Architect Frank Gehry Builds on Virtues of Play

Law professor Robert Benson — part of the panel that offered Frank Gehry the first big commission to draw international attention to his architecture in 1979 — talks to the world-class architect about the benefits of “creative play.”
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Law professor Robert Benson — part of the panel that offered Frank Gehry the first big commission to draw international attention to his architecture in 1979 — talks to the world-class architect about the benefits of “creative play.”

It’s an occupational hazard of architecture that students will burst from school into the profession filled with vim to stamp their own creative visions on the physical world only to find themselves 10 years later in a cubicle specifying screw sizes for doorjambs. And if someone does invite them to propose an imaginative design, the client’s objections to aesthetics, to costs, to pragmatism, can lead the architect to water it down until the essence is gone. Discouraging. About 47 percent of architects are unhappy in their profession, some of that due to this kind of letdown.

But imagine you are Frank Gehry, creator of some of the most bizarre visions the world of architecture has ever known. He’s been amazingly successful in getting those radical visions built. What is his secret? Gehry shed some light on this in an interview I include as a DVD with my recent book, Frank Gehry’s Loyola Law School: An Architectural Tour (see

Gehry was never in a cubicle counting screws, but he did practice very conventional architecture for more than a decade — shopping centers, housing, offices — and then he turned around and launched an assault on normal architecture. He attributes his change to the yeasty group of Los Angeles and New York artists he was hanging out with in the 1960s and ’70s.

“The way these artists thought and approached making things was a lot more intuitive and in touch with who they were. It seemed that was the way to find your voice, not the way I had been doing it.”

Gehry’s voice involved throwing chain link, sheet metal, raw plywood, cardboard and asphalt shingles at architecture. His initial models for the client tended to be torn or scrunched up paper and cardboard of unheard-of angles and shapes, his drawings cartoonish Picasso-like squiggles. There was blowback from critics and the profession so strong that Gehry felt compelled in those years to give a talk at a meeting of architects that he titled, “I Am Not Weird.”

Still, after finding his voice, he faced the impediment of finding clients willing to pay for such a voice in their buildings. One answer is to have yourself as the client, which he did in his revolutionary 1977 remake of his own house in Santa Monica, Calif. Another is to find some quirky, risk-taking individuals wanting houses (including me, see, which he did. But scaling up from houses, he also built institutional projects such as Loyola Law School, the California Aerospace Museum and the Cabrillo Aquarium, in which his odd voice rang out loud and clear.

After those projects, other commissions came easier, then came the Pritzker Prize, then the soaring curves of metal in the Bilbao Guggenheim in Spain, then Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall and then Seattle’s Experience Music Project. More and more extravagant, yet he gets them built. How does he do it?

The Loyola Law School project, started in 1979, was the first large project to bring international attention to Gehry. The school is Jesuit Catholic but is run by professors and trustees from the world of business. They squabbled with Gehry over a series of design issues: use of chain link, skewing a building by 7 degrees, hanging staircases outside on the façade, bright yellow paint on the major building, sheet metal wrapping Roman columns, a stucco column on the ground as if it had fallen over, and whether the chapel looked Catholic enough.

Gehry gave up on some of these but won most, and when the kudos came in from around the world for the unprecedented design, his critics’ words turned from complaints to boasts.

I’ve watched him in those battles and others for more than 30 years, and I conclude that his basic technique is to cultivate the personality of a calm diplomat prepared for long negotiations. He does get frustrated and does have a temper, but to the client and the public, he presents only a quiet and reasonable face.

And it is not at all a phony face. He is unpretentious, and by nature, he treats others with equal respect. I have never seen him condescend to a client or anyone else.

“I’m inclusive,” he says. He doesn’t have an ounce of the imperious bombast that intimidated Frank Lloyd Wright’s clients. “It’s not saying, ‘I know everything better than you, so go do your work, and I’ll take care of it.’ A lot of architects do that. They feel compelled to take that stance because the tradition in architecture is architect as genius, and that’s a wrongheaded thing.”

Recently, he’s added the intriguing idea of “creative play” to his approach. He says, “Some of these things are hard to explain to business clients. Over the years, I’ve learned to talk to business people a little better than I did back then.”

How do you do it? It must be amazingly frustrating.

“Well, it’s interesting. It’s easy. Everybody always talks. … If you’re in a corporation and the CEO comes in, and they’re frustrated about some kind of thing that’s happening, they’ll say, ‘Why don’t we get a bunch of you guys and go up to the ranch somewhere and hang out over the weekend and “play around” with some new ideas?’ ‘Play around,’ they always say that. And it’s creative play. So, they understand that. And that’s all we’re doing. We’re saying, ‘I have this expertise. You have that expertise. We’re going to play around and see what we come up with.’ That works. That always works.”

Robert Benson was a member of the committee that selected Frank Gehry as Loyola Law School’s architect in 1979. Later, he asked Gehry to design a house for him, where he still lives. His new book is Frank Gehry’s Loyola Law School: An Architectural Tour. (