The Man With the Most Unusual Lines
During his second year as an architecture student at the University of Southern California in 1950, Frank Gehry got some unsolicited advice from his teacher. "He called me in and said, 'Frank, this isn't for you. You should get out,'" Gehry recalled. "When he said it, it meant nothing to me. I mean, I was devastated, but I didn't give up."
Forty-six years later, Gehry would be on the receiving end of a similarly damning assessment. It was 1996. Los Angeles had been through Rodney King, O. J. Simpson, the Northridge earthquake, and a recession. Now, Walt Disney Concert Hall, one of the most ambitious projects in the city's history, was well on its way to becoming another L.A. fiasco. After five years, $50 million, and enough melodrama for a Hollywood thriller, the would-be home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic was little more than a high-priced hole in the ground. And Gehry, the maverick architect whose unorthodox design had won him the job, would be told once again that he should get out. Once again, he would be devastated. And, once again, he wouldn't budge.
Today, Disney Hall, with its soaring, steel surfaces and breathtaking mix of beauty, grace, and optimism, is downtown L.A.'s "it" building. Completed in 2003, it is the envy of orchestras around the world and has given L.A. the kind of cultural credibility that had eluded it for years. It has also become the focal point of a nearly $2 billion downtown renaissance.
But in addition to its most obvious public contributions, Disney Hall marks the beginning of a series of architectural triumphs by Gehry that not only have redefined the intersection of art and architecture but transformed the way computers can be used in construction and design and helped change the language of building from cones, squares, and cylinders to an unlimited array of nontraditional shapes and surfaces.
As for that underestimated USC architecture student, Gehry, 77, has become an icon, with buildings all over the world and a 150-person design firm in L.A. that is a mecca for promising young architects across the nation. "With Disney Hall, Gehry was not just the first architect to conceive of a building this way," says architecture Prof. Richard Weinstein, who was a member of the search committee that chose Gehry out of 72 architects to design the music hall. "He was the first to figure out how to build it."
Tribute. In retrospect, that looks like the easy part. The project began in 1987 with a $50 million gift from Walt Disney's widow, Lillian, who wanted to create a world-class concert hall as a tribute to her late husband, who loved classical music. Gehry's firmjust 40 people thenwas chosen for the project on the strength of his sweeping design (which bears almost no resemblance to the hall today), his agreement that the music came first, and his friendship with Lillian, who liked Gehry better than the sculpturelike exteriors of his buildings. (She once sent him a note with her vision for the hall: a nice little cottage wrapped in vines with a duck pond.)
"Frank understood Mother's rather vague desires, that the hall be open and welcoming and not elitist," says Diane Disney Miller, Walt's only surviving child.
Making it happen was something else entirely. With the city, the county, the music center, the cultural establishment, the fundraisers, and the architects all focused on their own agendas, no one quite saw the big picture. By 1996, poor oversight and unchecked spending had virtually eaten up Lillian's gift, with nothing to show for it but a stack of incomplete architectural drawings (produced by an outside firm chosen by Gehry) and a pile of bills. The project was DOA; Gehry was MIA; and L.A. was back in the running for national basket case.
"Everywhere I went, people would stop me and say, 'How could you have done that; you knew it couldn't be built,'" says Gehry, who is notoriously thin-skinned. "I thought the project was dead. I didn't want to go out in public."
Hockey buddies. Enter Eli Broad, a billionaire philanthropist and power broker to whom failure is an utter stranger. "We had to get that thing built and prove we could actually get something done in Los Angeles," says Broad, who had been recruited to salvage the project by then L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan (who also happened to play hockey with Gehry). In almost no time, Broad and a handful of powerful friends raised nearly $175 million for Disney Hall. The project was saved.
There was only one problem: Gehry. He and Broad had a troubled history, which essentially consisted of Gehry's taking so long to finish Broad's ultramodern L.A. home that Broad brought in another architect to finish the job. Now Broad wanted to bring in another architect to do the drawings and manage the Disney project, leaving Gehry to handle the design. "He didn't believe I could get the building done," says Gehry, whose Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, which is similar in style to Disney Hall, had since opened to international acclaim. "He wanted the right to run the project with another architect. I couldn't accept that."
Gehry threatened to walk unless his firm was allowed to complete the drawings and manage the project. When push came to shove, Diane Disney Miller, whose mother had died the previous year, insisted that Gehry remain, and she put up an additional $14 million for the new drawings. The deal was done. Gehry had won.
His firm went to work on the drawings, using an innovative computer program called CATIA that had been adapted from an airplane-design program to translate 3-D shapes into two-dimensional mathematical formulas that could then be used by manufacturers to cut the pieces and by builders to put them together. CATIA not only allowed Gehry (who can barely turn on a PC) to take architecture in a whole new direction; it made documenting the design process easier, which led to better cost controls during construction.
Ironically, the same program that made it possible for Gehry to individualize his designs has also, according to some critics, made it a whole lot easier to mass-produce them. Gehry's trademark sculptural buildings have been derided as "Logotecture," or, as one critic put it: "Same Gehry, different city." Other detractors have branded his work as showy, self-indulgent, and egotistical.
But all that would come later. In late October 2003, many years late and $164 million over its original $110 million budget, Disney Hall finally opened. Gehry's stunning steel design and open urban gardens were a triumph. But the Concert Hall inside was the true star. With its curved wood ceilings and open interiors, the hall's auditorium is spacious enough for 2,265 seats. Yet the audience surrounds the orchestra in a way that makes the place feel as cozy as a living room. "Frank had a deep impact on the way we use the hall and the way it lives and breathes," says Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.
Gehry, who had also worked on the famed Hollywood Bowl, worked closely with Borda and the Philharmonic's music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, throughout the process. "Frank built this hall from the inside out," says Borda. "His design created an environment and an intimacy that makes you actually feel part of the music."
As Gehry, who is far less complex than his famous designs, puts it: "We pulled it off."
For obvious reasons, Gehry doesn't have to look far for work these days. In fact, he never solicits it and only rarely enters into competitions like the one for Disney Hall. Not because he doesn't want to win, but because he can't take losing. "I can't handle the rejection," he says. Even at his level, he is still in some ways that young USC student, afraid that someone will tell him he doesn't have what it takes, and that he needs to get the heck out.
This story appears in the October 30, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.