Centre Pompidou

Frank Gehry

08 Oct 2014 - 26 Jan 2015

Frank Gehry
Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, 2005-2010, vue intérieure de l’espace principal (détail).
© Photo : Iwan Baan
8 October 2014 - 26 January 2015

Curator : Mnam/Cci F Migayrou

The lines of force in the career of one of the key figures of contemporary architecture.

The name of Frank Gehry in itself embodies the image of contemporary architecture. Globally recognised for projects that have now made him an icon, his work has revolutionised the aesthetics of architecture, and its social and cultural role within the city. Gehry began to work on his approach in Los Angeles. In the Sixties, he mixed with the Californian art scene and became close to several artists, including Ed Ruscha, Richard Serra, Claes Oldenburg, Larry Bell and Ron Davis. His encounter with the works of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns opened the way to a reconfiguration of his architectural style, and notably began to introduce the use of poor materials such as cardboard, sheet metal and industrial wire netting. The extension of his own house in Santa Monica was a real manifesto for this new approach. From then on, all Gehry's projects questioned his own means of expression. This position as a bridge between art and architecture led him to write the most recent history of Los Angeles – now a legendary work. At a time when post-modernism was all-conquering, Gehry, on the contrary, avoided it. He talked about this in a celebrated dialogue with the film director Sydney Pollack, who made a biographical film on him in 2005. Gehry's work – both his architecture and the urban vision it conveys – is informed by two preoccupations: how to humanise architecture, and how to find a second wind after the first industrial crisis. For Gehry, who is both an architect and a great urban planner, shows us the city through his buildings. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, one of the most speaking examples, was built as an emblem of architecture's ability to reenergise the economic fabric of the territory. The Centre Pompidou retrospective provides an overall interpretation of his work for the first time in Europe through more than 60 models and nearly 220 original drawings. In a chronological circuit divided into themes, it retraces the lines of force in the career of one of the key figures in contemporary architecture in the second half of the 20th century.

Frédéric Migayrou – So where did it all begin? What was the starting point?
Frank Gehry – When I was young, I worked in my grandfather's hardware store. I made threaded pipes; we cut glass, sold nails and putty; I mended clocks, and all sorts of other things. I've always had this feeling for the hands-on. We were a very poor family, so had no chance of living in a luxury environment. We had small rooms, which I shared with others – my sister, my father and mother, and very long working hours as well. I think this is how a work ethic was instilled in me; I never had the sense that I had the right to anything, and I feel that even today. Architecture came about by chance, because I had never thought of becoming an architect. [...] When I finally started out, I liked to walk around and take pictures of industrial buildings. It was a quest, and I always looked at the environment very attentively. I didn't really like what I saw – apart from the works of Frank Lloyd Wright or Schindler, of course – but the general environment wasn't very sophisticated. It had no order, there were no rules. I'm not sure why, but I began to look at the spaces between the buildings [...] As soon as I started thinking like that, I was fascinated by what I saw. [...]

FM – When major commissions started to come in, you decided to work with artists and go back to the beginning, to the initial elements of language. You were interested in the Minimalists, in Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, and then in the art scene of LA, and you completely altered your language and architectural experimentation in search of new sources.
FG – I think I was attracted by all that because I didn't feel at ease with what was then developing in architecture. I like Schindler. I liked what he was doing, but that didn't mean I wanted to copy him. I didn't want to do the same thing. I think a large part of my development was due to the Asian influence in California, which was very powerful – considerably more than many people realise when they talk about Californian architecture. [...] My first small-scale projects gave the impression that I was a Japanese architect, because I used a language comprehensible to the mentality of housing estates. In fact, people could construct these wooden houses themselves. [...]
FM – [...] You began to design furniture using extremely poor materials. Could we speak, like Wright, of a new naturalisation of the city through the use of materials in their natural state?
FG – Perhaps it's also a kind of homage to Don Quixote – it's crazy, but if you play with something for long enough, you can use it and make sure that things happen, as with Rauschenberg and his assemblages.

Aurélien Lemonier –Could we call it a contextual way of working?
FG – Yes, indeed. But it's a human context. It's contextual to what we are, to what we produce, to what we make – that's normal. It is simply a reality. [...] It means accepting this reality: the way I have to work and the people I have to work with. How can I make this project something special? How can I appropriate this reality and transform it into something positive? It's like ju-jitsu, where the idea is that you use the other person's strength against him, and defeat him. [...]

AL – Could you explain the concept of the "one-room building", which dates from the same period as your house? This is a very powerful concept.
FG –It came from Philip Johnson. [...] So he gave a conference, but I'm not sure if I was there; I think I read the text later on. This conference talked about the one-room building. At the time I was trying to discover how I could get right to the essence of things, like my artist friends. What did Jasper think about when he made his first gesture? The clarity and purity of that moment is difficult to obtain in architecture. When Philip gave this conference, I said to myself, "That's it". The one-room building can be anywhere you like, because its function is simply to protect you from the rain, but it possesses no inherent complexity that makes it functionally operational. That's why churches are just magnificent spaces, and that's where you get to the essence – at least, that's what I thought... That was the moment when I made this little house, these village houses, which I brought together because I didn't have very much work, and I wanted to make as many one-room buildings as I could.

AL – Was the Faculty of Law at Loyola University the first major project to experiment with this idea on a larger scale?
FG – The Law Faculty was an interesting project, because the campus of Loyola University is a very beautiful setting, at the top of a hill overlooking the ocean. It was a little orphan that had taken refuge in the centre of LA [...] The university had a very tight budget. I asked them about their aspirations. Of course, they wanted a superb campus, but they didn't have the money. They needed a secure place, and thus, in a sense, a place that could be closed off. They wanted an identity, which was understandable – they didn't want to seem like a poor orphan. The first building built for them, the library, had only made things worse, because it was not a success – far too big and not very welcoming. So I talked to them; I talked about Law and what was important. By sheer chance, I had recently visited Rome – the Forum and the Temple of Castor and Pollux, which I was already familiar with, but actually seeing them made me realise that you need only a few elements to express something about Law. It didn't take much: two or three columns and a small lintel.

FM – As regards your first experiments with the computer... The way you draw has become absolutely iconic. How do you do it?
FG – In my view, drawings involve continuity, they include everything – they try to bring everything together, like an action that develops. At a certain moment, it's done. I like the idea of continuity, but a continuity that is total and ambiguous, if you like. I add a few other little things for fun. [...] Once I grasped the possibilities of this technology – that it was going to go global; everyone was going to draw on computers, no-one was going to make sketches or models any more, but design directly – I wanted to try it out for myself. I wanted to see what it meant, what these software programmes could do. I was lucky enough to have someone at hand who knew how to use them, which I certainly didn't. He sat beside me; I made a model in canvas and then we integrated it into the computer. I hated the image on the screen. Computer images are lifeless and cold – horrible. I manipulated the forms with him, showing him what I wanted by pointing on the screen. I practically drew on the screen for him, and he followed me. Technically it was really excellent. But turning the image in my head into this thing on the screen seemed absolutely... I don't know how to describe it. A little like being at the dentist without an anaesthetic. It hurt. I couldn't stand it – I literally fled from the room. Someone even timed the period I spent in front of the screen: 3 minutes 40 seconds. But that's how the Horsehead conference room came about.

FM – You had just invented the idea of generative design?
FG – That's right. But what's happening now is that the world is ruining everything, to go back to Cervantes. What was originally an astonishing tool for the architect has become a crutch, and many of those who use it end up by letting the computer draw and design their forms. Every software programme has its own signature; if you use my programmes, you can recognise them. [...] To return to my designs: they possess complexity. I can do a drawing easily in a single line. But you have more power, more possibilities, when you use the computer – you can easily use a smaller scale which enables you to do more precise and refined drawings. Once you have mastered the small-scale, you can move on to the large-scale, but you have more freedom. In other words, you use the computer to serve your own creativity – you don't let it become the creator. I don't know how to describe this work process in any other way. [...]

FM – It was particularly effective when you combined two projects you were working on at that time, the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Guggenheim Museum. The manipulation due to the computer more or less disappeared, but the singularity of the buildings was preserved.
FG – Yes, but I still rely on the technique of the model to construct, because there is a direct relationship between the hand and the object. I don't make my own models, but it's more direct. I work with my team, and it's more personal, in a way. When you put data into the machine – and now you can do that, you can put everything into the machine – then press a button and get a 3-D model, a 3-D rendering – it's totally impersonal; it's terrifying. [...]

FM – After the Guggenheim, you carried out another project. [...]After moving from the assembly to the fusion of elements, towards the complexity of a somewhat chaotic idea of architecture, you seem now to be returning to unity. In your most recent New York building (Beekman Tower) you have returned to classical typologies in a highly complex way. [...] How did that come about – what made you question the identity of the building once more?
FG - [...] I think it depends on the scale. [...] In the realm of very high towers, the models are there; everything has been done, everything has been thought out, everything has been modelled and built throughout the world, and all these towers resemble each other. What I felt was missing in New York was a tower that was not a copy – not a historical copy, but something that says "New York!" loud and clear. When you see it, you know it could only be in New York. In fact, I was creating a response to the Woolworth Building – a precious icon if ever there was one [...] Whatever the problem of the Woolworth's decoration, it was to this tower that I was responding, even without the aspect of decoration, by making something useful for the building, and that is why the bay window seemed to be an interesting idea. I thought about it a great deal. I was seeking what the essence of that tower could do. Some of my colleagues do pretty crazy things with towers, but I was seeking the very essence of the type. I was looking for an idea, a movement – I was looking for something like the Woolworth, with its 19th century decoration and its scale. That was what I found interesting. I was dialoguing with the New York tradition, and I was going to use this "thing" – call it what you will – of the bay window. [...] I was thinking of Bernini; I was thinking of the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, and those marvellous folds. I find them highly architectural. Michelangelo does softer lines; Bernini's are harder. I made a little sketch, and then I asked a young girl from Princeton, who was at the agency, if she knew the difference between Bernini's folds and those of Borromini. "Yes," she said. So I said, "Well, then, do me some lines with Bernini's folds," and she made a little model. It worked, and that's what we built. [...]

FM – This kind of idea is completely new in history, because you cite Bernini and examples mainly drawn from the period between Mannerism and the Baroque, faced with the traditional idea of perspective. It's a kind of permanent criticism of history. You have changed all the disciplines of architectural engineering... [...]
FG – I hope it's all right, at least! [laughs]. I think you are referring to what was for me the interpretation of the Talmud: why is it that something has to be done in this way? So I look at history. I try to understand what artists were thinking, why they did what they did and how it came about. [...] What I am looking for in history are those touches of humanity – what came about through the technology available at the time. And so I try to say, "We have a new technology and new tools; how can we ensure that we don't lose that humanity, that thought?" [...]

Interview by the curators of the exhibition: Frédéric Migayrou, assistant director of the Musée National d’Art Moderne and Aurélien Lemonier, curator at the Musée National d’Art Moderne

Tags: Larry Bell, Frank Gehry, C.T. Jasper, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha, Richard Serra