Tuesday, April 21, 2009

In new book, Gehry warns (in 2005) about the "dicey" DNA of Ratner's FCE parent, but author doesn't check back on AY today

Barbara Isenberg’s new set of interviews with the world’s most famous architect, Conversations With Frank Gehry (excerpt; LA-centric excerpt), makes for a fascinating book, an oral history that describes Gehry’s humble upbringing and professional influences, discusses many of his projects, and allows him to elaborate on his values and sensibility.

In that sense, it’s a complement to the 2006 documentary by Sydney Pollack, Sketches of Frank Gehry, which, though it covers less ground, can, by virtue of the medium, provide a more immediate sense of Gehry’s creative and competitive genius, and sometimes prickly and insecure personality.

As one* reviewer concluded, "Gehry emerges in this self-portrait as a man of flesh and blood: unusually humble, painstakingly ethical, and frankly thrilled with the exciting prospects of modern art and architecture."

Sure, that’s how he emerges, because Isenberg does not dig down to challenge Gehry on potential contradictions in his own mythology. As critic Christopher Hawthorne wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Isenberg generally steers clear of touchy subjects, notably the controversy that has surrounded the Brooklyn project.”

Pending questions

Actually, half of one meaty chapter is devoted to Atlantic Yards, but the interview was conducted in 2005, generations ago in the AY saga. So Isenberg doesn’t make the effort to tease out the many questions regarding Gehry’s relationship with his client, his commitment to his principles, and perhaps even some second thoughts on this troubled, enormously controversial commission.

She should have done so; interviews conducted in October 2005 and January 2006 already showed Gehry expressing self-doubt and feeling embattled. 

For now, however, consider the pregnant statement Gehry made to his interviewer nearly four years ago about his client, Bruce Ratner: “His parent company’s DNA is a little dicey.”

Now the economy has plummeted, the project has stalled, Gehry has laid off his AY staff, and the tension grows between artistic quality and corporate results. Gehry said in January 2006, "I think if it got out of whack with my own principles, I would walk away."

How much more dicey has Forest City Enterprises’ DNA gotten? And is the project "out of whack"?

Those questions go unanswered.

Gehry's background

Gehry, who built cities out of wood on his grandparent’s kitchen floor, did not have it easy, in both his upbringing and early career; indeed, Isenberg suggests that he handles fame reasonably well because it came so late.

He stumbled at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He found an openness and freedom in Los Angeles, a place where he was nurtured more by the art scene than the architecture profession, an enormous contrast to Toronto, the big city of his early childhood.

Gehry has a visual thought process different from many of us. He dredges up memories by sketching. "I was ravenous for visual information,” he says of his early days. “I just drank up painting and sculpture.”

Gehry’s personality

Isenberg describes her subject as “a man who seems alternately ill at ease and charming.”

Gehry acknowledges an “Aw shucks” personality that once led others to underestimate him, not realizing he’s “every bit as ambitious as they are.”

Isenberg recalls how InterActive Corp. head Barry Diller once told an interviewer that he expected Gehry to be “expensive, difficulty, and ornery.” She checked back with Diller, after Gehry’s IAC building in Chelsea was constructed and learned that Diller said his first two expectations were off, but added, “Ornery? Yes, Nicely, wonderfully ornery.”

Near the end of the book, Gehry asks his interviewer: “Do you think after I die people will realize I was a better guy than they thought I was?”

Maybe. But if Gehry keeps calling Bruce Ratner a “liberal do-gooder” without a look at the broader context of Ratner’s hard-nosed business tactics, he won’t be getting many votes from Brooklyn.

Projects

Projects like the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, Disney Hall in Los Angeles, and the Guggenheim in Blibao get substantial mention. (Among those barely mentioned is the Experience Music Project in Seattle, an unloved blob-like building.)

During the series of interviews, however, it’s clear that Atlantic Yards was a big deal for Gehry. Isenberg notes how the space and time at Gehry Partners varies by project, and at one point the office tables were covered with AY "models, photos and plans."

Not anymore, it seems.

The complications of architecture

Gehry likens the creation of a building to “berthing the Queen Mary in a small slip in a marina,” an immensely complicated process, with the final project an elusive “dream image.”

Projects like the Guggenheim and Disney Hall provoked enormous skepticism at the outset, he recalls: “Over time, if they’re any good, they become iconic and accepted and change people’s minds about what’s beautiful.”

True enough, and the test of time, as he's said, would be applied to the AY arena (should it get built).

The impact of delays

If we think the professed (and now discredited) decade-long Atlantic Yards schedule was bogus, well, Gehry probably didn't believe it himself. (His partner on AY, landscape architect Laurie Olin, got into hot water with the now-departed Jim Stuckey for declaring the truth.)

Disney Hall took 15 years to build, which interviewer Isenberg suggests “is a long time.”

“It happens all the time--you compete, you get the assignment, and then you wait,” Gehry responds.

That suggests he should have been reasonably sanguine regarding AY delays. Now that he's said he doubts the project would go forward however, he's gone to another level.

Dealing with clients

Isenberg reminds Gehry he’d referred to Bruce Ratner as a good client.

“Bruce is a very well educated guy,” Gehry responds. “I don’t have to teach him the importance of art. He’s committed. You can be open about what our intentions are and what you’re trying to achieve. He can’t afford to build something that will be a negative business deal, of course. So he’s trying to navigate the relationship between what I do and what they have done, between the commercial enterprise and Bruce and my architectural aspirations. It’s been a learning curve. We have both been working at it, diligently, and having that kind of relationship is important to me.”

That was 2005. What would Gehry say now?

Shrugging it off?

Gehry describes himself has having “liberal political do-gooder leanings.” But those leanings, at least as shown in the book and film, do not connect to a sense of personal regret. 

He tells the now-familiar story about how, when working for the Rouse Company, a mall developer, the company’s president visited Gehry’s idiosyncratic house and asked how the architect could be comfortable working for him.

Gehry said he did it to make a living; the executive said he didn’t think Gehry should do work he didn't want to do. That was a Friday night.

On Monday, Gehry laid off all but three of 50 people, deputizing his wife as an assistant. 
“So I've seen that devil,” Gehry reflects. “That wasn’t the first time something like that has happened either. It happened earlier, and it’s happened since.”

But that devil seems more an issue of career gyrations than regret about laying people off.

Gehry, in the film, is matter-of-fact about both that episode and the end of his first marriage. In the book, there’s no mention of the latter.

Keeping balance

Since the episode with Rouse, Gehry explains, he decided that he wouldn’t let any one one client account for more than half the work, though he’d prefer it no more than 35 percent.

Indeed, he acknowledges that, with Atlantic Yards and the Beekman Tower in Lower Manhattan, his firm’s work with Ratner had exceeded the 35 percent mark, so he took on new clients--as his current clients understood.

Dealing with the press

Gehry displays a certain amount of ambivalence toward the press, understanding how the media can both help and hurt.

”If a project is of a public nature, people want to read about it,” he observes. “Clients hire publicists, which is their right, and we participate. Willingly. We don’t usually refuse that when it’s a client unless it’s something I don’t want to do...”

Then again, when Isenberg brings up the lawsuit filed by MIT against Gehry Partners and Skanska USA Building regarding construction and design failures at the Stata Center, Gehry gets prickly when she asks about leaks.

“Why would you even give it credence?" he responds.

Gehry not unreasonably suggests that the client could have come to him to ask for things to be fixed, and suggests that such problems were typically handled by insurance companies.

But he’s angry at the press for reporting on the lawsuit: “Eager reporters are always there ready to take you out, so there they were. And I feel like the reporters don’t do their due diligence. They just shoot from the hip.”

Well, Gehry won't exactly take challenging questions from the press on AY, and his most recent statements were orchestrated via the developer’s office.

The problems with value engineering

The term value engineering has been bandied about recently regarding AY, but Gehry's had some bad experiences in the past.

Though he designed Disney Hall in stone, after Bilbao, his clients wanted metal. That meant that reflections from the hall’s roof caused extreme heat nearby.

“The reflection wasn’t my fault,” an agitated Gehry tells Isenberg. “I told them that would happen.”

“Then they came and told me they had to light the building because I didn’t light the metal. Well, I did have a whole system for lighting the metal, and they value-engineered it out,” he explains. “And that little amphitheater in the back? It was never covered, and you need shade. But that was value-engineered out.”

That raises questions about the impact of value engineering on the AY arena, which may have something to do with saving money on safety glass. It may be a little late to save half a billion dollars, however.

The AY chapter

Isenberg deals with Atlantic Yards in a chapter that also discusses the Grand Avenue project in Los Angeles. She acknowledges that both mixed-use projects involved governmental involvement, delays, and, in the case of Brooklyn, "scrutiny from neighborhood residents, bloggers, and others."

Indeed.

At the time of their conversation in August 2005, Gehry was “clearly excited” about Atlantic Yards. OK, but that was well before “No comment” to questions about eminent domain; Gehry derided critics as “picketing Henry Ford”; he described Miss Brooklyn as “my ego trip”; he produced deceptive renderings; he  dutifully declared B1 is “very special to me”; and he admitted that “I don’t think [AY is] going to happen.”

That final quote, published last month, was immediately contradicted by Ratner, and Gehry himself had to revise his remarks. What does he really think?

Need for updates

Books have a long lead time, but still, readers of the book get updated only to the point of a March 2008 New York Times article in which Ratner acknowledged delays in the project but said the arena was on schedule.

The arena, needless to say, is no longer on the schedule Ratner proclaimed.

Planning a neighborhood

Gehry explains, as has been reported, that he met Ratner in the competition to build the New York Times Tower and Ratner was "now doing a project that entailed planning a large neighborhood. It was about six or seven million square feet including an arena, housing, and commercial space, and it was the kind of thing I’ve been waiting all my life to get to do."

Planning a large neighborhood? Once, Gehry was more careful, saying he was designing a “neighborhood practically from scratch.” Isenberg might have brought up the “spaceship” analogy.

Gehry, who at one point says the 17-building Atlantic Yards consists of 12 buildings, may just be a bit imprecise with facts. Atlantic Yards, as proposed, was to be an 8 million square foot project and, after increases and strategic decreases, was approved at roughly the same size.

If it was always to be only 6-7 million square feet, that suggests that the size was overstated from the start.

Gehry as urban planner

At the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Gehry reflects, “I didn’t know what it entailed to study city planning. My vision, and I wasn’t clear myself, was that I would do urban design like I’ve been doing in Brooklyn.”

Gehry points out that he had a background in urban development, such as a high-rise housing tower for Rouse in Baltimore. Ratner, says Gehry, "had studied my work and realized I was an urban planner but hadn’t had the chance to do that."

Well, don’t urban planners get to meet with the public rather than be kept at arm’s length by their clients?

Dodgers nostalgia

Gehry sounds a bit like he has assimilated a bit of Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, saying he embraced working in Brooklyn since he lived here as a one-year-old, his kids moved to Brooklyn, and "[t]he idea of bringing a sports team back to Brooklyn is very powerful, because they lost one. It’s been like a big hole in their gut since they lost the Dodgers, and I think Bruce is doing it for the same reasons. he loves that idea."

Well, Gehry just turned 80, so he may have a bit more nostalgia than many of us. I still think the best explanation for the project is, as Ratner’s cousin Chuck said in March 2007, it’s “a great piece of real estate.”

Building a better arena

There’s a real poignancy to some of the discussion, to Gehry’s (and Ratner’s) desire to build a better arena, a plan that convinced a lot of architecture critics. Ratner wanted an arena that had "the intimacy and relationship between the players and spectators that Disney Hall has between the orchestra and the audience. He told his partners they had to see Disney Hall and he brought them all out here to do that."

In Los Angeles, he observes, the "Staples Center is a complete disaster.. it’s purely a money machine."

Solving problems

When Isenberg in 2005 asks how things are going, Gehry describes efforts to work out the arena program: “We’re also working on solving the incredibly complicated issues of the traffic in and out of the arena at peak hours. It’s very complicated. It’s very exciting.”

OK, Gehry was apparently working on the challenge of moving large crowds into the building. He was not, however, solving the problem of traffic in the neighborhood.

The dicey DNA

Gehry, perhaps because of his work on the Beekman Tower and his observations on the Times Tower, believes that Bruce Ratner knows that good architecture pays off. (There’s no mention of Ratner’s less-gloried past works like MetroTech and Atlantic Center.)

"He worked with many good architects in attempts to raise the bar for developers, but his parent company’s DNA is a little dicey. I kid him and say, 'The DNA is going to be counter to it," Gehry reports.

Gehry goes on to say that he recognizes economic issues and can't just damn developers, "because he’s committed to doing something excellent. And he equally has to understand that there are aspirations in architecture that have to be fulfilled for me to be happy and for us to be mutually happy."

That was 2005. What does Gehry think now?

Regret about a “dream project”

Gehry describes the relationship with the Department of City Planning as “we mostly see eye-to-eye.” He says Mayor Mike Bloomberg has provided a lot of support.

“And Ratner and his team work really well with my team,” Gehry continues. “They like each other, and they even spend social time together. They sometimes have to travel together so everybody has kind of bonded, me included. For what I’ve yearned to do, it’s kind of the dream project.”

So the stall must be painful.

One architect

Isenberg points out that it’s a “huge undertaking” for Gehry to design the entire project himself.

Gehry explains, as he’s done before, that he typically would bring in other architects “because that’s the way a city would be built. But Bruce know that I was prone to do that, so he said from the beginning, ‘One of the conditions of you getting this project is that you do it all yourselves I don’t want to deal with a lot of people. It will go faster if I can just work with one office.’”

True enough, but Gehry’s name on all the buildings also would help them sell.

So Gehry has the challenge of “a pluralistic approach,” which, at least from his discussion with Isenberg, involves a variety of window types as a way to distinguish buildings.

Costs: bulletproof, almost

Gehry offers a fascinating anecdote about the use of titanium in Bilbao. It was about twice the cost of stainless steel, but it could be half the thickness. Even then, titanium would’ve cost more--except that “the Russians dumped a lot of titanium on the market at a low price,” a result that Gehry described as “a miracle.”

“People still think I don’t follow programs, I don’t follow budgets,” Gehry says. “That comes up in the press all the time. They are presumptions people make because of the work.”

“They’re not used to this six-month period that I take to slog through this,” says Gehry of his clients, regarding his effort to map out costs.” But at the end of that period, when you do it this way, the work is bulletproof almost.”

Almost.

However, the arena, $637.2 million as of December 2006, some 15 months later went up to $950 million. Now that the developer is reportedly trying to cut the cost in half, what went wrong?

“[W]ith the computer, you can preempt all of that by having such precise information in advance that the only change in price has to do with the marketplace which neither the contractor, the architect, nor the client can control,” Gehry says. “But everything else you can control. You can anticipate steel prices or interests rates going up... It makes the architect a partner.”

Could it be that neither Gehry nor his client anticipated the costs of meeting the security implications?

Ego trip

Gehry returns to the meme that people think artists aren’t businesslike, so “I pride myself that I run a tight ship.”

He continues: “People think that somebody who does this kind of out-there work that they haven't seen before must be irresponsible and must not be interested in budgets or times schedule or their client, or the community that the building is going to be in. They characterize it as an ego trip by superstar architects. Now in some cases it may be true, but it’s not in mine.”

“So put that in big letters: Gehry is a listener. He is not on an ego trip.”

Except when he is. Gehry famously described the “Miss Brooklyn” flagship tower as “my ego trip.”

When to walk

Gehry takes pride in his sense of character, as well as the financial independence and acclaim that allows him autonomy.

He recalls an episode while in the Army, an offer of assistance that could’ve been interpreted as a kickback, which he reported to the authorities.

“I think that incident says something about me and my character,” Gehry reflects. “Not that I go ring the bell on other people, but that there’s a certain level of what’s right and wrong that I live by.”

Later, he said, “I also know that if I take a project on other terms than mine, for me it will fail. It will be a fight all the way through. I’m in the fortunate position now of being able to walk away from that.”

So, the question arises: New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, generally a Gehry supporter, in March 2008 publicly called for Gehry to walk:
But by pulling out he would be expressing a simple truth: At this point the Atlantic Yards development has nothing to do with the project that New Yorkers were promised. Nor does it rise to the standards Mr. Gehry has set for himself during a remarkable career.

What does Gehry think now?

And has he given any thought to the government tactics necessary to deliver the project: the dubious finding of blight as a precursor to eminent domain.

Gehry and Isenberg in NYC

The book tour, for both author and subject, starts May 11 in an appearance at the New York Public Library. Tickets are $25 for 90 minutes, and music critic Alex Ross and Los Angeles Philaharmonic conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen are the other guests.

So I suspect that 1) the conversation will focus on Disney Hall and 2) there won’t be much time to get to Atlantic Yards. (Here’s a recent Isenberg lecture at USC.)

But AY is the big question in New York, and someone should ask him about it. Here’s a start:
• Is Gehry still working on the project? How actively?
• What does he think about Ouroussoff's request?
• How much has the project been compromised by cost-cutting?

Footnote

*The review noted above was for Library Journal, the magazine where I work, though not on the review side.

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