Cheek to Cheek With Frank Gehry

Mr. Gehry is a classicist. He glimmers like the facades of his buildings when he discusses Renaissance art. “We were at the Academia in Venice a few weeks ago, and they opened the vault for me and showed me Leonardo’s drawing with the guy.” He extended his arms out to the side emulating the Vitruvian man. “I had the original in my hand!” He laughed, still star-struck by the experience.

“So the bay window really bloody works,” Mr. Gehry went on. “What I would do if I were living here is I would make this a window seat, so you sit here and read, right?” He moved his hand through the air, palm down. “Oh, but we didn’t put a light above it.” He looked up at the fixture-less ceiling, spirit slightly dampened. “I could live here,” he said revising himself now. “But I want the top floor.”

The architect credits his ability to stay within a given budget to his longtime use of “fancy software,” shorthand for Digital Project, his proprietary three-dimensional modeling technology.

Mr. Gehry first forged the technological frontier after his completion of the Vitra Museum in 1989 in Weil am Rhein, Germany. “I couldn’t solve one of the shapes with descriptive geometry, that’s how you used to do it. You’d sort of build the curves with straight lines, so I was trying to make that curve and then they built it with a kink in it. So I said to the guys, ‘If I use curves like that, how do I do it?’ So they went to IBM and IBM took us to this French software company and we’re still working with them.”

 “The computer allowed every piece of the custom curtain wall to be detailed and precise,” Mr. Gehry told The New Yorker’s architecture critic Paul Goldberger during a recent question-and-answer panel about Beekman’s rippling bay windows. He has since spun off the software into a separate company called Gehry Technologies, which sells Digital Project to other developers and architects.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gehry’s faith in technology doesn’t fully translate to his personal life. He has only mastered his BlackBerry. “I have an iPad but I don’t know how to use it. I get mad at it, I want to throw it out every day.”

Mr. Gehry has neither a Facebook nor a Twitter account, though Ms. Lloyd, his righthand, said she has to shut down fake Frank Gehry Facebook accounts everyday.

“I met the guy who invented Twitter,” Mr. Gehry said. “He was a nice kid, he was in jeans and, you know, kinda cool-looking. He started talking to me about Twitter and I said, ‘You know, with all due respect, I really thought it was something for gays because they keep talking about tweeting.’ He said he’d never heard that one but he liked it.”

 

EARLIER, AT THE Circus Restaurant at the Millennium Hilton Hotel at 55 Church Street, Mr. Gehry slid gracefully into a banquette. As the waiter arrived, Mr. Gehry pulled a packet of oatmeal out of the inside pocket of his black blazer. “Can you have them make this for me, please? There are instructions on the back.” The waiter nodded with discernible hesitancy.

Thirty seconds later, the restaurant host approached to tell Mr. Gehry, “I can talk to the chef, but normally it’s against policy to bring any outside food in to cook in the restaurant.”

Mr. Gehry sighed but remained quiet, merely flapping his hand up as if swatting a fly in his sleep.

“But I can talk to the chef? I’ll talk to the chef.”

The host squirreled away, the oatmeal packet in hand.

Frank Owen Goldberg was born in Toronto in 1929 to Eastern European Jews, though Mr. Gehry’s father grew up one of nine children in a small apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. “They sort of just made it in the streets,” Mr. Gehry said of his father, who was a slot-machine salesman after moving to Canada. “I grew up in the carny business.”

Mr. Gehry remembered building cities out of scraps of wood scavenged at his grandfather’s hardware store, where the young Frank Goldberg spent much of his youth. “I had a lot of toys to play with, so I got to know what the game was so I could fix toasters and clocks and things like that.”

The fledgling mechanic also received generous exposure to the arts through his mother, a Hadassah activist and violinist, who would take her young son to the local art museums (one of which, The Art Gallery of Toronto, Mr. Gehry recently renovated) and classical music concerts.

Growing up, Mr. Gehry leaned toward chemical engineering, by accident more than anything else. “I had a cousin who was a chemical engineer, so I decided I should be like him.” Though after the first day of handling nitracins–or, as he describes it, “watching paint dry”–he realized it wasn’t for him.

In his teens, he moved to Southern California and became an American citizen, and was drafted into the Army just after architecture school at the University of Southern California. He served two years in Atlanta during the end of the Korean War with Leonard Nimoy as his master sergeant. “I didn’t know who he was then because he didn’t know who he was.”

The day after his bar mitzvah, Frank Goldberg became an atheist. “I really studied that bloody thing, the Torah, and learned it by heart and everything, and then I did it at my grandfather’s little synagogue”–he balanced a piece of pineapple from his fruit plate on one tine of his fork while finishing his sentence–”and as I came out, there were all these old Jewish guys, so I started talking to them about the content of my Torah reading, and they didn’t know what I was talking about. So I said, ‘Have you read it?’ And they all said, ‘Nahh, where’s the Schnapps?’ So I went home and I said, ‘They’re all a bunch of frauds.’”

Frank Goldberg changed his name to Gehry in the late 1950s at his then wife and mother-in-law’s behest. “My ex-wife worked for Nixon’s lawyer, and she was going to have a child, and there was a radio program called the Goldbergs, Molly Goldberg, it was very much a caricature and she couldn’t stand that; she didn’t want a child named Goldberg. So she started lobbying for this [name change] bong-bong-bong,” he hammered his fist in the air. “Like drip water.”

Why Gehry?

“Gotta pencil?” He positioned a torn piece of notepaper in front of him.

“I wanted a G, because my initials are F-O-G, and I didn’t want to lose that. So this is how I wrote Goldberg.” He began to write Goldberg in rounded lowercase cursive, combating the uneven basket weave of the place mat underhand.

“So I’m a visual artist, right? So these go up, and these go down.” He sliced lines through the upward “I” and stem of the “D” and through the downward tail of both “Gs.” “So I said, ‘You gotta do that and it’s gotta be a G,” so they played with letters until they got one to do that.”

It turned out Gehry was a common Swiss-German name. “If you go to Zurich and look in the telephone book, you’ll find 200 Gehrys. The greatest thing is when I started to get famous-ish, I started to get letters from relatives, the Gehry relatives, looking for money!”