Real People Stories

Dream Builder

UPDATED 07/10/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/10/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

Frank Gehry is trying to sing Janis Joplin. "Oh, Lord, don't you get me a Mercedes Benz," he ventures, out of tune and lyrically incorrect, before trailing off in defeat. More of a classical-music type of guy, America's most celebrated architect admits he felt faced with something of a challenge when, back in 1996, software tycoon Paul Allen invited him to create a multimillion-dollar rock and roll museum in Seattle. "I asked Paul what he wanted, and he said something 'swoopy,' " he recalls. So Gehry, now 71, got into the groove, studying the curves of Fender guitars and listening to a lot of Jimi Hendrix. "Before that," he says, "I didn't even know what a wa-wa pedal was."

Gehry may have learned a great deal in the process. More important, he has produced yet again one of the world's most provocative buildings. Seattle's Experience Music Project is a multicolored fun house that—despite the heft of glass, concrete and 21,000 buffed-metal shingles—seems to ooze in every direction. At the $240 million museum's official opening June 23, rockers from Grace Slick to Sheryl Crow to Eminem beheld the stainless steel walls that ripple like curtains caught in a breeze. The big star, though, was the building itself. "They say good architecture is frozen music, and this is it," says Seattle mayor Paul Schell, 62, who insists Gehry's design offers something even to detractors, presumably including the one who likened it to "the wreck of the Partridge Family bus." Says Schell: "The building is going to challenge people."

Judging by the Santa Monica architect's other accomplishments, it will also attract them in droves. Gehry's silvery, sexy design for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, a city once considered an industrial flyover zone, has made the burg an international mecca. The modern-art museum, which opened in 1997, drew more than 1 million visitors in its first year alone and has since popped up in the most unusual places: in a James Bond film, a Mariah Carey video and on Jeopardy! In fact, wherever city elders and culture czars demand buildings that dazzle, chances are Gehry is en route, sketching one of his squiggly designs on an airline napkin. "He's the only person since Frank Lloyd Wright who has been able to impress the intellectuals and excite the general public," says the New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger. "I think he's the most remarkable architect of our time."

When it comes to his personal style, the Canadian-born landmark-maker tends to fall on the Everyday Joe side of the divide. He wears a Timex watch and khakis. "This is my messy desk, which I like," he says at his sprawling design studio, filled with plywood furniture and exposed electrical ducts, where some 120 architects are at work on 34 projects. There's a Berlin bank with a conference room shaped like a horse's head, for instance, and a Jerusalem peace center initially inspired by the floor plan of a mosque. The only common ingredient, says Gehry, who turns down 9 out of 10 job offers, is clients who aren't afraid to get involved. "I'm more interested in the intellectual interplay, the game," he says. "My clients have an object of desire in mind, and I try to realize it for them. I love that. I'm a geisha. I try to make them happy."

Gehry traces some of his most daring design motifs back to childhood memories—like the fish he remembers swimming in his Polish-born grandmother's bathtub. "She used to buy live ones on Thursdays, then make gefilte fish on Fridays, only she didn't tell me that part," says Gehry, who went on to design fish-shaped structures in Japan and Italy. Born Frank Owen Goldberg in Toronto in 1929, where his father, Irving, a former New York City boxer, sold slot machines for a living, Gehry remembers using blocks to make imaginary cities with his grandmother. "The genes," he says, "were in the family."

So were hard times. Canada cracked down on gambling after World War II, and Gehry's father lost most of his money after investing in the furniture business. He also suffered a heart attack, and in 1947, at a doctor's urging, the family—Irving; his wife, Thelma; Frank, then a recent high school graduate; and Frank's sister Doreen, now a college professor—moved to Los Angeles, settling into a two-room apartment. Unable to afford college, Gehry worked as a truck driver and took art classes, including one taught by a man who invited him to visit the construction site of a house he was having built. "I was quite moved by watching the architect walking around, supervising, by the things he was worried about," says Gehry. "I guess it showed in my eyes, because my teacher suggested I try an architecture class."

Gehry credits his first wife, a stenographer he married in 1952, with helping to put him through architecture school at the University of Southern California. (It was also her idea, he says, to change their name to Gehry to escape anti-Jewish bias. "I wouldn't do it today," he says.) The marriage lasted 16 years and produced two daughters, Brina Gehry, 43, a computer graphics artist, and magazine editor Leslie Brenner, 45.

Gehry's early work included serene, Japanese-inflected houses, edgy public buildings and a successful line of furniture made of cardboard. He was married again in 1975, this time to Panamanian-born Berta Aguilera, who showed up at his office in the late '60s to interview for a job. "It involved heavy phone work, and with my accent I didn't want that," Berta, 57, says today. She passed on the job but accepted Gehry's offer of dinner a month later.

Gehry designed a breakthrough building in 1977: the couple's own Santa Monica home, a 1920s pink wooden bungalow that Gehry sheathed in plywood and corrugated metal and pierced with skylights. The radically updated house, where he still lives with Berta (now his chief financial officer), had neighbors threatening to sue but won Gehry national attention. Then, in the mid-'80s, he adapted computer software used in the manufacture of Boeing aircraft to create structures, like his startling design for Bilbao, that themselves seem poised for flight. "He's warm and friendly and 'aw, shucks,' but you don't build buildings like Frank's with just that," says Robert A.M. Stern, dean of Yale's School of Architecture. "He's tough. He has a vision, and he struggles for it."

Gehry's biggest challenge today may be dodging well-wishers and would-be clients long enough to get some work done. That, and finding time to work out and play ice hockey, a sport he took up a decade ago as a way of spending time with sons Alejandro, now 24, an illustrator, and Samuel, 20, an art student. At an age when others slow down, Gehry is booking his calendar for the next decade. "I'm not going to retire, I'll just keep going. Look at Philip Johnson," he says, referring to architecture's elder statesman. "He's still working, and he's 93."

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