with its interconnected blocks. It is considered to be a masterpiece by many and among the greatest modern buildings in the world.
Even the architect's own house in Santa Monica, which he designed himself, reflects his style. It is made of plywood, chain link and corrugated aluminum.
Then there's the Chiat/Day building in the Venice beach area with its three-story set of binoculars that continually elicits double takes from passers-by, and the Nationale Nederlanden Building of offices and shops in Prague, which is better known as the "Fred and Ginger Building" for the towering twin columns that appear to be dancing together.
The Disney project will likely create the same excitement when it opens in 2003 as Gehry's The Experience Music Project did when it opened in Seattle last year.
"I am nervous about this issue, how this will be seen in relation to the other work," Gehry says of Disney Hall. "I don't know where it's going to land in people's consciousness. I hope it has a life of its own."
He acknowledges that it will be compared to the Guggenheim, but says that doesn't particularly bother him.
"Yeah, but you know, even my house is compared to the Guggenheim," he says, laughing.
'An artistic intention'
Whatever way the Disney Hall is viewed, it seems a safe bet that it will do nothing but add to Gehry's reputation, both among his detractors and supporters.
Some of the former have dismissed his work as not much more than gigantic, lopsided reincarnations of the little scrap-wood cities he has said he spent hours building when he was a boy growing up in the mining town of Timmins, Ontario.
Such critics, suggests architecture expert Richard Weinstein, fail to recognize Gehry for what he is: both an artist and an architect who uses 21st-century tools to create buildings that as recently as 50 years ago would have been impossible to construct.
"For most of the history of architecture, buildings used classic Greek geometries that were generally designed in a modular way," says Weinstein, dean emeritus of the graduate school of architecture and urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles.
This was done, he says, as much for necessity as style, because it was all but impossible to construct buildings unless they were made of equally sized parts. But with the use of modern computer programs and space-age materials like titanium, Gehry was able to abandon those classic modular lines in favor of odd shapes and sizes. In the process, he created something that had never been done before.
"Gehry arrived at this out of an artistic intention," Weinstein says. "It became possible to do because of the computer. But the impulse to make things look that way was an artistic impulse, just the way Beethoven changed music because he wanted to express things differently."
Comparing Gehry's art to Beethoven's, of course, would be mixing artistic metaphors. But Weinstein offers another comparison to Frank Lloyd Wright, who 42 years after his death remains America's best-known architect.
"Gehry's achievement may prove to be equal to Wright's," Weinstein says. "Who knows, it may even surpass him if has the opportunity to continue to work for another 10 years."
For his part, Gehry modestly brushes off such praise. During a series of long-winded tributes to him at a breakfast gathering to promote the Disney hall, he turned to a dining companion and whispered, "I hope they know what they're talking about." Then he stood at the podium and quipped, "I'm going to have to raise my fees."
In high demand
Gehry has projects stacked up and is busy turning down others, like the expansion and renovation of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Among those he'll do are the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and a new computer sciences building for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He's also considering another branch of the Guggenheim in New York City that would complement the venerable Wright original on Fifth Avenue.
Gehry partly explains his robust appetite for work by the fact that he started late in architecture. He moved to Los Angeles with his family in 1947, and it was here that a college ceramics teacher saw a talent in Gehry when he was 20. He suggested he take an architecture class.
"I did well in it, and it was like the first thing in my life that I'd done well in," he recalls quietly. Five years later he earned an architecture degree from the University of Southern California, going on to study briefly at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design.
Neither financial success nor critical acclaim came quickly, though, and he did everything from designing shopping centers and low-income housing to driving a truck.
Even after opening his own architecture firm in 1962, he didn't find real success until several years later, and then it came not from designing buildings but furniture. A line of chairs, tables and stools he created to look like life-sized squiggles was an instant hit with the public in the early 1970s and helped launch him on his way to bigger architectural projects.
"I'm totally flabbergasted that I got to where I've gotten," he says. "Now it seems inevitable, but at the time it seemed very problematic."