July 17, 2023 - From the July, 2023 issue

Blast from the Past: In Bilbao, Spain with Frank Gehry: A TPR Exclusive Interview (1998)

From the TPR Archive August 30, 1998 issue, TPR is pleased to present the following interview with L.A. architect Frank Gehry, FAIA. TPR caught up with Gehry in Bilbao, Spain, the site of the new Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum, which has made an unprecedented international splash—both among patrons of the arts, who admire its space; and city boosters, who admire the power of a building to put a city like Bilbao on the map. We sought Gehry's thoughts on the success of the Guggenheim, the importance of design to civic consciousness, and the future of Walt Disney Concert Hall, which he also designed.

Frank Gehry

"The language my work has been searching for, in simplistic terms, is a replacement for decoration. We modernists are antidecoration. I started playing with movements, making shapes that are dynamic, that have a quality of movement to them. "

"Having all of those changes imposed on me made the [Disney Hall] project interesting again. . . . [But] I'm worried and a bit conscious that it looks a bit warmed over."

"My wife and I have commissioned [Esa Pekka Salonen] to write a piece of music for the atrium in Bilbao... .[H]e's arriving [in Bilbao] today to meet us. When he gets here he may write a symphony to the City or something."

Frank, we are doing this interview in Bilbao, Spain nine months after the opening of the new Guggenheim Museum. Could you share with our readers your thoughts on whether this challenging architecture/artistic effort has met your expectations.

Frank Gehry: Architecturally, it met my expectations, except I never quite meet my expectations. I always see something. By the time a building is built, it's five years after its design. If you grow, you change your ways, and I see things that I would do differently.

And has it met the expectations of Bilbao and the museum's patrons?

The Basques wanted to change their economy from an industrial/maritime focus to tourism. They wanted to compete with Barcelona and Madrid. They embarked on a program to build a new subway system (now in place), a new airport (being built), a new Congress Hall (nearly finished), a new train station (to be built soon), and they wanted to expand their museum. 

There was a moment when a bunch of forces came together. The Guggenheim was looking for an expansion opportunity in Europe so that they could bring some of their great art out of the basement. Every museum has that problem--two-thirds of their collections are not shown to the public.

The Basque President told me that in the few months since the museum opened the government has fully recouped its investment. All the restaurants are booming. All the hotels are booming. I walk down the street and people touch me [laughter]. They say nice things to me.

Could you address the technological/structural aspects of the architectural design and the construction of the museum?

The language my work has been searching for, in simplistic terms, is a replacement for decoration. We modernists are anti-decoration. I started playing with movements, making shapes that are dynamic, that have a quality of movement to them.

And that idea is as old as the hills. The Greek architect sculptors of the Parthenon were into that. The Indian sculptors who made the dancing figures, the Shiva, were into that. Architecture should have feelings and should evoke emotions.

And how do you build these shapes? My first attempts, which used the descriptive geometry I learned in college, were pretty funny. There are some buildings with kinks where the curves should be continuous, just because we couldn't describe them and the builders couldn't build them.

Then one of my guys met an aircraft engineer and convinced him to come play with us. He looked at the problem, brought in aircraft technology and created a relationship between our office and Dassault Systemes of France, the people who build the Mirage fighter.

Dassault had never used their software for architects--or even thought of it. But they got interested, and we now have a partnership with them.

Their software allows us to demystify the building to a builder, down to seven decimal points of accuracy. The builders love it, because they usually could care less about what a building looks like, they just want to do their job. By the use of this computer technology we are able to be very specific about materials and shapes. Therefore we're able to predetermine the cost of such things before we get ourselves in trouble. 

In Bilbao, only six bids came in for the steel structure. And all the bids for this very complicated job in a foreign land were within a 1% spread—and 18% under budget.

It was based on this experience that the County of L.A. has asked us to reevaluate the structural system for Disney Hall.

Before we turn to Disney Hall, please comment on the building materials selected for the Bilbao Museum.

Bilbao is an industrial city. There's a lot of steel, and there are a lot of buildings with stone and plaster. I tried to use local materials. So after it became clear I couldn't use lead-copper, I started out thinking of stainless steel for the building. But all the mock-ups we made didn't look good in the Basque light--there are a lot of gray days.

But then I found a piece of titanium in my office in the materials file. It looked innocuous when I picked it up. I knew titanium was used in the landing gears of 747s, but I didn't know much else about it. Titanium has a great buttery quality, although the piece I had didn't seem to.

In any case, I pinned it up on the board in L.A. and it rained that day. Then the buttery quality came out—it turned golden. We got pretty excited about it.

The problem with titanium was that it cost twice what stainless did and we didn't think we could afford it. But we continued to work with the material and found that we could use it at half the thickness of stainless steel. So already we cut the material costs in half, and that got us back into the ballpark. 

We bid it as an alternate with stainless. And because the Russians, during the beginning of the bidding period, dumped a bunch of titanium on the market, the price went down and actually came in under the stainless. It was enormous luck.

Now having won it, we went to the titanium guys and told them what we wanted. They started rolling it, but they couldn't get the surface we were looking for. The pieces they sent us were dull--dead. My guys spent a year shuttling back and forth between L.A. and the Timet factory in Pittsburgh that rolled the titanium. It was the equivalent of making a salad--you have to have the right amount of oil and vinegar, only here it was oil and acid.

Eventually, we got it rolled properly. This is the thing I've learned from my artist friends: You never give up if--you see what you want, you can get it if you keep at it. That's what we did, and it came out pretty well.

The building glows in the rain, and on the grayest of days it is warm and inviting. That's what we tried to do.

The building itself has been universally praised both as an architectural work and as a piece of art. How does it, in your opinion, work as a museum?

The proof, you could say, is the way the people are using it.

But for me, the most important thing has been the response of the artists. The culture of building museums since the War, has been to be neutral--to be recessive architecturally. When I was working on art museums in the past, the artists would get mad at me and say, Come on, don't give us another neutral box. They all wanted to be in an important place. They would rather have been in the Louvre, even if it doesn't work, because it's the Louvre.

So even if you don't know me and you don't know Bilbao, if you come here 20 years from now and somebody says, "That's the art museum," the first thing you're going to think is, This place really loves art. That's the message. The artists really respond to that.

I've gotten letters from artists from all over the world thanking me. Magdalena Abakanowicz from Poland, who makes those beautiful figures, wrote and thanked me for building a cathedral for art. Jim Dine, who is very conservative and doesn't normally like architects and their architecture, has been quite effusive and very enthusiastic. Ellsworth Kelly and my friend, Richard Serra--all those guys have been very receptive.

Even Helen Frankenthaler, who is also very conservative and whose work is very delicate (if any kind of work is going to be overwhelmed by architecture it would be her paintings) has said her pieces look better here than they've ever looked.

Let's pick up on your earlier comments regarding Los Angeles' Disney Hall. With the luxury of doing this interview in Bilbao, Spain share with us what your take is on the status and the work that's gone on our Music Center.

What's happened with Disney Hall is that finally there is a client, and the client has discipline now. The discipline is that now there is a budget, which there never was before. We have a general contractor who really wants to build the thing and who has spent several years going around the country selecting architects they want to work with, and they selected us way before they were finished.

Until the fat lady sings, of course, we don't know. But they have been really a good collaborator.


You started Disney Hall before the Guggenheim, and now the latter is built and open. You've obviously grown and learned from Bilbao. So what is the applicability of the lessons that you've picked up along the way that can be brought back into the Disney Hall project?

The first lesson was to have a disciplined client, which we definitely have in Bilbao.

Today, I would start over with Disney Hall, because it was done ten years ago. It's hard for me to muck around in my past. In fact, I even suggested that if they were going to start over again they should get another architect because I am too far gone on that idea and I would be fighting myself. But for some reason they liked the original design.

The big change was when a lot of the movers and shakers of L.A. came here and saw Bilbao, they thought, Why can't we have one? The difficulty has been to stick with the original design because the codes have changed, people's perceptions have changed, and the program for the project has changed. They've added a 200-seat black-box theater for Cal Arts. They've added an office building for the Philharmonic. They've changed the program for the Founders' Room. The acoustician is asking for changes.

I'm the one they tell, "Don't change anything, Frank." They come in with these incredible changes that touch every piece of the building. And they say, We want exactly the same design, but we don't want the stone walls anymore, we like the metal.

Having all of those changes imposed on me made the project interesting again. It helped me because it renewed the project. And now it's better, it's a lot tighter. If anything, it may have lost some of the spontaneity that a design does when you just do it and build it like the Guggenheim. With Disney Hall, I'm worried and a bit conscious that it looks a bit warmed over.

We're now in the struggle of what material to use. If we go to metal, we can't afford titanium. And although titanium looks beautiful here in Bilbao, will it look the same in L.A.? We're looking at stainless steel, which does look better in L.A. than it does here. We're making mock-ups that we'll take down to the site in the next few weeks to help determine what the material will be. 

Also, we are redoing the drawings ourselves this time. That was one of the problems last time--that the executive architect wasn't emotionally committed to what we were doing.

The project estimating is also impeccable this time. The only problem we may run into is the millennium effect--that the construction industry is booming, and that they are indifferent to building anything that's different. They just want to build dumb stuff and make a lot of money. So we may run into cost increases, although so far it's been OK.

Even if that does happen, we have some ways around it. One is to bring in the European subcontractors we worked with, who are very practiced. The subcontractor that did the skin here is a company called Permasteelisa. They're the old Italian company that built the Sidney Opera House. They have factories and facilities all over the world. They love working with us. They built the skin here, they built the fish in Barcelona, they built a piece of a building in Prague with us, and they're doing stuff in New York with us. They understand our stuff. If the going gets tough in L.A. they'll probably come in and do it.

But we're not stuck yet. The process is going to be much more precise now. Already, it's almost as good as Bilbao was in terms of the whole team, the precision, the character and creativity of it. 

By the first of the year we should know where the costs are, and we'll be able to start construction in the spring.

Can you comment briefly, as we draw to a close, on what's happening with respect to architecture in Los Angeles? You are a resident; you see all of this going on. Give us your take.

There aren't many cities in America where architecture is an important issue. Chicago is an exception, but you really don't see it too much.

That said, overall there is better architecture in the U.S. than in Europe by volume, simply because there's more opportunity in America. The problem, though, is that federal, state, county and city governments aren't interested in architecture. When our name gets thrown into an RFP for a courthouse or something else for the feds, we get a letter back immediately--you can almost feel their guffaw. 

The power structure in the U.S. is mostly architecturally illiterate—not in a bad sense, they just aren't educated. But Bilbao has opened some eyes to the fact that architects can make a difference. People have seen it happen before with the Sydney Opera House--it's one building that's become the symbol of Australia and completely changed the world's perception of the country.

That effect is very well-attested. But architectural change in L.A. has to happen over time, it seems.

Has the opening of the Getty changed peoples' attitudes in Los Angeles towards the value of architecture? 

I don't know. The Getty has come under a lot of fire because it's perceived as an elitist institution that put itself up on a hill. In reality, it has turned out to be just the opposite. It's a populist institution. Everyone is going up there. The Foundation said, ''This is your Getty, come and get it," and the people are getting it.

In the end, it's probably helped L.A. a lot to have the Getty. It is certainly a great resource, and, for the most part, it's architecturally interesting. lt just looks conservative now compared to what I did.

There are fifty new projects being planned in L.A. by the feds, the County, the State, the Board of Education and the City. And there's a group of businesspeople, headed up by Richard Koshalek, trying to bring better architecture to those projects. Whether they'll succeed or not I don't know, but I'm skeptical.

Since the Guggenheim opened, we've had tons of calls asking us to create "the Bilbao Effect" in other cities. I've turned a lot of these requests down because the idea that this is readily achievable is naive.

A building needs a client, it needs a passion, it needs a culture. This museum happened because by some miracle we were all in sync. The Basques wanted to make it. Tom Krens, the Director of the Guggenheim, wanted to do it. He didn't have a committee to deal with, I dealt only with him. His board stayed out of it and supported it.

It takes a lot of things to make a really good building--you can't just say, OK, I want one here.

What precisely brings you again here to Bilbao in July 1998?

I've become kind of a citizen of Bilbao, actually, because they treat me so nicely, I can't stand it.

My wife and I love music, and we love the L.A. Philharmonic. I met Esa Pekka Salonen when he was 19 years old and first came to conduct in L.A. My wife and I have commissioned him to write a piece of music for the atrium in Bilbao.

That's how it started, he's arriving today to meet us. When he gets here he may write a symphony to the City or something. This is my first chance to combine three things I love dearly--music, art and architecture. It also helps make a bridge to L.A., having the conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic--who will be the conductor in Disney Hall—somehow relate to this building in Bilbao.

The two cities are cousins whether they like it or not.

What recommendations for restaurants and hotels in Bilbao would you offer the readers of our newsletter?

For eating, there's a great bar called Rogellio's. They have a very interesting dining room upstairs. Then there's Perrochico, which has a beautiful blue dining room. It's funny: The owner of Perrechio's thinks I made the blue in the Guggenheim because of his dining room. Then there's Victor Montez in the Plaza Nueva.

The best place to stay is here, at the Lopez De Hero Hotel.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.