Cheek to Cheek With Frank Gehry

At the recent question-and-answer panel Paul Goldberger introduced Mr. Gehry by highlighting the fact that the architect has achieved the rare status of both high and pop culture icon, noting Mr. Gehry’s Pritzker Prize–the highest honor bestowed on an architect–and his cameo on The Simpsons.

Asked about The Simpsons, Mr. Gehry smiled, then turned to his coat pocket, “Where’s my BlackBerry?” The PDA’s wallpaper is an image of his yellow cartoon figure, hard hat on, building plans in hand.

Mr. Gehry proceeded to outline the entire episode of the sitcom in which Marge Simpson mails Mr. Gehry a letter asking him to design a music hall for Springfield, a spoof on his Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. “So I come home, then there’s the letter from Marge, and I crumple the paper and drop it on the ground and then I say, ‘Frank Gehry, you’re a genius!’ Now, I had to say that. They used my voice. So I was in the studio with Julie Kavner [the voice of Marge], she’s really a nice lady, and I couldn’t say it! It’s hard to say that with conviction.”

The crumpled-paper shape became the music hall. “But it wasn’t, you know, just crumpled paper; but the general public thinks I really do that because they don’t know how I get the shapes.”

The hall gets built in Springfield, and when no one comes, the town turns it into a prison.

“Then there’s a prison break,” Mr. Gehry chuckled deeply, “and for some reason, Marge’s husband–what’s his name? Homer, right–was part of the prison break and one of the prisoners is sliding down one of the shapes saying, ‘No Frank Gehry prison is gonna hold me!’ It’s really very funny.”

“But you should know I work from the inside out. Where’s a piece of paper, do you have one? So Disney Hall is a block, right?” He held the rectangular sheet of paper on its side. “And all I did was this, right?” With his thumb stabilizing the base of the piece of paper, he used his forefinger to curl one corner, as if frozen in the middle of dog-earing a page. “That’s all. You go and look at it and you’ll see its little tweaks here and there like that.” He then turned the page into a cylinder shape, showing another option. “All of those shapes are like that; they’re ruled shapes. But then the complicated part gets like that, it’s like a double curve.” He turned his oatmeal spoon upside down on the table and traced the outline with the pad of his finger to illustrate the complicated curve.

“So it’s very precise. It’s not like crumpled paper! And Beekman used the same process. … It’s all flat or this,” he said, as he curled the corner edge.

 

“IT’S STUPID HOW good it is,” said Mr. Gehry.

Back at Eight Spruce, Mr. Rechichi uncovered the freshly installed lobby desk for Mr. Gehry’s approval. Inside the foyer, Mr. Gehry gestured past the revolving doors, which were in place but awaiting the glass panes. “This is going to be a park,” he said proudly, referring to the throughway plaza connecting Beekman and Spruce streets.

He pointed through the porte-cochere currently configured as construction headquarters with a makeshift, plywood tool shed bearing graffiti in green spray paint: “Go Jets” and, on the opposite side, “Kill Dolphins.”

“I haven’t been here for a few weeks. My guys are here, but they try to keep me out because I always come and try to tweak things at the last minute.”

The lobby desk is a white concrete jigsaw puzzle the color and heft of Mount Rushmore. Each piece was carved in Los Angeles and shipped cross-country to be assembled on-site, replete with benches carved out of the concrete, dressed with cushions of supple tan leather the color of Earl Grey tea lightened with a drop of milk. Bending and rippling like the carats of an unevenly cut stone, the Gaudi folds of the desk resemble an artfully crumpled sheet of paper. Inspired by a letter from Marge Simpson? Mr. Gehry smiled. “Well, sure, but it’s a feeling.” He ran his hand across the angled surface, palm down, like a jockey caressing his steed. He sighed as a concession. “We like to get a little artsy sometimes.”

Mr. Gehry took a tour around the back of the desks, inspecting the details. “The background is wood, I hope, I think. Hey, Joe, the wall behind the desk is wood, right?” Mr. Rechichi nodded. Some of the pale gold Douglas Fir has already been installed in the mail room next door.

“You know what this wood is, right? It’s Disney Hall. And you know how I got them to use it in Disney Hall?” He leaned forward slightly before adding confidentially, “Because Douglas Fir is considered cheap, the fancy board members at Disney said, ‘Oh, no, you can’t use cheap wood.’ So I made panels and I made all the fancy woods that are expensive and I brought a cello in and I laid it against the wall and they all said, ‘Ohhh, O.K.'”

In a studio apartment on the 37th floor, Mr. Gehry inspected the kitchen fixtures and door handles, which he designed.

“I’m home,” he grinned.

Again, he gravitated toward the bay window. “Look! I just realized it–you can see the outer harbor! That’s the horizon out there, and the sea. You can see Connecticut. Sarah Palin could see China!” He stood facing the window, mesmerized like a latter-day Christopher Columbus.

cmalle@observer.com