Cheek to Cheek With Frank Gehry

“Where would you like to go?” a construction worker asked. Everyone was in hard hats. Sign Up For Our Daily

“Where would you like to go?” a construction worker asked. Everyone was in hard hats.

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“Uh, we’re going to 37, take us to–” someone started to say.

“Heaven!” Frank Gehry chimed in. “We’d like to go to heaven. Press heaven!”

As the recently installed elevator at 8 Spruce Street floated soundlessly upward, Mr. Gehry, the building’s architect, stood facing the closed doors, his hands laced together in front of him.

Joe Rechichi, a project manager with developer Forest City Ratner; Mr. Gehry’s chief of staff, Meaghan Lloyd; his daughter, Brina Gehry; his son-in-law, Daniel; and a construction worker on the 76-story building–the tallest downtown–were along for the ride.

“Heaven, I’m in heaven, and dah dah … Who’s that?” Mr. Gehry asked the group.

“Fred Astaire,” answered Ms. Lloyd.

“Yes, you’re right, it was him.” He continued humming the Irving Berlin melody.

The doors opened at the 37th floor. Mr. Rechichi shepherded everyone to what will soon become the leasing office for the 903 luxury rentals available in early 2011. Built by developer Bruce Ratner’s conglomerate, Mr. Gehry’s first residential highrise is a 1.1 million-square-foot silver taffeta tower of rippling Jenga blocks. In an unusual fusion of the public and private sectors, the tower includes, from the bottom up, an underground car park, a 25,000-square-foot hospital and a five-story public elementary school in the brick-clad base.

Striding across the raw concrete floors, Mr. Gehry gravitated toward a curve in the bay window. At about 400 feet above the East River, the architect was cheek to cheek with the wispy early morning clouds. Northward, through the tall glass panes, were the tops of Cass Gilbert’s 1913 Woolworth Building and McKim, Mead and White’s 1915 Municipal Building. Below, the Brooklyn Bridge Expressway uncoiled like a silver Christmas bow.

Mr. Gehry turned toward the group, the left side of his mouth curled with the slightest bit of mischief, “Well, these are good views, right?”

Swiveling back toward the window, he added, “If you have to live in New York …”

Mr. Gehry, who is a bulldog of an 81-year-old, lives in Santa Monica, Calif., in a house of his own design with his wife, Bertha. When asked if he would ever live here, the Pritzker winner shook his head while continuing to gaze at the northern view.

When the leasing office opens in January, Mary Ann Tighe, chairwoman of the powerful Real Estate Board of New York, suggested the building’s apartments will likely be the most expensive rentals downtown. Although she predicts the building will “be a triumph,” other industry insiders are more skeptical. “I like the developer, but it’s always very tough to make something successful at the high-end level with a public school in the building,” Donald Trump said Monday.

Mr. Gehry’s debut in Manhattan’s skyline was the much-lauded IAC building. Completed in 2007, it floats along the West Side waterfront like the tufted pirate ship made of clouds in the last scene of Peter Pan. “It was the first building after 9/11 in the downtown area that was really hopeful,” IAC chairman Barry Diller told The Observer. “It kind of had a smile to it.”

The smile was soon disfigured by an oversize IAC logo, to the architect’s dismay. “At first I thought we spent so much money on the building we should put our name on it,” said Mr. Diller. “But Frank was right. We’re taking it down.”

“The reason it works so well is because of Frank,” Mr. Diller added. “Because it’s unique, it looks like nothing else. And I suspect that given how Frank tends not to repeat himself it will always be unique.”


CRITICS AND NAYSAYERS suggest Frank Gehry isn’t fit to sharpen his claws on the New York skyline given such failures as the Atlantic Yards arena, also undertaken with Mr. Ratner, and the Guggenheim on the East River, a project that Mr. Gehry insists “was never real. It was always more of a dream.” Eight Spruce Street–the building’s official name, though it was first known as Beekman Tower –almost wasn’t real, either. At one point, soon after the September 2008 economic crash, construction stopped at 38 stories, prompting forlorn Curbed commenters to gripe, “so depressing, the resulting building is just going to be a huge, shiny, stumpy thing.”

But after a two-month hiatus, construction resumed, resulting in a finished product taller than the design originally proposed. “When we started, it was lower,” Mr. Gehry said. “It was 66 floors, and when you go from a 66-floor building to a 76-floor building, there’s a big cost implication. So I had to prove it, but when you saw the models of the building, it was obvious that the proportion got a lot better.”

In the November 2009 unveiling of the facade. Mr. Gehry took the stage and looked straight up at the 76 stories. After a three-second pause, he turned back to the audience, “No Viagra!”

The building is 1 foot taller than the Trump World Tower, which had been the city’s tallest residential tower. “I told Bruce to make it a foot lower so we don’t have to deal with him [Trump],” Mr. Gehry said. “You know, he asked me to do a project for him and I turned him down; and then I went to a thing for Peter Arnell, something for the Fire Department, and Trump was seated next to me because he’s a friend of Peter’s. And he turned his back to me. I tried to shake his hand and he said, ‘I don’t talk to people like you.’ So he doesn’t talk to me.”

“Well, it’s his loss, right?” Mr. Rechichi, the project manager, soothed.

“I don’t care.” Mr. Gehry shrugged irreverently. After several seconds of silence, he said quietly, “I don’t like his hairdo anyway.”

Mr. Trump replied bluntly, “Maybe I just don’t find him interesting. It doesn’t mean I don’t like him.” He also said he does not know what project of his Mr. Gehry might have turned down. “I really only like one job he has done–that was in Balboa. I’m not a fan of much of his work, although he’s a darling.”


“LOOK, HERE’S A good example of the bay window,” Mr. Gehry beckoned into a small room.

The squarely built Mr. Gehry was dressed in all black, with round-toed leather slip-on loafers, freshly shined. While he stopped playing ice hockey three years ago, he still runs 30 minutes on the treadmill or swims laps daily. Tufts of white hair, a sleek digital-faced watch and stainless-steel rimmed eyeglasses are his only accessories.

“It’s like standing in space, isn’t it? It’s fantastic! I mean when people see this they’re going to go crazy!” Mr. Gehry beamed.

The repeated bay window, which undulates across the buildings’s facade, was inspired by Mr. Gehry’s fascination with the drawings of fabric by Renaissance artists. “You know the difference in the folds, don’t you?” he asked excitedly. “Bernini is edgier, Michelangelo is softer. I went for Bernini. I did a Michelangelo once in Dusseldorf; the curves are softer.”

Cheek to Cheek With Frank Gehry