The difficulty of being Frank Gehry


Staff Writer

The exhibition “Frank Gehry: I Have an Idea,” currently at 21_21 Design Sight and curated by fellow architect Tsuyoshi Tane, crams in a lot, but it’s not exactly a linear retrospective. Rather, it’s an upward look at a man on a tightrope — a man who must balance form and function; rein in creativity with efficiency, precision and organization; square the client’s objectives with his own desire to stretch the medium; and make magic on a large scale. Naturally, it’s no cakewalk.

The exhibition’s preface depicts the scale of his work with aerial footage of Gehry’s masterpieces — Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Foundation Louis Vuitton — projected on several walls. The takeaway: These creations are simply too large and complex to be viewed from one spot.

In the next section is a random collection of inspirational touchstones — books, a hockey jersey, etc. Nearby are iterations of shapes constructed in various materials, early prototypes of buildings along with examples of Gehry’s cardboard furniture. It’s a jumble, but as Gehry himself has said, clutter is comforting and inspiring.

His words of wisdom (and frustration) appear throughout the exhibition, wrapped around surfaces, crawling across ceilings, often disconnected to their surroundings. The text’s letters are made from a reflective material, so to read the quotes fully, you must keep moving and adjust your bearings. It’s all about perspective.

The quotes have the tone of a confident man who knows exactly how everything works, and Gehry is, well, frank: “In the world we live in, 98 percent of what gets built and designed today is pure s—t. There’s no sense of design nor respect for humanity or anything. They’re bad buildings and that’s it.”

The reality is that the 2 percent requires failure and doubt. In a video projected on one wall, the 87-year-old architect reads a “manifesto,” or more a parody of one, in which he casually outlines the trials and tribulations of the creative process. “So you get an an idea,” it begins. “A stupid idea but you like it. So you look at it till you don’t like it.”

The manifesto is displayed — perhaps in homage to Gehry’s friend, sculptor Claes Oldenburg — as an enlarged piece of paper that’s seemingly crumpled, as if it had been rescued from a colossal waste bin of ideas. Like many masters, Gehry’s work emerges from not only a dissatisfaction with his industry, but also a restlessness regarding his own ideas, from a perpetual need to re-analzye, re-create and improve.

The show’s core showcases Gehry’s impressive range of projects and ground-breaking exploration of new types of material, techniques and workflows. It’s worth noting that while computer modelling software is crucial to the realization of Gehry Partners’ nonstandard designs, all ideas still begin with sculptural models that could be massaged by the hands of the master.

Covering one wall is a huge mind map that illustrates an architectural idea’s dependency on many individuals. Nearby is a panoramic photo of Gehry Partners, whose giant one-room office engenders open collaboration. Not surprisingly it’s the kind of space that instantly appealed to Mark Zuckerberg for Facebook’s new campus. Despite initial reticence, the project was achieved under budget, ahead of schedule and has led to further Facebook sites.

In another corner, a video presentation breaks down exactly how a Gehry idea is realized. One notable industry-shaping innovation is his company’s pioneering use of software based on CATIA, a 3-D modeling application initially used for aerospace projects. Facilitating synchronous work at all levels, Gehry’s software can simulate and handle hundreds of construction iterations. Instead of just passing blueprints to a construction company, Gehry Partners maintains full control of all those ideas and how the magic is made.

“Frank Gehry: I Have an Idea” at 21_21 Design Sight runs until Feb. 7; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. ¥1,100. Closed