Frank Gehry on City Building

In this interview excerpt the famed architect touches on his field's role in making great cities

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Reuters

Last summer, I was commissioned by Wallpaper magazine to interview architect Frank Gehry. The occasion was the magazine’s 15th anniversary, and part of the idea behind the interview was to look at how Gehry’s career has changed over the last 15 years. His most famous work, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, opened (that’s right!) 15 years ago.

While some of the conversation inevitably explored the impact of that particular building’s notoriety on Gehry’s career, we also discussed the urban impact of this architecture and how architects can play a stronger role in creating better cities.

The complete interview has only been published in the print edition of Wallpaper’s December 2011 issue, but the magazine’s editors have kindly allowed us to republish an excerpt.

Can you talk about the importance of context in architecture?

The professionals that know my work consider me a contextualist because I spend a lot of time thinking about the environment that I’m working in. I try to respect the neighboring buildings, and not to overpower them or talk down to them. You might not like the building that’s next to you, but it’s there. You don’t criticize the building, but in your actions make a continuum. So I try to do that. Have you been to Bilbao?

No.

The pictures that are published of Bilbao don’t show its context in relation to buildings. Only if you go there do you figure it out.

I feel that’s a problem with a lot of architectural photography because I’m more interested in the city- and neighborhood-level.

I am too. I went to city planning at Harvard.

And you quickly abandoned it.

There was no work in it. It was all about statistics and government agencies. There’s a lot of layers of bureaucracy that make it impossible to do creative work in cities. Add that to the economic blindness of the people that build stuff. They just want to get it up and sell it. There’s no sense of responsibility for time and to the community. Somebody’s got to reeducate those people that there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow if they follow it. What we need is a benevolent dictator. That’s who built some of the best cities. So a Robert Moses, somebody with a vision. You don’t find many of them.

Could that change?

The one guy in our profession who tackled it, I think, is Rem Koolhaas. He got the CCTV tower built in Beijing. It’s the biggest building there, so it does solidify, it does create a maypole to dance around if they started playing with it, but it don’t think anybody’s doing it. But the ideas of designers like that don’t replicate into a city model. It’s pretty much one building at a time, and that’s what I’ve been doing. You try to make the one building you do resonate beyond its perimeter and create a response, hopefully. We're asking for a pretty sophisticated public and bureaucracy and private sector investors to come up with a model and there’s nobody out there doing it. Chunks of it, but we’ve drained a lot of the idealism out of the equation for some reason.

Thanks again to Jonathan Bell and the team at Wallpaper.

Photo credit: Phil McCarten / Reuters

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.