Frank Gehry: Getting There

The creative industries may be obsessed by the young and the new, but for architects in particular, success is often only achieved later in life. In this exclusive extract from a new book on mentors, Frank Gehry, now 86, traces the key moments of his career and offers up some advice on the importance of doing what you love and taking a risk

My high school had a shelf of books dedicated to vocational guidance. I remember looking through the one on architecture and thinking that it seemed so bloody boring.

My father sold and serviced slot machines. He was uneducated and, although street-smart, never made much money. He had a lot of stress in his life and would often take it out on me. He used to tell me that I was a useless dreamer with no business sense and that I wouldn’t amount to much. My mother compared me to her friends’ children and always thought I fell short. But I knew I was curious and had ambition. I was drawn to people who were on the intellectual side, and my friends were interested in things like classical music, literature, art, and politics.

During my senior year of high school, my father had a heart attack and was unable to work. He became wiped out financially and totally demoralised. We were living in Canada and my parents decided we should move to LA, where we had family. My father became a truck driver for a soda pop company. My mother worked at a department store. I pitched in by becoming a truck driver and by doing other odd jobs on the side. We all did what we needed to do to survive.

One of my cousins was a student at the University of Southern California (USC) and kept pushing me to enrol there. My family couldn’t afford anything like that, but I managed to get a job in the USC admissions office, which allowed me to take a few classes through their extension programme. I took a night class in ceramics and the teacher, Glen Lukens, liked me so much that he asked me to be his teaching assistant. We became close. Glen happened to be building himself a house by Raphael Soriano, a big-deal architect in Southern California at the time. Glen had a hunch that I might enjoy architecture so he took me to the construction site when Soriano was there. I remember watching him – this little Greek guy with a broken nose dressed entirely in black with a beret – directing the workers to move the steel and other materials. He really knew what he was doing and it was exciting. Glen saw my eyes light up and enrolled me in a USC night class in architecture.

I got an A and the teacher recommended that I enrol in the USC School of Architecture – and skip right to the second year of the programme! It was the first time I had received positive reinforcement of that magnitude and it felt great. It was a really big deal for me. I applied for scholarships and worked on the side. While at USC, I got married. My wife, Anita, worked as a secretary to help pay my tuition.

Halfway through my second year, one of my professors called me into his office and said, “You will never make it in this field. Get out now or you’re just going to waste a lot of time.” Hearing this was devastating, but at the same time something allowed me not to take it personally. My professor’s comments felt like anti-Semitism to me, something I had gotten used to while growing up in Canada. Also, I had become so enamoured with architecture that it would have been almost impossible for anyone to derail me. I had reached the point of no return and vowed to prove that professor wrong.

I graduated from USC in 1954 and began working for the LA-based architect Victor Gruen, whom I had apprenticed for while in school. Within a few months, however, I got drafted and served in the army for about two years. The army encouraged people to go back to school and would let you out three months early if you did, so I decided to apply to graduate school. I wanted to use architecture to do good things for the world, so I applied to a city-planning programme at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and got accepted. But when I got there, I discovered the programme was nothing like what I had expected. It was about economics, government, and statistics – not architecture – so I quit.

Afterward, I moved back to LA and resumed working for Victor Gruen. I was given a lot of responsibility and learned how to do everything from building shopping centres to writing contracts and budgeting. It was an incredible experience, and it really boosted my confidence, but Anita wanted to live in Paris. I started saving money and, after about three years, we finally made the move (we had two daughters by this point). It was difficult to find employment, but I managed to get a job working for a French architect four days a week. The rest of the week, we would travel around looking at architecture. I loved France, but I barely made enough money to get by. It wasn’t terrible compared to what other people in this world go through, but we had to miss a few meals so the kids could be fed. After about a year, as we were preparing to move back to LA, Victor Gruen came to Paris and asked to meet. He was going to open an office there, and he wanted me to join him. For a split second, I was excited by the prospect of being able to stay and afford a better life, but within one minute, I said no. It was a risky move for someone with a family to support and no game plan, but somewhere along the way, I had become determined to open my own practice and figured I should start then.

When I returned to LA, a friend told me that his in-laws were planning to build a little warehouse there and he felt I would be a good fit for the job. He offered me $2,000 to do it and I accepted. I got a couple of other projects from that (apartment buildings and houses) but my career wasn’t progressing the way I had hoped. Projects would fall through and I couldn’t understand why. I was on the verge of bankruptcy and, to top it off, my marriage had run into serious trouble and I was having difficulty with my two daughters. Basically, I was floundering on all fronts.

Gehry's house in Santa Monica, shot by Rob Corder
Gehry’s house in Santa Monica, shot by Rob Corder

A friend pushed me into therapy with a man named Milton Wexler, and I joined a 15-person therapy group that Milton led. We met twice a week, and I went for two years without saying a word. I would literally just sit there in silence. Then one night Milton turned to me and said, “Your anger is showing.” This opened up the floodgates and the entire group came at me. They wanted to know who I thought I was, sitting there judging them. If it had been only one or two people criticising me, I could have shrugged it off, but when a group attacks, you can’t ignore it. That was powerful stuff. I had no idea I was exuding my anger, but once I knew, I became motivated to do something about it.

Milton and I explored the issue further, and I realised that my anger was getting in my way professionally. I would often decide beforehand that a prospective client wouldn’t get me, and I would walk away from potentially good opportunities. In addition, projects weren’t working out because people were uncomfortable with me. Building something new and original can be scary because no one wants to push it too far and end up with a structure people make fun of – so it is essential for clients to trust their architect. Understanding all this was a major turning point.

Milton guided me through other issues too. The kind of buildings I was designing didn’t conform to any particular architectural philosophy, and many of my colleagues were dismissive of me and made fun of my work. When I would discuss this with Milton, he would say, “Screw them! There aren’t any rules. Just because they did it that way last week doesn’t mean you have to do it that way today.”

The artists in town accepted me and gave me positive feedback – so I became friends with them. Observing the way they worked really influenced me. When an architect draws up a plan, he has to go through many, many people to get whatever it is built. Artists, on the other hand, have a more direct process and can be more freewheeling. I was drawn to this freedom.

In 1975, I got remarried to my current wife, Berta. A couple of years later, we bought a pink bungalow in Santa Monica that was built in the 1920s and needed work. We didn’t have a big budget, but I was excited to finally be able to do whatever I wanted, however I wanted. The house became my architectural laboratory, and I experimented with industrial materials such as chain-link fence, corrugated aluminium, and raw plywood. I decided to leave the old house intact and basically build a new one around it. The finished product was quite unconventional and really stood out (especially since it was the only two-storey residence on the street and was located on a corner). My neighbours hated it, but many felt otherwise and it garnered a lot of attention.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall, shot by Michael Smith
The Walt Disney Concert Hall, shot by Michael Smith

Although I had evolved and become secure with my own style, I also needed to make a living, and I felt that I had to take on various jobs that were out of whack with what I believed in for that purpose. This all changed one evening.

At the same time that I was doing my house, I was also building a shopping mall called Santa Monica Place for one of my largest clients, The Rouse Company. The night Santa Monica Place opened, Matt DeVito, the president of Rouse came to my house for dinner. He looked around and said, “What the hell is this? You must like this house, since you did it for yourself. But if you like this, how can you like Santa Monica Place?” I explained that I didn’t. Matt’s response was that I shouldn’t take on work I didn’t want to do. At that time, about 45 people in my office were working on various Rouse Company projects, but Matt and I shook hands and agreed to stop working together. That was a Friday. I went into my office on Monday morning and let nearly everyone go. It was like jumping off a cliff – scary, but exhilarating at the same time.

It was tough rebuilding my practice but there are times when you know that you need to believe in yourself, be bold, and not go forward with something that doesn’t feel right. I still turn down work for this reason. Once in a while, I regret doing so, but you can’t always be correct.

In the late 1980s, I was chosen to do the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown LA. This was a huge project for me, and I was ecstatic. It ended up taking 15 years to complete and was on the verge of not being built several times, but that’s life in this field! In the meantime, in 1991, I got a job that changed my career. I was hired to design the Guggenheim’s new museum in Bilbao, Spain. It opened in 1996 and had a tremendously positive impact. The museum paid for itself within the first eight months of opening, and it now attracts about one million visitors a year. It transformed what was once a gritty industrial city in economic decline into a vibrant one, and it has become an immense source of pride for the city’s inhabitants. What happened has become known as the ‘Bilbao effect’ and other cities have been attempting to emulate it. (When I was working on the museum, by the way, I had no idea that it would receive the reaction it did. I remember people talking about their hopes that it would result in a commercial uplift for the city. I thought that was like believing in the tooth fairy!)

Since Bilbao, clients who hire my firm generally aspire to do something unique. They know what I am about and egg me on to explore. It’s really exciting, but whenever someone comes to me with a new project, I’m always a little scared that I won’t know what to do. It seems like most creative people live with this kind of insecurity. It’s actually healthy because it helps the creative process and leads you to new places. If you don’t have it, you probably ain’t gonna measure up. But in the end, you have to trust your intuition and be willing to take risks. Risks allow for progress – and this applies to all fields.

The above is an edited extract from Getting There: A Book of Mentors by Gillian Zoe Segal, Abrams Image, £15.99

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