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Over the past two years, the French historian, author and curator Jean-Louis Cohen has published two seminal works on the world’s most renowned architect – Frank Gehry: The Masterpieces (a collection of some 40 significant built works) and Frank Gehry: Catalogue Raisonné of the Drawings Volume One, 1954–1978. Impressive as they are, the books are just the beginning — the latter one being the first of eight planned volumes covering Frank Gehry’s entire oeuvre. It’s a formidable project, one that explores his works through sketches for close to 600 projects. Cohen first met Gehry long before the Bilbao Guggenheim made him famous – at the architect’s office in Los Angeles in 1981 –and since then has been maintaining a professional dialogue and friendship with him, and visiting at least 120 of his 180 projects all over the world.

Cohen has built his international career on his double identity as both an architect and an intellectual. He has explored theory and design from 1900 to the present and incorporated his vast knowledge into publications, exhibitions (including at the 14th Venice Biennale, where he curated the French Pavilion) and lectures. He also teaches the course History of Architecture at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. His focus is vast, spanning French, German, Italian, Russian, North American, and North African architecture, and his output is prolific. Among his books, of which he has authored more than 40, there are monographs on Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe as well as broader-themed oeuvres like France, The Future of Architecture Since 1889, and Liquid Stone, New Architecture in Concrete (with G. Martin Moeller, Jr.). In 2007, on behalf of the French Ministry of Culture, Cohen created the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, a museum, research and exhibition centre, in Paris’ Palais de Chaillo.

In the following conversation, which took place in a New York coffee shop, Cohen and Vladimir Belogolovsky discuss the process of putting Gehry’s sketches – and his incomparable career and influence – on paper.

(Image, top of article, sketch of Walt Disney Concert Hall, copyright Frank O. Gehry)

Vladimir Belogolovsky: Let’s start with how you first met Frank Gehry. You’ve known him closely and for a long time, so how would you describe him as a person?

Jean-Louis Cohen

I discovered Gehry in the pages of Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, in which the only mentioned piece of contemporary architecture was Gehry’s Danziger Studio and Residence (1963-65). Banham was my guru (I invited him to give lectures in Paris twice). I read his book in 1973, when I was still a student in Paris and that’s what gave me the motivation to meet Gehry. At the time, I could not get the American visa because I was a student union activist, which landed me on the blacklist of so-called “Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations,” the legacy of post–World War II Red Scare and McCarthyism. It was not until 1981 that I could finally go to the U.S. In New York, I met Peter Eisenman, who very strongly advised me to go to L.A. and meet Gehry, which I did at the then-recently completed house. We became instant friends.

Immediately upon my return to Paris, I started various initiatives, including publishing articles about Gehry’s work in leading magazines. I then traveled to L.A. as a visiting scholar at the Getty Research Institute. During those frequent trips, Gehry would always show me his new projects, and that’s how our friendship grew. He is a real human being, very friendly, very warm, very ethical, and very dedicated to his work. And all his best work has to do with his very strong relationships with his clients and their families. It’s also important to mention that in his archives there are hardly any theoretical writings or manifestos, but there are thousands of very intense letters to people, through which you can understand his very serious commitment to people. Every one of his projects is for a specific person he ends up deeply caring about.

Danziger Studio and Residence. Image courtesy Frank O. Gehry. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2017.M.66), Frank Gehry Papers

In the last year, you published two books on Gehry — Masterpieces (Flammarion), just released this month, and Frank Gehry: Catalogue Raisonné of the Drawings Volume One (Cahiers d’Art), which came out last year. Could you touch on working on these projects?

The first book, Masterpieces, stands on its own. It includes some 40 of the architect’s most significant buildings — from one of his earliest works, the Hillcrest Apartment Building in Santa Monica of 1962, to Luma Foundation, completed this year in Arles, France. The book is an autonomous project of close to 400 pages.

The second book is a part of a very large project, an eight-volume set, perhaps related to the fact that Le Corbusier’s set of complete works also numbers eight volumes. Cahiers d’Art was originally founded as an art journal and publishing house in 1926 in Paris by Christian Zervos, a Greek-French art historian, critic, gallerist and publisher, who pursued many projects, including a 33-volume book on paintings by Pablo Picasso. It was shut down in 1960, but was revived, as both a publishing house and gallery, when the Swedish art collector/entrepreneur Staffan Ahrenberg acquired it in 2011. When the idea arose of publishing a complete catalogue on drawings by a living architect, the two possible choices were Frank Gehry and Alvaro Siza – there are no other architects today with similar graphic production. There are many architects who draw, but these two think by drawing all the time, systematically documenting the entire design process.

The idea, then, is to publish not complete works but complete sketches, focusing not on buildings but on the design process. The first of the eight books includes projects from Gehry’s 1954 senior thesis project at the University of Southern California to his own house in Santa Monica, completed in 1978. It is massive, weighing close to 10 pounds. I completed writing the second book, which will be published soon. It is an impressive amount of work with the intention to produce one volume every year.

What was it like delving into Gehry’s archives? I imagine it to be quite extensive.

It is. From the very beginning Gehry has been extremely conscious about taking care of his archives. There are various reasons for that. One is strictly professional — to keep track of everything and to have documentation to deal with potential conflicts, lawsuits, etc. The other reason came from his close relation with artists who told him early on not to throw away anything, in order to document his development and for potential commercial value. So, he has kept just about everything. The office owns a large warehouse in the Los Angeles region. Most written documents, sketches, and models that were done before 1987, were bought by the Getty. The Getty also bought later projects that are Los Angeles-based. The rest of the archives, which is also gigantic and includes thousands of experimental study models (many are very fragile), might go into the foundation, research centre, or museum Gehry thinks to create. All I can tell you is that these plans are in discussion.

You went through so much archival material and discussed many issues with Gehry in detail, while working on these latest books. Could you share any discoveries?

What was new to me is that in the early period, between 1961 and 1978, there are many forgotten projects that were either never published or rarely mentioned. What was particularly of interest is to see how many different ideas he tried in his work. These projects show incredible imagination at work. From the beginning he drew from so many sources — his fascination with Japanese architecture and gardens, with projects by Frank Lloyd Wright and to a certain degree with Rudolph Schindler. Then there are ideas that come directly from Pop Art artists in Los Angeles and New York, like Robert Rauschenberg, rather than architects. And even his experience of working on department stores and other commercial projects at Victor Gruen Associates, and in the first years of his own professional life, was an important laboratory to experiment with lighting, circulation ideas and non-traditional, inexpensive materials.

What was particularly surprising to discover was his very early interest in music venues, starting from the Merriweather Post Pavilion of Music in Columbia, Maryland (1967) and the Hollywood Bowl Renovations in Los Angeles (1969–76). And it was acoustician Alexander Jaffe who Gehry worked with in Maryland who recommended hiring him for another early project, the Performing Arts Pavilion in Concord, California (1973–75). These early music projects would eventually lead to such important commissions as Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (1988-2003), the Richard B. Fisher Center at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson in New York State (1997–2003), the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago (1999–2004), the New World Center in Miami Beach (2003–11), and Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin (2011–17). So, there is a long thread of his interest in music, which is about a complete experience of architecture. His buildings are great containers for experiencing sound.   

Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles. Image courtesy Frank O. Gehry. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2017.M.66), Frank Gehry Papers

In Masterpieces, you describe Gehry as “an unclassifiable and groundbreaking architect.” Still, how would you put his work in perspective?

Clearly, Gehry has reinvented a series of building types. He really rethought the notion of a house — in his own house and in other domestic projects that followed. He reinvented the museum – and not just with the Guggenheim Bilbao. And he also reinvented the music venue. And he reconsidered the skyscraper, so often conceived either as a boring box of identical floors or as a nostalgic Post-Modernist object. Of course, he was not alone. But what is different in his case is this continuous reinvention. He continues to work on mixed-use high-rise towers, in Toronto and in Hudson Yards, just to cite two examples. He never leaves the programs in his projects undiscussed: Reconsidering the initial program has become an intrinsic part of his creative freedom. Of course, we can see a strong continuity in his language, but you will never see any repetition. The Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, now under construction, has nothing to do with the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

Then he also reinvented the tectonics of architecture, the skin of architecture. What he did not reinvent is structure; he rather took advantage of it, particularly in the case of balloon framing, a timber structure widely used in residential construction in America, which became the main condition for his early attempts to reinvent architectural space and form. I am convinced that Gehry would not have emerged in the same way if he practiced in another country where buildings are built, let’s say, mainly in reinforced concrete or steel. From wood frame he moved to other structures and systems. But he is not strongly engaged in the perception of structure per sé; he is not interested in the beauty of pure structure the way Auguste Perret, Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe were. Although in his latest projects, such as the Dr. Chau Chak Wing Building at the UTS Ultimo in Sydney (2009–14) or the Luma Foundation in Arles (2007–21) there is more care in visually treating the structure. So, Gehry is much more interested in the tectonics and completely revolutionizing the way buildings could look like.  

Gehry’s towers for Toronto’s King Street. Rendering by Sora, Copyright Gehry Partners, LLP

In Masterpieces, you make note of his many characterizations – as an anarchist, Pop artist, Post-Modernist, and deconstructivist – and that his buildings have been considered narcissistic. You also make the interesting point that he draws on his previous work “for inspiration in a self-referential manner.” How so?

He is constantly mining in his own work to discover something new. He is constantly elaborating and reinterpreting his previous models. There is a constant process of recycling and transformation. It is a kind of self-referentiality in the best possible way, similar to how novelists work, in a way, continuously writing the same story in new and very different ways. His work is layered, complex, and has many meanings. He was exposed to many ideas and projects that had a strong effect on him. Again, his architecture gives an impression as if coming out of sort of spontaneous gestures, but his works are extremely diverse and are layered with interiorized intellectual reflections and deeply assimilated artistic and architectural culture.

You’ve also said that Gehry’s work should be viewed as “restless attempts to be recognized as a different kind of architect, freed from the clichés and codes of a fundamentally conservative profession whose comfortable practice he has rejected.” What do you think are the roots of this persistent questioning, disagreement with accepted conventions, and insistence on non-stop experimentation? 

It comes from the Los Angeles scene in the 1960s, when the dominant forces were such practices as Victor Gruen Associates, A. C. Martin and Associates, Pereira & Luckman, and Welton Becket; he had opportunities to work with or at least meet with most of them. All of them exemplified strong models, but he tried to find his own alternative model, while always building very strong productive relationships with his clients. The first volume of the sketches tries to bring all these associations and relationships to the surface. And again, he is not the only imaginative architect; his younger contemporaries such as Rem Koolhaas and Jean Nouvel are also pursuing very radical ideas and their own paths.

Of course, he has always been called the artist among the architects. But at the same time, he leads a very serious professional practice and is known as a problem-solver, even if his work, at first sight, may be perceived as arbitrary sculptures, we know that his buildings are based on function and programmatic requirements. And his budgets are not modest, but he is known for delivering his projects on time and on budget. In fact, his projects are built typically for about 15 per cent more than average buildings of the same class. This is what his clients discovered — he is a very responsible architect, while pursuing his own creative interests and poetics of architecture.

Luma Arles tower in France. Image copyright Gehry Partners, LLP

Could you take me on a tour of some of the most important ideas of Gehry’s work as an evolutionary trajectory? Such as his idea of a building as an unfinished object/space, a building’s fragmentation into objects, the integration of various objects into a single hybrid form? And then the idea of expressing movement and feelings, and exploring compositions in the works of painters — from Morandi and de Chirico to Bellini and Michelangelo. As he said, “Paintings are a way of training the eye.”

Oh my God! Just by going over your question you can see how many ideas power his imagination and production. There is almost too much to mention in just a few sentences. It would be kind of overwhelming. What I would say is that Gehry has been accused of simply doing self-indulging narcissistic objects, but the reality is that he is a serious and responsible architect and urban designer. In that regard, one of my favourite projects is his Edgemar Development in Santa Monica (1984–88), which is based on a careful reading of Camillo Sitte’s 1889 book City Planning According to Artistic Principles, also known as The Art of Building Cities. The building is a transformation of an industrial warehouse into a contemporary art museum modelled on a traditional Tuscan town.

While Gehry clearly does not share Sitte’s nostalgic aesthetics, he nonetheless subscribes to the book’s critique of the spatial monotony of the modern city and the author’s effort to recover a threatened form of sensory experience. There is a strong sense and understanding of perception of spaces from the street, discovery of surprising scenes and moments sort of arrested in their movement; it is a very interesting example of picturesque urban design. And already we see this longing desire from the artist to express the unfinished state of buildings, which he experimented with in his earlier houses in L.A. Or, if you look at the top of his unbuilt 2000 competition project for New York Times Building in Manhattan; it was designed as a sort of a flame, which evokes the very fine, almost fading traces of a brushstroke.

Abu Dhabi Guggenheim. Copyright Gehry Partners, LLP

Would you say that Gehry’s design process has a particular methodology and is not as fluid and spontaneous as people believe?

Absolutely, it is not just spontaneous. There are books that analyze his approach step by step. The best one is probably Frank O. Gehry: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao by Coosje Van Bruggen. And there are other process-oriented books, particularly the ones that explore a single project such as Building Stata or The Fondation Louis Vuitton books. There is a system in how he approaches each project quite rigorously and rationally, starting with functional organization of spaces, elaborating on continuities, adjacencies, hierarchy, and out of that he proceeds to a more sculptural approach pushing to what then becomes unexpectedly surprising. But not the other way around.

Gehry’s work, particularly two of his projects — his own house in Santa Monica and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao – have had a hugely important and liberating effect on architectural discourse. Yet, this liberty in the profession did not last, as it is now again being guided by restraint and conservative views, largely due to the realization of the fragility of our world and prevailing ideas about doing more with less. What do you think will be Gehry’s legacy in this regard?

Still, his work in general is a great lesson of creative freedom and fighting for it, of course, in a responsible way, addressing challenges of use, energy, context. So, he is exploring and assimilating his ideas without pretending that he is building ecological architecture. His work is no less ecological than other designs, but he is not interested in exhibiting this aspect. His architecture has the ability to assimilate many of today’s challenges. But I don’t see his office morphing into a corporate firm that would operate beyond his life. His practice is large but artisanal and based on the creativity of a single author, even if he trained a large workforce.

Sketch of Louis Vuitton Foundation. Copyright Frank O. Gehry

Gehry said that every architect should find his or her own personality in their work. Once you find it you become the only expert. What do you think about this idea of a signature style?

I hate the term “style” and I never use it. And I never use the term “influence.” What he definitely has is a creative language. His vocabulary and syntax are changing but there are stable elements that remain. He has developed a language that can be understood and analyzed, but it is very difficult to reproduce, even by himself. His work is really about his own condition of architecture. Sure, his influence can be identified in some of the L.A. architects who are about 10 to 15 years younger. But not directly. He has a liberating role. He helped architects to get rid of their own uncertainties and pursue their intuitions. And all these local architects went in their own directions.

If you had to be critical about Gehry’s work, what would you say?

It is a very slippery question. But to pick one, I would say that some of his latest interiors have become a bit labyrinthian, which is the case in his Louis Vuitton Fondation and at Luma Foundation, where they are not as fluid as he was able to do in some of his other buildings. So, his architecture is vulnerable to compromises, particular regulations and local bureaucracies, which vary in different parts of the world. Also, he is someone who can never end his projects. Typically, at some point, it is the client who says, “That’s enough.” But he always wants to keep working. He continues to rethink, to adjust and to improve. As a result, so many of his projects are valuable because they are the markers of what architecture can be.

Sketches of Frank Gehry: A Conversation with Jean-Louis Cohen

An interview with French historian and curator Jean-Louis Cohen, who recently published two fundamental books on Frank Gehry – and is just getting started.

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