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TALK ASIA

Interview with Architect Frank Gehry

Aired April 13, 2012 - 05:30:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: (voiceover): His designs are unique, eye-catching and, at times, controversial. Still, his unique buildings have put some places on the map. And with a career spanning more than 40 years, today, he's one of the world's most renowned architects. Even reaching pop-culture status for younger generations.

FRANK GEHRY, ARCHITECT (voiceover): Behold, the new Springfield Concert Hall.

COREN (voiceover): At the age of 83, he's still hard at work. Today, on "Talk Asia", we meet Frank Gehry at the opening of his latest creation, high above Hong Kong. Where does he get his inspirations? How does he handle the critics? And what would he still like to accomplish? That's all coming up on "Talk Asia".

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COREN: Not scared of heights?

GEHRY: A little bit.

(LAUGHTER)

COREN: So, tell me, how did you - look at this building - what do you think?

GEHRY: I like - the glass columns were a big issue, because they were not needed. They weren't functional, they - they kind of - and I'm not given to decorate things - but I needed them to emphasize the twisting - the feeling of movement of the building. This is the structure, and this is the decor.

COREN: So, 12 apartments - 12 stories?

GEHRY: Yes. Each floor is one apartment. So, it's like doing a house - in layers of houses. And so, if you took the plan of that house - if you took the slice out and put it on the ground, it functions as a house would. Because the rooms look in different directions. You know, you normally don't get that in apartment buildings.

COREN: No.

GEHRY: You're usually looking one way, or maybe you get a corner window, but you don't get a completely surrounded thing that isn't flat - that sort of snakes around - I don't know, snakes around forever. So it unfolds to nature.

COREN: I went for a walk through the apartment beforehand, and, as you say, every room has a view. It's like the 360 degree -

GEHRY: But every room is discreet, so you don't see the room next to it. Each room is like its own apartment in a way.

COREN: Yes.

GEHRY: And that's what we achieve by this sinuous plan.

COREN: Well let's - if you've taken in the view, let's head on inside.

The owners of this property wanted one of the world's greatest architects. Are you?

GEHRY: They didn't tell me that. I should have known that when I was negotiating my fee.

COREN: Are you happy with the final product?

GEHRY: Oh, God, yes. They've been fastidious and we had a great relationship, which is what I insist on - that we really get close with our clients and understand what are the issues so they're not blindsided and I don't force them to do things. We do it together, kind of. And I love that. That's the best way, because when you get to the end, there's mutual ownership, rather than just my ownership and that's important to me.

COREN: How did this building come to be in your mind - in your imagination?

GEHRY: I didn't want it to stick out like a sore thumb. I wanted it to be polite. I wanted the people that were in the apartments to have a very special relationship with the great view and the assets that this site afforded them.

COREN: There aren't too many sites like this left in Hong Kong. So, to come across this - what were your initial thoughts?

GEHRY: Well, I wasn't aware that there weren't many sights - I don't know Hong Kong well enough. I certainly knew about the peak. Then, when I got here, I came up and wandered around and learned about it. And realized that this was a major place to be building a building. And the 360 degrees of views and visibility for miles and - came with a lot of responsibility not to screw it up or anything.

COREN: I want to talk about your background, because it really is quite fascinating. You were born in Toronto, you moved to Los Angeles -

GEHRY: Yes.

COREN: -- when you were a teenager. I believe you had a very creative family. Your grandmother encouraged you to build cities with scraps of wood.

GEHRY: Yes.

COREN: You spent time with your grandfather in his hardware store. Your parents were artists, you know, they taught you to draw.

GEHRY: Well they - first of all, my parents had never done - finished high school. My father was an urchin that lived in Hell's Kitchen. He was part of a family of nine. I mean, there were times that were better and worse, but mostly, by the time we got to L.A., they'd lost whatever they had. And it was a sad time. And both he and I became truck drivers for different companies.

But my mother played violin when she was young. She loved the arts. My father probably - he had flashes of creativity - he used to do store windows for fruit stores that he worked in and stuff. So that there was - in the DNA, there must have been. But it was kind of buried in our lives at the time. The way that - the circumstance of our lives.

COREN: Because you joined the U.S. Army for several years. As you say, you were a truck driver for a while.

GEHRY: Yes. The U.S. Army joined me - they drafted me.

(LAUGHTER)

COREN: So, why architecture?

GEHRY: I was taking ceramics as a - at night class because one of the few things that was available. And my ceramics teacher, who is fairly well known, saw in my work that I wasn't going to make beautiful pots, but he was building a house with a fairly famous architect at the time. And he dragged me over to the house a couple of times.

And then he - after that, he said, "I have a hunch". And he put me in the architecture class at night. And it was - it was - that was the beginning. And I got the bug. And I got a lot of approval for the first time in my life for doing some things. And I haven't looked back since.

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GEHRY (voiceover): Frank Gehry, you're a genius. Behold, the new Springfield Concert Hall.

GEHRY: People really think I did that. I've had serious reporters start these conversations with, "Now, after you crumple the paper, then what do you do?"

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COREN: Your home in Santa Monica, in Los Angeles, really put you on the map. For the Dutch Colonial bungalow in which you built another house around it.

GEHRY: Around the house, yes. We had one child and another one coming, and we lived in an apartment, and my wife decided we should have a house somewhere. And I'm terrible about doing things for myself. I mean, my only extravagance in life is my sailboat. I'm bonkers about that, but other than that, I don't spend money on myself.

So, she found this little Dutch admiral (ph) thing on the corner - it was two stories. There was room on the side yard to expand and there was a little bit of room on the front, so it led to a drawing that showed that you can encapsulate the existing house and keep it there.

You know, the important thing in architecture is that encloses space and is humanistic - it feels good for people to be in. And all of those things - that's first and foremost. But then, how you do it - how you create that and how you engage people and - like art does - it engages you, mostly, and you learn from it. And you learn to see things differently because of it.

COREN: All your work starts with a sketch, which you have described -

GEHRY: Yes, I don't crumple paper and then draw. Like "The Simpsons". People really think I do that. I've had serious reporters start these conversations with, "Now, after you crumple the paper, then what do you do?".

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GEHRY (voiceover): Frank Gehry, you're a genius. Behold, the new Springfield Concert Hall.

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COREN: What was it like, being approached and asked to play yourself - voice your own character?

GEHRY: The best part of it was Julie Kavner, the actress. Because she's Marge and my part of - the only talking part I have is my just talking to her. The big words I had to say, after you crumple the paper - you know, "Look - Frank Gehry, you're a genius." And it's hard to say, unless you're - probably if you're a real egomaniac, you may say it. But I had to say it as though I was an egomaniac. And she drilled me for the better part of a half-hour at making me say it over and over again. So, I got so mad, I said it right.

(LAUGHTER)

COREN: Immortalized by "The Simpsons" - that's quite a compliment, though.

GEHRY: Yes. That's - oh, God, what they did was funnier than hell.

COREN: Functionality in your architecture is just as important as making budget.

GEHRY: My predecessors, like Frank Lloyd Wright put everything in the way it had to be, and then expected people to live that way. And people - his clients succumbed to that. That idea bothered me about - even though I thought they were beautiful - I mean, I'm not critical at all of them. But just, maybe his politics that led him to do that. I can't do that.

I'm very curious what people do. In fact, I've asked my clients here, "Please invite me back when they're filled" - I'd like just one peak at how people relate to this and what they do with it.

COREN: I just want to discuss family, because I think that's - that's really quite a special point. Your daughter passed away several years ago from uterine cancer. And since then, you have become heavily involved in the foundation - you set up a foundation in her name. You have really thrown yourself into this sort of work. Tell me about that.

GEHRY: I got involved with the Hereditary Disease Foundation 30-some years ago because of Milton Wexler, the psychologist that had these groups that I went to and then be became very close friends. And his wife dies of Huntington's and he has two daughters. And so, through that, I met many scientists. And found that the creative process - there was a similarity in how they approached science and how I approached architecture. They were curious about me, I was curious about them.

So I - I love that. You know, and I'm trying to - when Leslie was dying, she asked that we leave whatever assets she had to them. And so that started then.

COREN: But to lose a child so late in life, I can't imagine what that would be like.

GEHRY: Yes, it's hard to - you never forget it. You can't stop wondering why it happened and what you could have done - what did I do wrong? What should I have done? I should have caught it, I should have known. I have her picture on my desk. I love her. The last four or five months of her life, which was mostly in the hospital, I spent a lot of time with her. And we really bonded in a way that we hadn't earlier. She was an artist and, anyway - you don't overcome that.

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COREN: And what do you think of this view?

GEHRY: It's spectacular. I was trying to - I was trying to own it as best I could with these windows and balconies.

COREN: Mr. Gehry, what do you think of Hong Kong's skyline?

GEHRY: Well, it's vibrant beyond, because you can get up and look at it like this. It's hard to look at New York City this way or Boston or Philadelphia - you're always in it. So, I think it's pretty unique. I think the intensity of it is mesmerizing and breathtaking. The individual buildings, I have not great things to say about many of them. But the conglomeration of them somehow overcomes the bits and pieces of it. I like the Cesar Pelli tower.

COREN: The IFC Two?

GEHRY: Yes, that one. Just that one, the tallest one.

COREN: Yes. And what do you think of ICC, which actually is taller than -

GEHRY: Yes, I don't think it's as successful, architecturally. I don't know why. I think it's the split at the corner. I studied that when I was doing my tower in New York. And the split in the corner weakens the power of the building. It becomes two surfaces, like wallpaper. A great designer did it - Bill Pedersen, so -

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COREN: Because I would think that you have your critics already, so to be so hard on yourself -

GEHRY: I think I'm harder on myself than any critic ever imagined they could be - nobody can beat me - nobody.

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COREN: Do you form a connection to your buildings? Is it hard to let go?

GEHRY: Yes. The Walt Disney Concert Hall is the building I use - I got to concerts quite often. And the first couple years, I was a pain in the ass to the director, who I sat next to, because I'd say, "Why is that light on? Why is -". And she moved my seat.

I'm over it, now. I can go there and I don't look at anything. I listen to the music and enjoy it. It's the - the idea of letting - of championing people doing what they want to your building to make it theirs is also double-edged, because when you go and see - like in Bilbao, they start putting up signs and doing things and I said, "Oh, that's terrible. Why are you doing that?" And you've got to get over it. You've got to - you know, it's a living organism. It has to have a life of its own.

COREN: Well, you mention the Bilbao Guggenheim. It's described as groundbreaking architecture. Is that what you were trying to achieve back then?

GEHRY: I wasn't trying to do anything. I was just trying to make a bloody building that worked for the art fork my client. I don't have those kind of pretentions. I was meeting with the president of the Basque Country - the mayor of the city, the minister of culture, minister of commerce - it's an industrial city. It was kind of dirty and the river was not being used for commerce lately. So it wasn't vibrant.

They wanted a centerpiece. They wanted something. And they kept saying it's like the Sidney Opera House, because it brought so much attention. So, they needed something like that.

COREN: Yet, you turned a backwater into one of Europe's top tourist destinations.

GEHRY: Yes.

COREN: I heard it was selling -

GEHRY: So, we did what they asked for, but I didn't know I was going to be able to. What I like about this game we're in -- whatever you call it - is that there is - the rewards are financial as well, so for the city of Bilbao last year -- $500 million attributed to the building. What is this? 12 years later, 11 years later. And it's been like that every year.

So, it's changed the economics of the city - just one puny little building. And it works. This one, apparently, already is starting to resonate. I should get a percentage of that.

COREN: You should.

GEHRY: Architects are really dumb -- we don't know how to do that.

COREN: Definitely not dumb. Definitely not dumb. Philip Johnson, the Godfather of Modern Art went to Bilbao a year after it had opened. And he said that it was the most important building in our time. And he described you as the greatest architect we have today.

GEHRY: And he cried - I was there.

COREN: And he cried.

GEHRY: But he was a great actor.

(LAUGHTER)

GEHRY: I love that man. Before he said that - and he was very tough on me before he said that. He was always very critical. He would say, "Why are you doing that? Why are you doing that?"

COREN: You did say that, when you completed Bilbao, "What have I done to these people?"

GEHRY: Yes, I did. I don't know. I can't believe somebody let me do this. I feel like a serial killer that they have to stop me - stop me before I do it again.

COREN: Why is that? Why didn't you think you could do it?

GEHRY: I don't know. I was self-conscious and guilty - I'm Jewish, I guess. Not that Jewish, but as soon as you lose that, I think, you start to believe in the tooth fairy. You start to think you can do anything. And I think, at that point, it's all over. Soon as you're complacent. I really believe in a healthy insecurity is necessary to keep working.

COREN: Because I would think that you have your critics already. So, to be so hard on yourself -

GEHRY: I think I'm harder on myself than any critic ever imagined they could be. Nobody can beat me. Nobody. I'm interested in a lot of what the critics say.

COREN: Why is that?

GEHRY: Well, it's a different point of view. There's - not everybody one respects or thinks is the greatest ,but there are certainly enough of them around that - and sometimes I feel they're wrong or they didn't get at something that I was trying to do. Or maybe they got it and I didn't understand what I did wrong. Thoughtful, intelligent critics who come to the table with an educated sort of eye about it and can suss out the strengths and weaknesses - it's a different point of view.

COREN: But, over the years, has the criticism hurt?

GEHRY: No. No, no. I accept it. You know, and I taught - when I teach students, from the beginning, I have them write their signatures. And then we look together and I say, "See, everyone is different". I say, "That's you, that's you, that's you. If you follow that intuitive making of strokes, making of marks, making of models, making of spaces - that's you. And you're the only expert in that".

So that's the nice thing. No matter what anybody says - they may like it, they may not like it - and you should listen and sort of figure out what's valuable to you, but you're still the only expert. They can't possibly know why, when you wrote your signature, it looks like that.

COREN: Frank, you are obviously still creating masterpieces. What does the future hold?

GEHRY: Why "still obviously"? I don't notice it.

COREN: We do.

GEHRY: Oh good. OK.

COREN: We do.

GEHRY: I'll keep trying. Keeps me going.

COREN: So, you're not planning to retire any time soon?

GEHRY: No, why? Philip Johnson told me, "Never retire". He just kept at me. He said, "Don't". And my shrink friend, Milton - both of those guys went until 99, so -

COREN: That's the plan?

GEHRY: That's the model.

COREN: Frank Gehry, an absolute pleasure to meet you.

GEHRY: Much obliged.

COREN: Thank you so much.

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