FRANK GEHRY. ARCHITECT - Getting There: A Book of Mentors (2015)

Getting There: A Book of Mentors (2015)




My high school had a shelf of books dedicated to vocational guidance. I remember looking through the one on architecture and thinking it seemed so bloody boring. My cousin was a chemical engineer and one of the most successful people in my near family, so I decided I should become one too. My school arranged for me to spend a day with a chemical engineer at his lab. But at the end of the day, the guy looked at me and said, “Frank, you didn’t get excited about anything. This profession is not for you.” I thought, Okay, so I won’t be a chemical engineer.

My father sold and serviced slot machines. He was uneducated and, although street-smart, never made much money. He had a lot of stress in his life and would often take it out on me. He used to tell me that I was a useless dreamer with no business sense and that I wouldn’t amount to much. My mother compared me to her friends’ children and always thought I fell short. But I knew I was curious and had ambition. I was drawn to people who were on the intellectual side, and my friends were interested in things like classical music, literature, art, and politics.

During my senior year of high school, my father had a heart attack and was unable to work, so he lost what little business he had. He became wiped out financially and totally demoralized. We were living in Canada at the time and my parents decided we should move to Los Angeles, where we had some family. That’s what sick people were being advised to do back then—go to warmer climates and start over. With no real skill set to fall back on, my father became a truck driver for a soda pop company. My mother worked at a department store. I pitched in by becoming a truck driver for a breakfast nook-furniture company and by doing other odd jobs on the side—like washing airplanes and working at my cousin’s jewelry store. We all did what we needed to do to survive.

I attended night classes at Los Angeles City College because they were free. I had always enjoyed art and loved to draw as a child, so I decided to take a drafting class. The teacher thought I had some aptitude for it, but I didn’t find it interesting. I tried a class on perspective drawing instead and failed it. I was so upset about the F that I took the class again and got an A.

One of my cousins was a student at the University of Southern California (USC) and kept pushing me to enroll there. My family couldn’t afford anything like that, but I managed to get a job in the USC admissions office, which allowed me to take a few classes through their extension program. I took a night class in ceramics and the teacher, Glen Lukens, liked me so much that he asked me to be his teaching assistant. We became close. Glen happened to be building himself a house by Raphael Soriano, a big-deal architect in Southern California at the time. Although I still had no idea what I wanted to do in terms of a career, Glen had a hunch that I might enjoy architecture so he took me to the construction site when Soriano was there. I remember watching him—this little Greek guy with a broken nose dressed entirely in black with a beret—directing the workers to move the steel and other materials. He really knew what he was doing and it was exciting. Glen saw my eyes light up and enrolled me in a USC night class in architecture.

I got an A and the teacher recommended that I enroll in the USC School of Architecture—and skip right to the second year of the program! It was the first time I had received positive reinforcement of that magnitude and it felt great. It was a really big deal for me. I applied for scholarships and worked on the side. While at USC, I got married. My wife, Anita, worked as a secretary to help pay my tuition.

Halfway through my second year, one of my professors called me into his office and said, “You will never make it in this field. Get out now or you’re just going to waste a lot of time.” Hearing this was devastating, but at the same time something allowed me not to take it personally. My professor’s comments felt like anti-Semitism to me, something I had gotten used to while growing up in Canada. (My family was one of approximately thirty Jewish families in our town—Timmins, Ontario—and for a while, I was the only Jewish kid at my school. I used to get beat up regularly for “killing Christ.”) Also, I had become so enamored with architecture that it would have been almost impossible for anyone to derail me. I had reached the point of no return and vowed to prove that professor wrong.

I graduated with a bachelor of architecture degree from USC in 1954 and began working for the LA-based architect Victor Gruen, whom I had apprenticed for while in school. Within a few months, however, I got drafted and served in the army for about two years. The army encouraged people to go back to school and would let you out three months early if you did, so I decided to apply to graduate school. I wanted to use architecture to do good things for the world, so I applied to a city-planning program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and got accepted. But when I got there, I discovered the program was nothing like what I had expected it to be. It was about economics, government, and statistics—not architecture—so I quit. I was on the hook for a year of tuition, so I stayed for that time period, but I was allowed to enroll in any class I wanted.

Afterward, I moved back to LA and resumed working for Victor Gruen. I was given a lot of responsibility and learned how to do everything from building shopping centers to writing contracts and budgeting. It was an incredible experience, and it really boosted my confidence, but Anita wanted to live in Paris. I started saving money and, after about three years, we finally made the move (we had two daughters by this point). It was difficult to find employment, but I managed to get a job working for a French architect four days a week. The rest of the week, we would travel around looking at architecture. I loved France, but I barely made enough money to get by. It wasn’t terrible compared to what other people in this world go through, but we had to miss a few meals so the kids could be fed, and we lived in a basement apartment. After about a year, as we were preparing to move back to LA, Victor Gruen came to Paris and asked to meet. He was going to open an office there, and he wanted me to join him. For a split second, I was excited by the prospect of being able to stay and afford a better life, but within one minute, I said no. It was a risky move for someone with a family to support and no game plan, but somewhere along the way, I had become determined to open my own practice and figured I should start then.

When I returned to LA, a friend told me that his in-laws were planning to build a little warehouse there and he felt I would be a good fit for the job. He offered me $2,000 to do it and I accepted. I got a couple of other projects from that (apartment buildings and houses) but my career wasn’t progressing the way I had hoped. Projects would fall through and I couldn’t understand why. I was on the verge of bankruptcy and, to top it off, my marriage had run into serious trouble and I was having difficulty with my two daughters. Basically, I was floundering on all fronts.

A friend pushed me into therapy with a man named Milton Wexler, and I joined a fifteen-person therapy group that Milton led. We met twice a week, and I went for two years without saying a word. I would literally just sit there in silence. Then one night Milton turned to me and said, “Your anger is showing.” This opened up the floodgates and the entire group came at me. They wanted to know who I thought I was, sitting there judging them. If it had been only one or two people criticizing me, I could have shrugged it off, but when a group attacks, you can’t ignore it. That was powerful stuff. I had no idea I was exuding my anger, but once I knew that it was being read, I became motivated to do something about it.

Milton and I explored the issue further, and I realized that my anger was getting in my way professionally. I would often decide beforehand that a prospective client wouldn’t get me, and I would walk away from potentially good opportunities. In addition, projects weren’t working out because people were uncomfortable with me. Building something new and original can be scary because no one wants to push it too far and end up with a structure people make fun of—so it is essential for clients to trust their architect. Understanding all this was a major turning point. It enabled me to dismantle the wall I had built around myself and connect more with people. As a result, my career progressed, and I was able to move toward larger projects. (I still fall back into my old patterns from time to time, but at least I am aware of it and try not to.)

Milton guided me through other issues too. My profession has all these rules about what fits and what doesn’t. The kind of buildings I was designing didn’t conform to any particular architectural philosophy, and many of my colleagues were dismissive of me and made fun of my work. When I would discuss this with Milton, he would say, “Screw them! There aren’t any rules. Just because they did it that way last week doesn’t mean you have to do it that way today.”

The artists in town accepted me and gave me positive feedback—so I became friends with them. Observing the way they worked really influenced me. When an architect draws up a plan, he has to go through many, many people to get whatever it is built. Artists, on the other hand, have a more direct process and can be more freewheeling. They are also not wed to tradition and history. They have no rules. I was drawn to this freedom.

In 1975, I got remarried to my current wife, Berta. A couple of years later, we bought a pink bungalow in Santa Monica that was built in the 1920s and needed work. We didn’t have a big budget, but I was excited to finally be able to do whatever I wanted, however I wanted. The house became my architectural laboratory, and I experimented with industrial materials such as chain-link fence, corrugated aluminum, and raw plywood. I decided to leave the old house intact and basically build a new one around it. The finished product was quite unconventional and really stood out (especially since it was the only two-story residence on the street and was located on a corner). My neighbors hated it, but many felt otherwise and it garnered a lot of attention.

Although I had evolved and become secure with my own style, I also needed to make a living, and I felt that I had to take on various jobs that were out of whack with what I believed in for that purpose. This all changed one evening.

At the same time that I was doing my house, I was also building a shopping mall called Santa Monica Place for one of my largest clients, The Rouse Company. The night Santa Monica Place opened, Matt DeVito, the president of Rouse came to my house for dinner. He looked around and said, “What the hell is this? You must like this house, since you did it for yourself. But if you like this, how can you like Santa Monica Place?” I explained that I didn’t. Matt’s response was that I shouldn’t take on work I didn’t want to do. At that time, about forty-five people in my office were working on various Rouse Company projects, but Matt and I shook hands and agreed to stop working together. That was a Friday. I went into my office on Monday morning and let nearly everyone go. It was like jumping off a cliff—scary, but exhilarating at the same time.

In a way, that turning point was similar to both my decision to decline Victor Gruen’s offer in Paris and my decision to quit Harvard’s city-planning program. It was tough rebuilding my practice after parting ways with The Rouse Company (I had to work day and night to stay afloat) but there are times when you know that you need to believe in yourself, be bold, and not go forward with something that doesn’t feel right. I still turn down work for this reason. Once in a while, I regret doing so, but you can’t always be correct.

In the late 1980s, I was chosen to do the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown LA. This was a huge project for me, and I was ecstatic. It ended up taking fifteen years to complete and was on the verge of not being built several times, but that’s life in this field! In the meantime, in 1991, I got a job that changed my career. I was hired to design the Guggenheim’s new museum in Bilbao, Spain. It opened in 1996 and had a tremendously positive impact on Bilbao. The museum paid for itself within the first eight months of opening, and it now attracts about one million visitors a year. It transformed what was once a gritty industrial city in economic decline into a vibrant one, and it has become an immense source of pride for the city’s inhabitants. What happened to Bilbao has become known as the “Bilbao effect” and other cities have been attempting to emulate it. (When I was working on the museum, by the way, I had no idea that it would receive the reaction it did. I remember people talking about their hopes that it would result in a commercial uplift for the city. I thought that was like believing in the tooth fairy!)

Since Bilbao, clients who hire my firm generally aspire to do something unique. They know what I am about and egg me on to explore. It’s really exciting, but whenever someone comes to me with a new project, I’m always a little scared that I won’t know what to do. It seems like most creative people live with this kind of insecurity. It’s actually healthy because it helps the creative process and leads you to new places. If you don’t have it, you probably ain’t gonna measure up. But in the end, you have to trust your intuition and be willing to take risks. Risks allow for progress—and this applies to all fields.

I’ve taught architecture for many years and love doing so. One of the most essential messages I try to get across to my students is the importance of finding your own language. When I was at USC, I was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright—and some of my early work looks creepily like his—but as soon as I realized what I was doing, I cleansed myself and stopped. I tell my students to take out a piece of paper and sign their names, because everyone’s signature has a different aesthetic. I say, “That’s yours. You did it intuitively and that’s what you’ve got to do in other areas of your life. Don’t look over your shoulder at what other people are doing. When you are yourself, your work will be stronger and you will slowly realize that you are the only expert on it—so what other people say won’t matter.”

My work gets criticized all the time and it can get pretty harsh. If I am criticized because I inadvertently did something that hurts somebody, I pay attention. Otherwise, I just do the best I can and keep moving forward. If people like what I create, I’m thrilled. If they don’t, I don't try to sell them on it. You can’t please everybody.


Images Question everything. Curiosity is the lifeblood of creativity. Growing up as a Jew, I studied the Talmud, which continually poses questions. This was the foundation for my way of thinking. I continually ask, “Why do we have to do it that way? Can’t it be done this way?” This trait has been critical to my work.

Images You will be judged on everything you do. It doesn’t matter what field you are in: If you are working on something large or something small, always make sure it adheres to your highest standards. Move away from people who dilute this mission and partner with those who support it.

Images Anger management is a serious and prevalent issue. I see so many people in various professions who should have made it but have fallen by the wayside because they weren’t able to control their anger. I want to catch them and say, “Stop!” If you can look in the mirror and realize your anger, you can help yourself. If you are not sure, ask a friend, “Am I angry?” If so, figure out why and work to get rid of it. If you decide to see a shrink, finding the right one for you is essential. I’d been to a few before Milton, but none of them understood me the way he did.