The French president François Hollande is one of those luckless politicians whose name rarely appears in the media without being prefaced by ‘embattled’, ‘struggling’ or another ominous adjective. And no wonder. His presidency has been haunted by political crises, personal scandals and tumbling poll ratings. But now he has another problem on his hands – Frank Gehry is mad at him.
On a recent trip to Paris to inspect the final work on Fondation Louis Vuitton, the new contemporary art centre opening in late October, Gehry is fuming about something his client, Bernard Arnault, chairman and CEO of the LVMH luxury group that owns Louis Vuitton, had mentioned over dinner the previous night. ‘He told me President Hollande had said: “How can you work with Gehry? He’s so difficult”,’ roars Gehry.
Not that he is the only architect to have faced that accusation, which is an occupational hazard for any self-respecting designer with a vision, nor is it the worst thing to have been said about Gehry himself. (A brisk browse of the architecture blogs reveals many more damning accusations.) Yet even his fiercest detractors acknowledge that Gehry, now 85, is one of the most influential architects of our time thanks to te iconclastic design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and more modest works like the small suburban house in Santa Monica that he transformed into his family home by adding structures made from wire mesh, corrugated metal and other inexpensive materials.
Besides, Gehry will extract an elegant revenge against France’s sceptical president by dominating the French cultural scene this autumn. The first major European retrospective of his work is to open at Centre Pompidou in Paris on 8 October, followed a few weeks later by the inauguration of Fondation Louis Vuitton, to coincide with the FIAC contemporary art fair.
When Gehry’s first Parisian building, originally the American Center, now the Cinémathèque Française, opened in 1994, some French architecture critics complained that it was too timid. They had hoped for something gutsily deconstructivist like his Santa Monica home, rather than a thoughtful tribute to one of Gehry’s favourite French buildings, Le Corbusier’s chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp. But no one is likely to accuse Fondation Louis Vuitton of timidity. Located in the Bois de Boulogne, originally an oak forest where the French royals hunted bears and deer, the building consists of 11 galleries, where Louis Vuitton’s art collection and thematic exhibitions will be presented. They are façaded by 12 gigantic glass ‘sails’ tilted at such extreme angles that the structure resembles a ship reeling in a storm. The curved glass reflects the trees of the forest and the changing light and weather. Once inside, you can peer through the ‘sails’ at the surrounding greenery and cheerful jumble of trampolines, puppet theatres, fairground rides and the zoo in the adjacent Jardin d’Acclimatation, a children’s amusement park. The grand finale is a 360-degree view of Paris from the roof terraces, gazing over the tree tops to landmarks like the skyscrapers of La Défense to the west, and the Eiffel Tower to the east.
‘This is a once in a lifetime project, a fantasy in a children’s park,’ chuckles Gehry. ‘We needed two buildings: a solid one for the museum and something to make it seem ephemeral, because nobody wanted an intrusion in the park. It didn’t start out as a boat, but once we’d decided on the glass, it had to be made in sections, and I made them like sails, because I’m a sailor. You wouldn’t build anything like it anywhere else.’
Nor could you. Gehry was blessed with an unusually supportive client in Arnault, who commissioned him specifically because he wanted a spectacular building to symbolise his status as one of France’s most powerful industrialists and cultural patrons. Not that the French government was likely to object, as it had donated the site, originally a bowling alley, on condition that the new building should occupy the same space, and would be donated to the nation in 55 years time. (The deal was concluded before Hollande took office.) Arguably, the authorities may have become even keener for the project to succeed after falling out with Arnault’s rival, luxury goods baron François Pinault, who promptly abandoned his plan to build a private museum in Paris, opening it in Venice instead.
‘I’ve never had a client like Bernard Arnault before,’ says Gehry. ‘He gave me a lot of freedom to design the building, but expressed his opinions as we did it. There were things he liked and things he didn’t like, and we negotiated over time to produce a building he likes. I like it too, so that’s the ideal.’
Such a civilised scenario is very different from the scrappy start to Gehry’s career. Born Frank Owen Goldberg in Toronto in 1929, he moved to LA with his family in 1947, and began his working life as a truck driver. Encouraged by his mother, he enrolled for evening classes at a local art school, where a ceramics teacher, Glen Lukens, recognised his potential. ‘He was building a house designed by Raphael Soriano and had a hunch I might like it,’ recalls Gehry. ‘He enrolled me in an architecture class. I think he may even have paid for it. We were so broke, I have no idea where we’d have gotten the money from.’
After graduating from the University of Southern California, Gehry, whose first wife persuaded him to change his name from Goldberg to avoid anti-Semitism, worked for a series of local architects. He enrolled on a city planning course at Harvard in 1956, only to drop out after a term, and returned to LA with his wife and two daughters. Gehry opened his own office in Santa Monica in 1962, but struggled to establish it, bereft of the family connections and financial support that his wealthier contemporaries benefited from. Subsidising his income by teaching, he immersed himself in the avant-garde art scene in Santa Monica and Venice. The first definitive expression of his architectural vision was the Santa Monica house he built around the late 1970s to live in with his second wife, Berta, and their two sons. This extraordinary structure was hailed as a triumph of DIY ingenuity in progressive circles, but ‘treated as a freak or a prank’, as the architectural historian Kurt W Forster put it, by traditionalists.
The house flushed out new commissions, including ones from empathic corporate clients. Gehry designed the Venice offices of the advertising agency Chiat/Day as three buildings, each in a different style, including one in the form of giant binoculars devised by his artist friends Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. His first European project was a factory and design museum for Vitra in Weil am Rhein. Not until he was nearly 60 was he given a major commission in LA, the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The project was soon mired in rows over funding and design, which continued throughout the period from 1991 to 1997 when Gehry was working on the building that would make him famous, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.
A cluster of abstract forms whose titanium cladding glows exquisitely in the Basque light, the Bilbao museum is not only strikingly beautiful, but introduced many people to the new design software with which Gehry and like-minded architects, such as Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas, were experimenting. The technology was so precise that it enabled them to construct walls and roofs at extreme angles, and thereby create buildings in unprecedentedly dramatic shapes. ‘People think Bilbao was expensive but it wasn’t,’ says Gehry. ‘They hosted my 85th birthday party there, and said it cost $100m and how proud they are of achieving international whatever for that. But they didn’t do it again. Most of the buildings they’ve done since have been normal.’
Sudden fame, especially on the post-Bilbao scale, can be problematic, but Gehry has thrived, relishing his awards and commissions, even if he grimaces at some choices, like his cameo appearance in The Simpsons. Short and chunky with a mop of white hair, he is not cut out to play the charismatic architectural grandee, as Hadid and Koolhaas do so convincingly. The unstructured navy-blue suit and grey T-shirt are impeccably cut, but look comfortably purposeful on him, as does his elegant wooden cane, the most visible sign of his age. When discussing his work, Gehry speaks concisely and pragmatically, seemingly free from the need to embellish it with fashionable theories. He is also confident enough to air his vulnerabilities, cheerfully allowing his psychoanalyst, the late Milton Wexler, to be interviewed in Sydney Pollack’s engaging 2006 documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry.
At their best, Gehry’s buildings reflect his most appealing personal qualities. His generosity and sense of fun are evident in the sensual forms and choice of playful, instantly recognisable symbols that draw people into his buildings, rather than intimidating them. Equally engaging is the honesty with which he reveals the engineering of his architecture. There are parts of Fondation Louis Vuitton where the engineering seems overpowering, but Gehry also provides insights into the building’s construction by exposing structural elements, like joints and beams. And he is as eager to explain how he and his team applied their technological tools, like minimising waste during construction, as in describing the processes that produced the most seductive shapes and finishes.
Similar concerns will define his ongoing projects, which range from the restoration of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to the building of the Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi. Gehry is also passionate about a philanthropic arts education programme. ‘We’re working with ten schools in the poorest areas of California on a three-year artist development programme,’ he explains. ‘A lot of kids don’t relate to reading, writing and arithmetic, but when they’re involved with art, they get it.’
He hopes Fondation Louis Vuitton will have a similar effect by introducing the children who encounter his crazy glass ‘ship’ to the creative and social possibilities of contemporary architecture. ‘When kids come to the building I want them to elevate their imagination,’ says Gehry. ‘That’s why we designed it this way, so they’ll grow up thinking of architecture differently.’