NOVEMBER 16, 2019
FRANK O. GEHRY is one of the most important and celebrated architects in the world. His striking design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, with its unique angles and titanium exterior, catapulted him to international fame when the museum opened in 1997.
In 2010, after conducting a poll among 52 experts in architecture, Vanity Fair confirmed the late architect Philip Johnson’s evaluation of Gehry as “the greatest architect we have today” and of the Guggenheim in Bilbao as “the greatest building of our time.” Before and since, Gehry has designed acclaimed buildings all over the world, including the iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown Los Angeles, which opened its doors in 2003.
Our interview with Gehry took place in 1991, in his spartan office, the hub of a converted two-story industrial building that housed his architectural firm. When we interviewed him, he had completed the design of Disney Hall, but construction had not yet begun. As admirers of Gehry’s earlier work in Los Angeles, including his personal residence in Santa Monica and the Air and Space Exhibit building at the California Museum of Science and Industry, we were excited about his winning the competition to design Disney Hall and looking forward to seeing it realized.
Gehry was warm and open, and although neither of us had met him before, talking with him was like talking with an old friend.
STEVEN JAY FOGEL & MARK BRUCE ROSIN: Please tell us about your family. It all starts with family, doesn’t it?
FRANK GEHRY: My mother’s still alive. My father died in 1962. I have one sister who’s nine years younger than me. My mother was, has been, always is, and is still to this day, demanding excellence and growth. There was a kind of ambition in her that was always present. If I called her up and told her that something appeared in the L.A. Times about me and it was on the second page, she’d say, “Why wasn’t it on the first page?” My father died before I was anything in terms of my career as an architect. He was somehow disappointed that I wasn’t a businessman. He was born in New York, and his father died when he was a child. He grew up in Hell’s Kitchen. He was a dead-end kid. He was a boxer. He didn’t have a chance to make it. He didn’t have any high school. He was a salesman in Canada — slot machines, and pinball machines, those popcorn things, those fortune teller things, bowling alley things, Wurlitzer jukeboxes. He had a route in Northern Canada where he had all that stuff. He would go every week. We lived in Toronto, then Timmins from when I was eight to when I was 13. I spent time with my father. He drew and he would sit and draw with me. I had evidence of his talents. He used to do window dressing when he was younger, and he won a contest for window design. But he never pursued it, and I think it was a missed opportunity because I think some of the talent — the genetic talent — comes from him, because he has a sister who became a dress designer.
Did you feel your parents had a lot of belief in you, as well as a lot of expectation?
My mother had the expectation. I think my father liked me, but I was always a dreamer.
Did you play any sports when you were a child?
I played hockey in Canada.
Would he come to the games?
No. He wasn’t too interested in my activities. My mother took me to the museums and concerts and pushed that — the art — all the time. I think he had the talent; she had the ambition. He could never overcome this business thing, his own ambition to be a businessman. Financially, I’m more successful than he ever was — not that this is great financial success — but it wasn’t hard to beat him. I think he just had that focus, that he had to make it financially.
Do you think that was because of his coming from Hell’s Kitchen?
Yes. Not having anything. And I was born in 1929, when the Depression started. My father was a lot of fun. … He was successful in business until I was about 14, 15 years old, and then it started to go sour for him. Then, in the late ’40s, he moved out here [to Los Angeles] because he was sick. He was already a failure by then. Financially he was washed up. He had to take a job in a liquor store as a salesman. He had a hard time. I was 17, just beginning to start college. It was very painful.
Did it make you resolve anything about yourself?
I’m sure it did. I didn’t know what I wanted to be. … I wanted to be something. The only role model I had was a cousin who’s a chemical engineer, so coming out of high school I thought I wanted to be a chemical engineer. One day, a chemical engineer came to the school to give a presentation to the students, and I told him that’s what I wanted to be. Something about it didn’t ring true to him. He took me out to his lab and showed me what they did. At the end of the day, he said, “I’m real excited that you want to do this, but you don’t want to do this.” And he showed me why. He said, “This is what you do,” and you could see in my eyes that I was interested in things that would go quicker, not sitting there looking at tests … hundreds of tests of the same chemical.
Did you have success in grade school or high school?
It wasn’t so much successes that that made me stand out in school. … I had a very close friend, and he and I became atheists in grade 11. Up to then, because of my grandparents and my training in the Hebrew school, I’d been thinking about going to the Rabbinical school at some point.
You would’ve been the only Rabbi on your block with the name Gehry.
Well, it was Goldberg before. It would have been okay. My friend Ross and I got together and started arguing about religion … arguing about was there a God, wasn’t there a God, and then Ross and I did a study of the Bible, the New Testament, the Old Testament, picked up the inconsistencies. We were ostracized in our class by the other kids. We were the atheists in the class, and the girls wouldn’t go out with us. We couldn’t get a date, nothing. Nobody would talk to us because we were the weirdos in the class. And so there was a certain notoriety as the outsider that fits my later life I guess.
Did you come back to religion?
Did you have any heroes in those days?
Musicians that I had heard, and Franklin Roosevelt. When he died, I remember that was painful. My grandparents were influential. I spent a lot of time with my mother’s parents. My grandfather had a hardware store in Toronto. It was a tiny little place, but he was well known, and I used to work there. We were very close, and I would go there and play with the nails and the bolts and help him fix clocks. I used to stay over at their house. My grandmother had a big effect on me. She had run a foundry in Poland when she was a young girl, and she was very hands-on. She would take me to the woodshops where she’d pick up scraps for the wood stove she cooked on. She would bring home all the scraps, and we would play on the floor. She would make cities with me.
I finally hit rock bottom when I arrived here in Los Angeles. Everything was going bad for my mother, and I was in college, working as a truck driver, going to night school. … It was really a terrible time. I remember I was searching for what to do. I thought of radio announcing, and then I didn’t think that was right. I had taken classes in drawing and perspective and I flunked. I was good in math. … I was all over the place. I had taken ceramics classes at USC. I couldn’t afford to go to school full-time. And I remembered sitting on the floor and making these cities [with my grandmother]. When you think of it, it’s an adult giving a kid a license saying, “When you grow up, you can play.” You had these fantasies, and you could play and play about serious stuff like cities. My grandmother didn’t know anything about it. It was my fantasy. She would see me making cities with the blocks and she would sit on the floor with me and do it.
I realized that that was really an important thing, so I took a night class in architecture at USC. Now, there were several things that came together at once: the memory of grandma and sitting on the floor and an experience I had connected to the ceramics class I took with a teacher, Glen Lukens. Lukens was having a house designed by [architect] Raphael Soriano, who used to walk around in a black suit with a black beret and a black tie. Lukens took me to the house, introduced me to Soriano, and I said, “Wow, look at this guy, building this thing.” It clicked. So Lukens said, “Look, I want you to take this night course [in architecture].” So there was a move there. I just met the right people at the right time …
Do you think of Lukens as a mentor?
Yes. I think he took an interest in me for whatever that year was.
It sounds like he helped you find your path.
He did. Because, if you see the ceramic work I made in his class, it was horrible. I mean, it’s embarrassing. It’s so anal-compulsive. … I was hiding from the world. Very uptight. No premonition of anything I finally did. At the end of the year at the night class in architecture, I had my first real success in school. The teacher recommended that I skip into second year. In other words, this was a test course — people took it, and then they would start the architecture program if they could get accepted based on having a portfolio from this class, and they would start in first year. I didn’t know this, but he picked three or four of us out of a class of 40 or 50, to be put into second year immediately.
It sounds as if you were almost surprised to go into an art-related field.
Well … yes. Art in school wasn’t a big deal to me, although I used to draw in my books. I was never really the artist in the class in high school. In the Hebrew school, I remember drawing pictures of the heroes from Israel. I remember the rabbi folding them up and then calling my parents and telling them I was really talented. But I don’t think it ever clicked with me.
How much did your education at architecture school contribute to your eventual work?
Let me free associate about something we haven’t talked about. My father was a big liberal. He was always political — knocking the system — and our house was always filled with all kinds of people of different races and different backgrounds. He had no judgments about that. As a salesman, he would run into people who were in the carnival business — we would always get free tickets to the carnival when it came to town. There was a black boxer, who was blind, who used to babysit for me. It was always like that. My mother was a little bit fancy, so she didn’t embrace all of this, but it was part of his shtick, and she accepted it. So the house was this liberal base, and then my grandparents’ relatives were all garment guys, and they belonged to unions, so there was always that. And my father was always championing some cause. He loved FDR. It was a very liberal kind of atmosphere. When I got into architecture school, the second year — when we had to learn to draw — was trauma time, because the teacher told me I should get out of architecture. But in my third year —
Your teacher told you to get out of architecture?
Yes. … See, I was geared to expect that I was going to be a failure …
Where do you think you got that?
I don’t know. Probably this expectation from Mama that I wasn’t going to make it — that I could never live up to her [standards].
Was she a high achiever herself?
She wanted to be a lawyer, and her father wouldn’t let her go to school. “You don’t put a girl through law school.” So they sent her brother. He really wanted to play baseball, so he finished law school to play baseball. My mother never got to do law. She had aspirations for me and my sister to be achievers. And she pushed it. She still does and she’s 86.
Do you think she was telling you that you were not going to make it, in order to motivate you?
Yes. To work harder. … Somewhere in me I believed I could make it, I guess, because I did. But … even today, I don’t feel secure about all this. I think there’s a part of me — which I’ve come to feel is healthy — that is always questioning. I don’t believe all this shit that’s written. I don’t read it very much, the good and the bad. So I send it to her.
What was the connection you were making between your father’s liberal politics and your education as an architect?
My third-year architecture professor was and is a humanist. His name is Cal Straub. He talked about the good life, and the need for sociology and anthropology and art history, and all of those things came clearly into focus for me. I’d had some art history before, and I was always involved with artists. At USC, we were in the same building. When I could, I always tried to bring the artist into the room with the architects. This chasm still exists. Cal Straub was a socially aware guy, and my politics locked in, and I got very excited. I saw what architecture could get into — the issues of housing and city planning and social services. That really turned me on.
For my thesis in architectural school, I got involved with a Mexican friend in my class whose family was related to the governor of Baja California. With him, for my thesis, I was able to do a housing and master plan for Baja, and we were paid by the government. We made presentations and we brought in the geography department and the political science department. … It was really exciting. From that energy, I wanted to go into city planning and government. I was drafted, I went into the Army, and from the Army I went to Harvard to city planning school. My liberal teachers at USC had all been to Harvard, and they urged me to go, so I went as a post-graduate in planning. There I found myself in the wrong pew, because they were giving statistics classes. I really wanted to design things, but I had been so convinced that designing objects — buildings — was irrelevant, because there was no redeeming social value in designing some rich guy’s house, that I was totally out of whack. … Politically I wanted to do [city planning], but I didn’t have the skills to do it. My strength was finally in making little mud pies. But I didn’t know that. And so I tried. Eventually, I quit the school. By then, my first wife and I had children, and that was getting complicated.
How did you manage to stay in school with kids?
It was tough. And it was wearing on the marriage a lot. “C’mon, give me a break. You’re going back to school? I already helped put you through school, and I worked as a secretary. … What are you doing to me?” That kind of stuff. And I wasn’t doing well, which made it worse. I was having a hard time with it.
Were there any mentors for you as an architect when you came out of school?
When I did some of my early buildings, some of the painters — Ed Moses, Kenny Price, Craig Kauffman, a bunch of those guys — used to come around. I used to meet them at the construction site, and they’d introduce themselves. I used to go to art galleries on Monday nights and look at the work and really get into it. … It was a little group. It was Bob Therrien, John Altoon, Kenny Price, and Moses. … The L.A. scene at that time. These were all names and people I knew, and I loved their work in all cases. So that was a real hit for me.
When I started my practice in ’62, the first buildings intrigued those artists for some reason that I didn’t understand. … And I became involved socially with them. They became my support group, because the architects didn’t like what I was doing. The architectural community was very judgmental about my early work. Being involved with the artists really helped me. It connected me to a way of working that felt good to me, that related to materials. It was more direct. Architecture got very convoluted — and I did that myself. The social issues, all those things that I was prone to get involved with took me further away from it. It was great getting back to the basics, finding that it was socially acceptable, and that I could work with materials that were cheap and permanent, and that artists were using the same materials and making beautiful things out of them. Ed Moses used to tell me that I was a great talent, that I was going to be great, important. … And I never believed him. I thought he was just putting me on. … I just never paid much attention.
When do you believe that you actually “made it”?
Well, I don’t completely.
Was there a particular project you worked on that was a professional turning point for you?
Yes — when I did my house in ’78 and lost all the clients I had. Before that, the clients I had were developer types. Businessmen. I was a service architect — I believed that’s what you did — and I was doing work for people that I was not in control of. I’d done some good projects, like the Danziger Studio [in Hollywood], and stuff at the Hollywood Bowl. I’d always been trying to do the best work; I’d always had a standard. But I didn’t have the horsepower with the clients to achieve it, so there were always compromises. Like Santa Monica Place, which was the biggest project I had done at that point. It was when I was doing Santa Monica Place that I built my house. I had a big office, and I was successful in a business sense, but in an artistic sense, I wasn’t. The client from Santa Monica Place came to my house for dinner — he’s a guy I’m still friends with — and he said to me, “If you like this,” pointing to the house, “You don’t like that,” pointing to photos of Santa Monica Place.
Could you describe your house?
I built a house around a house [using chain-link fence, corrugated metal, asphalt, and other common building materials]. It was the first completely free piece I did. I did it exactly the way I wanted. My client was me and my wife, and my wife egged me on. … I talked about the asphalt floor, and I was going to chicken out, and she said, “Come on, I want to see that.” I was terrified when that guy sitting in my house said what he did. I thought, “Oh my God, here’s a company that 50 percent of my office is involved in with their work.” I remember saying, “You’re right, you’re right” — and so they stopped giving me work. It was over.
Had you any idea that your house would create that kind of controversy with your clients?
No. I had no idea.
How did you react when he stopped giving you work?
We reacted by cutting down from a 35-man office to a three- or four-man office. We started over again. And I felt liberated. For the first time, I understood that I was wasting my time on those other kinds of projects and that, from now on, I was only going to do what I really liked to do.
How did you translate that into action? What changes did you make in client relationships?
Well, I’ve never done any marketing for clients. The clients always came for some reason. There was a new clarity, in that from that day on I told everybody what I intended. I became clearer about myself. I became a better architect. I became more useful to the clients who wanted me than I had been when I was trying to accommodate them. In fact, what I realized was that I was doing them a disservice, because I wasn’t giving them my best. They were paying for something that they weren’t getting. I was not being tough enough in terms of where I thought it should go, my highest and best use. Now, since that time, I’ve been able to be much clearer about my intentions and up-front in a way they can deal with. … “This is where I’m going, this is where I think you should go, this is what I think is best for this project.” I take into account their requirements as much as I ever did. The houses and the buildings solve the clients’ problems, but then they are better architecture.
Was it scary making the transition?
It was scary financially. But, fortunately, I’ve been as busy personally as I ever was, and even down to the three people I was working the same amount of time.
How many people do you have working for you today?
I think it’s close to 50, but [with a core of] 30. I want to keep it small. I have a definite need to keep control of the design, and everybody here understands that. It’s a clear goal of all the people that work with me. It creates a limitation on the number of projects. … But the stuff that we have been doing has gotten bigger, so even though I’m controlling it, the staff expands a certain amount. We’ve had 30 people for the last 10 years. The Disney Concert Hall competition created a need to expand.
Are the projects fun for you to do, or are they work?
They’re a lot of fun.
Do you think your people skills are the same today as they were before that turning point in your career?
No. Once I got my anchor, a hold on what I could do as my own work, my mud pies as I call them — I found I had much more power with people skills and persuasion. I can get up before an audience and give a presentation and do very well where I couldn’t before. Before, I was kind of operating from weakness …
So your people skills changed when you became your own man as an architect, when you started to control the terms of your own work?
They became stronger.
You must have felt awkward before.
Yes. I was dishonest, because I was making compromises and hating the client for putting me in that position. And so you just end up despising the people you’re working for. It’s not their fault, they didn’t know they put you in a compromising position. They didn’t know they were doing it. But in your head, you think, “Ah, it’s his fault, he’s a bastard.” Then you find out you’re the bastard. That was the turning point — when I realized I was the enemy.
So, in a way, doing the house was an unconscious declaration of independence.
Sort of. Although I didn’t know it.
It seems you have a great deal of inner strength, but you didn’t realize it until you did your house.
Well, I probably did, because I did have an inner strength. I had the inner strength to build an office, to do these things …
Has that inner strength been with you since you were a child?
I guess so, yes. My mother would say so. But I’m not aware of it. … Looking back, I became a cheerleader at school … and when I was in my last year of college, I ran the dance, and I got Oscar Peterson, who was a young pianist, to play for us for free. But I remember what I did: the big event was a success, and I walked away from the publicity part; I wouldn’t be point man.
Do you appear publicly now?
Now I do.
Do you enjoy it?
Yes, if it’s related to my work. I don’t go out and front political events.
Why is that?
I follow my architectural strengths. That’s where I’m an expert, and that’s where I can pontificate and say what I want to say. I’m not an expert in these other fields. I make my point by voting and supporting financially [the things I believe in]. I relate to those things as an individual, but I don’t feel I have a compelling overall kind of contribution to make in those areas.
Are there other events besides building your house that changed your destiny?
A big one was meeting Milton Wexler, a close friend who’s a psychologist. Ed Moses took me to him, because Wexler was involved with the artists at the time. I didn’t become Wexler’s patient on the couch, but he became a confidant. A very close friend. And I did see him professionally for a time as well. Now he’s kind of the “elder.” I think Milton helped me clarify what I was. He was the one who made me see that I was really thinking like an artist and not like a businessman. Earlier, I was trying to live in these two worlds for some reason. He helped me consolidate, and go with my strengths, and jump off the cliff as it were.
Prior to the house, there were a lot of discussions about anxiety, and discussions about “these bastard clients [who] are pushing me around.” He made me realize that I was really the enemy of myself. I was giving double-meanings. I was trying to be seductive, and seduce a client into my way of thinking, instead of just telling him what I wanted to do. That came about more in the house that I did before my house, which was done for Norton Simon and Jennifer Jones. Norton is a tough hombre. We got along pretty well until [there were] a lot of complaints, a lot of reasons I can call him a son-of-a-bitch. But, on the other hand, I never could explain to him what I was doing. He’s a guy who needed clarity, needed explanations so he could decide whether or not he was going to pay for it. I could never do that.
Why couldn’t you do that?
He represented some kind of power, a father figure. And Milton and I worked it out with him. Norton was very psychologically aware and pinned me to the wall. … I mean really … financially and every other way.
So his need for clarity forced you to tell him what you wanted to do?
I never got to do it with him at that time. It never worked out completely with him. … We were at each other’s throats to the end. … But Milton knew Norton, and they were friends, so I couldn’t hide behind these “formidable client” things. I was in the open. I came away from it learning that I could still end up friends with somebody as powerful as Norton and Jennifer — to this day we’re friends — that I could tell them what I really think and still get by. Coming from where I came from, these were very important people — they were up there.
At the time you were working with Norton Simon, would you also have had difficulty telling an architect who was an employee what you wanted from him?
There wasn’t the clarity that there is now. … I was worried about what they thought too, at that time.
It must have been quite a relief when you could change gears.
Yes, it was. Now everybody out there knows exactly where I stand, all the clients.
Was there one big change, or did you try it a little bit at a time?
Well, I had to fail a lot, like with Norton. But it was in the ability to have somebody to discuss it with that made the difference. … I think I would have still done some of the things I’m doing — I would have broken through artistically, because it was kind of inevitable — but, had I not been able to discuss it with Milton Wexler and had that arena to confront it in, I probably would be an angrier person right now. Pissed off at everybody, but still fighting for these principles. I wouldn’t have gotten the Disney Hall. I wouldn’t have made it through that confrontation. I would have yelled at someone in pre-sales, and I would have told them, “You fuckers, you wouldn’t hire me,” you know … I was the Mr. “jack story” endlessly.
What is the “jack story”?
A guy has a flat tire at two in the morning on a dark road. He doesn’t have a jack to change the tire, and he sees a light in the distance. It’s a mile walk, and as he begins walking, he’s saying, “God, I’m going to wake these poor bastards up to borrow a jack for my flat tire.” As he gets closer, he says, “Well, I’m the one who’s stuck out here. It’s me that’s the victim. They’re in bed, sleeping.” By the time he gets to the door and rings the doorbell and the poor bastard comes out of his bed, he’s so mad at him that he hits him and screams, “I don’t want your fucking jack!” That’s the jack story. It’s what I learned from Milton that I’m applying. When I start to do that, I catch myself. Now, sometimes, I work out the jack story in the office and the guys catch me. But I’ve told them that I’m prone to do it, and they see it, and they say “stop it.” Everybody here is aware. My wife is aware.
What are you aspiring toward now?
Making better mud pies. The struggle now is to take some of these ideas into a bigger arena. … I’ve never done a real museum. We’re just getting a small one to do [the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota]. In doing the Temporary Contemporary [at MOCA, formerly a police garage in downtown Los Angeles] and the museum in Santa Monica, I worked with existing buildings. I just cleaned them up. Even through the Temporary Contemporary turns out to be a great museum, it’s not totally mine. I fixed it; it’s what I didn’t do. I clarified it, but I understood what to do because I’d seen so many artists’ studios that looked like that, so it wasn’t distasteful to me to think of that as a museum.
The Disney design competition …
That was our third competition. And I didn’t want to enter it. The “jack story” was that I’d been passed over for MOCA [the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles] and I had been passed over for LACMA [the Los Angeles County Museum of Art], but I was interviewed, and I was very hurt about MOCA, because the very artists that supported me were the ones who shoved me out. … I was very hurt. … I expected the business community not to call me, but when the artists who were so close to me rejected me it pained me a lot. When they [Ernest Fleischmann, executive director of the L.A. Philharmonic, and Fred Nicholas, president of Hapsmith Company and affiliated with the Concert Hall] called me to get involved with the Disney Hall competition, I said, “Come on, give me a break. Haven’t I given enough? Don’t do it, don’t get me in there. These people aren’t going to like my work, and they’re not going to want me to do it. Don’t put me through that pain again.”
Would it have been painful to enter and not win?
I was very reticent when they asked me to enter, but I was given to believe that, if I had the best scheme, it would be publicly acknowledged, and even though Mrs. Disney might not ultimately have picked it, the jury was such that I could have had a moral victory. And they really wanted me to do it. It would have been painful to have done the best job and not get it because they thought I was going to put chain-link on it or something — that I was going to do something weird. … Here’s where you get into the area of people’s perception of what I’m about and what a building like that should be.
How would you describe what you’re about?
I guess that I’m responding to the time I live in. I don’t like thinking about going backward to the past. I think I’m willing to take the risk that you could make a building in this time and respond to the time. The clues are all out there for me very clearly. And I’m willing to take those chances and make building forms, I respond to that, to what I see around me, what the world is about. So it’s dealing in a way with the present, and commenting on it in some way or another, versus trying to recreate Rome in Los Angeles. I learned from Rome, but I don’t think the literal translation of those spaces here makes any sense at this time. It seems like a cop out. It seems like you’re telling your kids that there is no present. You don’t know what to do. You’re stymied. So you’re going to go back and take what was done and copy it. it seems irrelevant.
As it relates to the concert hall, how do you make a dignified, elegant kind of building using materials that have some permanence and still make it a statement of the present? And where I went with it was, how do you make a populist place for Los Angeles? Something that’s open, that’s accessible from the street. It turns out that Walt Disney’s widow is of that same character, just by fluke. … So I dealt with Los Angeles as Los Angeles is. I said that the Chandler Pavilion [part of the Music Center complex across the street from the Disney Hall site] is an existing building. I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s a great building, but there it is. You have this street with traffic, you have all these things. I was around when the Chandler was built. I knew that there was a lot of loving care, and people put a lot of effort into building it. Those people are still around. Can I use this building complex to mend a piece of the city? Can I make a relationship that wasn’t there? Can the Chandler be made better by the relationship to my building? Can my building be made better by its relationship to the Chandler?
Will this new building be an extension of you?
It’s different. It’s not my house. It’s not the chain-link and the corrugated metal. Now we’re dealing with stone and a certain elegance that’s appropriate for this building. And I’m struggling with that. How do I find my way into that? I’ve got this liberal streak in me. I know that I need to explore. … You’ll see the project. It’s supposed to be completed in ’94.
Could you define what success is for you?
For me, it’s having a sense of the freedom to do … to explore one’s own ideas and philosophies, which in my case are visual. And to find support for that.
Do you worry about it a lot?
Do you worry about things in general?
Yes, I’m a worrier. If I solve one problem, I find something else to worry about 30 seconds later. I worry about health and my kids and my wife and my mother. I worry about the world and the greenhouse effect …
What are the rewards and drawbacks of success for you?
The rewards are the freedom and ability … I mean in architecture. They’re not big hits financially.
Is money a big issue for you?
Well, I’ve always been threatened by poverty. … I’ve always been at the edge and we still are occasionally. But my wife runs the business end, and I have good people now. I don’t get involved with it anymore. So I worry a lot less. I don’t pay attention to the financial thing. From ’62 to now, we’ve been through such traumas financially, and somehow it’s all worked. And now we’ve got a lot of work. I can’t believe that we’re not going to make it.
You spoke about how important your house has been to you, do you find you are a slave to it?
Talk to my wife about that. She wishes I would be a slave to it. I’m not. We want to do things to it that obviously we couldn’t afford in ’78. … Now we have some money to do it, and I’m stuck in the aesthetic of it, because I’ve gone way past that. So the best thing for me would be to tear it down and start over. … I’ve been considering that.
Why not leave that and build a new one?
Well, you can’t … financially. But I can’t afford to tear it down, either. If I sold it, the amount of money I would get wouldn’t be enough. … Everybody must be in that same box.
When you find yourself criticizing a building you’ve done, does it nag at you or do you just accept it?
Nags at me.
Are you a perfectionist?
Yes. Much more than people think. One of the perceptions of me is that I’m not interested in detail, because [the work] sort of looks … casual, but I must admit it’s a contrived casual. To do it is very difficult. It takes a lot of expertise in the detail area, and I’m fastidious about it. … The hand on the tiller is pretty firm all the way to the end.
It sounds as if you’re as stimulated by your work today as you ever were.
Yes, I am. One mentor I didn’t talk about was Philip Johnson, who is in his 80s, and still working and still excited. He and I sit on the phone and yak about architecture. He’s a great role model, since he is interested in architecture so much that he’s always looking for who’s doing what and where, and has consistently searched out people. He came to see me when I did the Ron Davis house and argued with me about the validity of that as architecture. We’ve had a relationship ever since. And he’s older than me, and he’s still full of piss and vinegar. The guy’s had six operations and he’s still going and designing buildings. And there are a lot of role models [like that] …
Frank Lloyd Wright …
Frank Lloyd Wright certainly did that. And Picasso. … It’s a blessing.