Frank Gehry on Film

What a new documentary does and doesn’t say about the famous architect.

“It’s not just that I didn’t know anything about making documentaries. I didn’t even know anything about architecture,” says Hollywood director Sydney Pollack, recalling his reaction to Frank Gehry’s request that he make a movie about his work. “That’s why you’re perfect,” Gehry is supposed to have answered. After seeing Sketches of Frank Gehry, I’m not so sure.

Frank Gehry and Sydney Pollack at the Guggenheim Bilbao

Pollack has made many memorable films, among them two of my favorites, Three Days of the Condor and Out of Africa. He spent five years filming Sketches, which is clearly a labor of love. Some of the unaffected scenes are conversations between Gehry and Pollack—old friends and schmoozing old pros. But when Hollywood talking heads such as Michael Ovitz, Michael Eisner, and Dennis Hopper (who lives in a Gehry-designed house, though we never see it) pontificate about architecture, it’s downright embarrassing.

Pollack was right: He doesn’t know much about architecture (although he knows a lot about how to film it and produces some gorgeous footage of Gehry’s buildings). Perhaps that’s why he didn’t interview many architects. It would have been interesting to hear from Gehry’s younger Los Angeles colleagues, such as Thom Mayne or Eric Owen Moss, for example, about how Gehry has—or hasn’t—influenced their work. Or from Robert Venturi, who once roundly criticized the sort of sculptural, evocative buildings that Gehry has brought to the fore. Instead, the only architect we hear from is an aged Philip Johnson, visibly fragile and lacking his usual acerbic wit.

In his Hollywood way, Pollack wants to cast Gehry as an outsider, a rebel. (Never underestimate the lingering influence of The Fountainhead.) Consequently, except for a brief scene of a standing ovation during the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, we get no sense of Gehry’s immense and far-flung popularity; he has won every architectural award, and is—after Bilbao—a household name. This is an odd omission, since Pollack is a consummate maker of popular entertainment. It would have been interesting to hear man-on-the-street interviews to have a sense of how Gehry connects with his public.

Pollack does talk to Barry Diller, who has commissioned Gehry to build his corporation’s headquarters in New York City. Diller, perfectly in character as a powerful captain of industry, shrewdly observes that one of Gehry’s strengths is his ability to solve technical problems. It’s one thing to crumple paper and Scotch-tape together bits of cardboard, as the movie shows Gehry’s assistants doing, and quite another to translate such improvised models into weatherproof, solid, and functional buildings. Sadly, Pollack leaves this practical aspect of Gehry’s talent unexplored.

Although Pollack doesn’t talk to many architects, he does interview several Los Angeles painters, who provide interesting insights into Gehry’s work. Chuck Arnoldi gives a very funny—and revealing—imitation of Gehry designing (“Let’s make it like this, or like that … or maybe try it another way”). Ed Ruscha speaks about a younger Gehry seeking out artists, with whom he seemed to have more in common than with other architects. One of the things that Gehry shares with painters is that he, like them, takes aesthetic risks. His buildings are always a balancing act between the improbable and the impossible, and watching the tightrope walker do his tricks high up in the air is part of the thrill—and also explains his popularity.

Gehry’s Atlantic Yards proposal

Pollack includes a token negative critic in the film, art historian Hal Foster. The Princeton professor is unconvincing, but there is a real criticism of Gehry to be made. He is currently designing two large urban real-estate development projects, one in Brooklyn and one in downtown Los Angeles. How suitable will his whimsical, idiosyncratic approach be for city building? My guess: not very. It’s not a question of size, or density, or art in the service of commerce. The urban renewal of the 1960s demonstrated the peril of architects designing entire neighborhoods. This is no less true of gifted architects. Expressionistic virtuosos—Borromini, Antonio Gaudí, or that Art Nouveau genius, Hector Guimard—created wonderful buildings, which are wonderful precisely because they are exceptional. An entire neighborhood of Gaudí—or Gehry—would be like a meal of only ice cream. Too much of a very good thing.