DVD recommendation: Sketches of Frank Gehry

Directed by Sydney Pollack

I haven’t been much of a fan of Frank Gehry’s, so when I heard about this film I didn’t run out to see it. Then I read an item in the Design Observer referring to The New Yorker piece about the “F--- Frank Gehry” T-shirts, and I became intrigued. It turns out that Gehry has a sense of humor about himself. Through an unlikely series of connections, the “F--- Frank Gehry” T-shirt, made by Barnaby Harris (who launched his T-shirt business with “F--- Yoga” T-shirts), found its way to Gehry who wore it to the office, to the gym, and then started ordering them as gift items in all sizes and colors. Bravo. I decided to rent the DVD.

The film leads off (after a brief, self-conscious introduction about the difficulty of “starting”) with Gehry and a design partner working on a free-form silver and white paper model. Gehry makes suggestions about changes to the model while his partner/worker-bee Craig Webb cuts and molds pieces of paper to suit Gehry’s directions. Webb tapes down a corner; Gehry pensively pivots the model; he bends a strip of paper and holds it against the model briefly, and so on. Then Gehry says, “That is so stupid looking, it’s great,” and I begin to wonder why I bothered making the trip to the video store.

Things improve from there. My distaste for those of his buildings that appear to be arbitrary, sculptural objects was tempered by interior shots of the home Gehry designed for himself and his second wife, Berta, in Los Angeles. The house, once an unassuming California bungalow, proved an experimental playground for Gehry who decided to build his renovations around the existing house, leaving the original largely intact. The cacophony of glass, wood, metal, and chain link which comprise the new outer structure that wraps the bungalow creates dynamic spaces in between the two. Light bounces and reflects unexpectedly. Circulation ebbs and flows. Traditional notions of inside and outside are challenged. It appears to be a captivating experience for the occupant, not just the passerby.

Interestingly, it’s a house, this house, which sets Gehry off on what would become his famed career. At a dinner party in what must have been 1980 or so at Gehry and Berta’s newly renovated house, a lawyer involved in one of Gehry’s more conventional commercial projects, Santa Monica Place, asked the obvious. Why was Gehry doing the more conventional work when clearly the innovation evident in his home was where his passion lay? The next day, Gehry started anew.

We later learn that Gehry had been similarly, somewhat abruptly, re-directed earlier, when married to his first wife. While that marriage was struggling, he paid a visit to therapist Milton Wexler who agreed to take him on only if Gehry decided then and there whether he was going to leave his wife or give his marriage three to four solid months of effort to make it work. Gehry went home, packed, and moved out, leaving his wife and two daughters. It was another decision that brought him to where he is today. Wexler has since been Gehry’s confidant for 35 years and counting.

At about this point in the film, the parallels between Gehry and Glen Howard Small, the architect featured in My Father, the Genius (see previous DVD review), struck me as remarkable. They’re not only close in age, but both are associated with L.A., experienced with marital discord, and enamored with novel, idiosyncratic design. There is a very fine line between Gehry’s celebrity genius status and Small’s B-list genius claims. They seem more like two sides of the same coin; it’s not hard to imagine which is heads and which is tails. Gehry comes across more affable, more humble, more self-aware. Perhaps that’s exactly why he wins the big commissions. He may just be savvier about public relations, a better politician who underneath his outer low-key persona has an ego to match Small’s. His buildings seem to say as much.

There is a marked difference, however, between the films about them. Sketches of Frank Gehry as told by Pollack is a rather conventional documentary in format, appearance, and tone, this despite the unconventional buildings by its subject. Original classical music underscores images of Gehry’s tenuous, squiggly, black-line drawings. Wouldn’t jazz music, known for its improvisation, have been better suited to Gehry’s work? Throughout the film Gehry speaks largely unchallenged by his admiring director, Pollack: a friend and peer. Only one naysayer is given any real air time; critic Hal Foster of Princeton gently suggests that it’s “incumbent” upon him to challenge the “culture of affirmation…that has surrounded Gehry”. In My Father, The Genius, Small’s daughter, Lucia Small, creates a much more visually arresting and spirited film. She uses Glenn Howard Small's colorful, vivid renderings set to an off-beat sound-track to tell a more personal story, full of vocal skeptics. Hers is certainly a richer film than Pollack’s.

Nonetheless, this naysayer found in Pollack’s work some insight into Gehry’s thinking. Late in the film Gehry recounts how he once told a reporter, when trying to explain the nature of his work, to look into a nearby waste basket. He said, “Look in there. Think about the caverns and the spaces and the textures in that waste basket.” The spatial experience he suggests within the waste basket does sound compelling, more so than the mere view of the waste paper from above. If he’s truly motivated by creating space, and experience, rather than form for form’s sake, I’m ready to cut him some slack.

Naturally, it’s the 1997 Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain that truly catapulted him to fame. It’s featured prominently in the film. Yet, it was a more recent project that I’d never heard of before called Maggie’s Place in Dundee, Scotland that caught my eye and attention. He built it pro-bono to honor a lost friend, Maggie Keswick, as a healing space for cancer patients. There are only a few shots of it in the film, but it’s lovely, not overwrought or over-scaled. It feels peaceful yet playful amidst a gorgeous setting in which it’s engaged. Yes, it seems to actually interact with its environment rather than try to outshine it.

If you, like me before viewing Pollack’s film, would probably have considered getting one of the Barnaby Harris T-shirts, throw your money towards this DVD first. It just may change your mind.

by Katie Hutchison for the House Enthusiast

Click here to buy this DVD from Amazon.