May 18, 2006
Shlub to Hero: Film Sketches Gehry Life
"He starts out with that," says Barry Diller, alluding to a squiggle-like drawing in the new documentary, "Sketches of Frank Gehry," and "he ends up with this," pointing to a model of the InterActive Corp. (IAC) Building, currently under construction in Manhattan. Although made completely of glass, a material that likes to be flat, Gehry has molded the glass walls to resemble a row of sailboats billowing in the wind.
Even to the architect's detractors -- and there are many -- buildings like the IAC offer something new and unexpected, even if a lot of looking is needed sometimes to wrap one's mind around these edifices. In short, the IAC Building aspires to be a work of architecture that is simultaneously and unapologetically a work of art.
There's an implicit question in the comments of Diller, the chairman of Expedia and Gehry's client for the IAC Building: How did that blankety-blank squiggle turn into a really good building?
The film, a rare departure into documentary by Sidney Pollack, director of "Tootsie" and "Out of Africa," assays the mystery of Gehry, an outwardly aw-shucks guy, who regularly produces some of the world's most aggressive and attention-getting buildings.
While it is interesting to hear Gehry, 77, describe his formative influences -- building blocks during childhood, the images of fish, the architecture of Finnish master Alvar Aalto -- this kind of museum-docent talk does not bring us close to the core of Gehry's creativity. Pollack's film is strongest when filling in the human, rather than theoretical, background.
The real question here is: How did this lower-middle-class Jew from Toronto become the most celebrated architect in the world, and one of the rare people in the profession, outside of Frank Lloyd Wright, to become a household name? (What other architect is well-known enough to be spoofed on "The Simpsons"?)
Pollack, with his skill in developing character, locates the Freudian threads in Gehry's life story. A Canadian in Southern California, the young Gehry, then known as Goldberg, struggled in architecture school, believing himself victimized by anti-Semitism in a largely all-WASP profession.
He has the outsider's simultaneous rejection of, and reverence for, authority, here symbolized by the architectural profession, with its weighty baggage of uptight, exclusionary, backward-looking rules. The young Gehry wonders why architecture must be so authoritarian and rule-bound, as opposed to something akin to the delight he experienced as a child, building imaginary cities on the floor of his aunt's apartment.
Gehry's creative solution -- his psychoanalytic victory -- was to embrace the delight of free-form design, while making sure that his buildings met the needs of his clients. His freedom in designing what appear to be purely sculptural objects that subsequently win rapturous praise must make him the envy of all architects who secretly wish they could find such willing clients. Gehry seems to embody the myth of the artist-hero, a symbol of personal attainment and untrammeled freedom of expression.
Yet self-doubt remains. On the eve of his greatest popular triumph, the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, five years ago, the architect recalls walking around the spectacular complex, shortly to become the most photographed and discussed building of the past 50 years, asking himself, "What have I done?" It is the most touching moment in the film.
That kind of vulnerability and introspection makes "Sketches of Frank Gehry" at times resemble a Woody Allen movie. The plotline certainly sounds a lot like Allen: A sad sack, Jewish shlub who feels excluded from the country club set of architects, turns out to be the designer of amazing buildings that turn the world of architecture on its ear. Meanwhile, the hero, in all innocence, says things like, "Gee, did I really do that?"
Adding to the Allen-like texture of the film is a series of celebrity talking heads -- Diller, ex-Disney Chairman Michael Eisner, actor Dennis Hopper, rock musician Bob Geldof, ex-talent agency director Michael Ovitz, artist Julian Schnabel, the late architect Philip Johnson -- each expressing his admiration for cher maitre.
And in the archetypally Allen moment, we meet Gehry's psychoanalyst of 35 years, who acknowledges with a coy smile that "Frank has made me famous," while adding that he refuses services to other architects seeking to emulate Gehry's inner transformation. (Question for Gideon Kanner: Is there a statute of limitations on physician confidentiality?)
This enjoyable, undemanding film from the hand of a master director holds no terrors for nonarchitects and others who feel flummoxed by the mystique and technical complexity of the profession. This very much reflects the attitude of Gehry, who seems intent on puncturing a certain kind of architectural snobbery.
What the film does not do is help us understand the process through which a scribbled drawing turns into a finished building. For all the accessibility of Gehry the man, Gehry the creative personality remains a mystery.