What Makes Frank Run?
 -by Lynn Becker

Sketches of Frank Gehry, a new documentary from veteran director Sydney Pollack, serves up an affectionate portrait of the world's most famous architect.











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Has there ever been a truly great film about architecture? About architecture front and center, not as a road picture, like Regular or Super, where the filmmakers' encounter with a Canadian gas station designed by the firm of Mies van der Rohe leads to rambling investigation of the Mies's work, or as in My Architect, where the work of Louis Kahn becomes a backdrop to son Nathaniel's odyssey to come to terms with a long dead father who he never really knew.

Sydney Pollack's new documentary, Sketches of Frank Gehry follows in the same vein. It's less a hard-nosed investigation than an engaging and affectionate portrait of a close friend. Pollack, whose work as a director includes Tootsie, Out of Africa, The Firm,and The Way We Were, made the picture over the course of a five-year period that saw Gehry rise from being merely famous to inescapably ubiquitous. Today, Gehry stands alone. Like Frank Lloyd Wright in the 40's and 50's, Frank Gehry, for many, has become the personification of the word, "architect."

That such prominence has come to someone as seemingly shambling as Frank Gehry is a contradiction not lost on Pollock. At one point someone compares Gehry to Columbo, and while its true to a degree, there's a lot going on beneath the deceptively off-handed surface. Pollock's film underscores how much Gehry's success has depended on attracting to his side a succession of enablers, from his parents, to a first wife that countered the obstacle of anti-Semitism by getting his husband to change his last name from Goldberg or Gehry (although Gehry relates in the film that for several years thereafter, he would often make it a point, after introducing himself as Frank Gehry, to add that his real name was Frank Goldberg), It was in the Santa Monica house that Gehry bought for himself and his second wife in 1979 that the first full expression of his mature work took flight. Pushing 50, he was known - if at all - as a designer of shopping centers.

As Gehry relates in Pollack's film, it was at a party at his newly renovated house, celebrating the opening of his latest project, the huge, enclosed Santa Monica Place mall, where the President of the Rouse Company, the mall's developer, after taking in all of the home's irregular geometries and radically different and distinctive spaces, confronted the architect and asked him, 'Do you like this?'" and when Gehry, unsurprisingly, responded that he did, the executive pointed to the conventional mall the architect had just completed and asked, "'Then why'd you do that?' “I said , “because I have to make a living”, and he says, “stop it.” Which Gehry, although he had built up his practice to the point where it employed over 40 people, soon did, launching himself on a new and uncertain path. "It was like jumping off a cliff," he recalls.

Although Gehry's architecture pushes the possibilities of construction to new extremes, it's no mystery why the documentary's title is "The Sketches of Frank Gehry." Gehry's architecture may be cutting edge, but his way of making it is thoroughly retro. We see associate Craig Webb cutting, folding, and recutting sheets of construction paper under Gehry's direction, working out a project's form through the process of creating a model. Gehry is one of a fairly elite contingent of architects (Ron Krueck comes to mind locally) whose designs show the influence of a deep involvement with painting and sculpture; in Gehry's case with a group of L.A. artists, represented in the film by Edward Ruscha, who offered the exile from Canada a feeling of belonging at time when he was often isolated and lonely. When a critic talks of Ruscha "making the banal seem significant," you can almost see a straight line to Gehry's use of chain link fence in both Santa Monica Place and his own home.

Much is made in the film of the architect's reputed inability to use a computer, but his visions would be completely impossible without still another set of enablers, including partner James Glymph, who oversaw the creation of the software that transformed Gehry's complex forms from paper fantasies into buildable realities. Despite being an avowed technophobe, Gehry is the unmoved mover that has become a driving force in digital design, with the Gehry Technologies Division of his practice now a commercial vendor of Digital Project for CATIA, an influential retrofit of software, originally created for the design of aircraft, that takes a project from design to manufacture, assembly and construction.

Gehry's southern California roots pays off in Pollock's film with an infusion of Hollywood royalty. There's Dennis Hopper! There's the shiny new Disney Concert Hall, and its charismatic young conductor Esa Pekka-Salonen. There's the two Mikes - Eisner and Ovitz - together again, if only in separate interviews. There's IAC's Barry Diller, talking about the progression of Gehry's "little squiggles" from paper to a $100,000,000 Manhattan glass tower that will be IAC's new headquarters when it opens next year. "“It's like claywork," says Diller " It's not like any building project I've ever understood.” Diller, shot in tight closeup, with his huge, bulldog-like head, sandpaper voice and take-no-prisoners demeanor (watching him, Goya's Saturn Devouring His Son somehow comes to mind) makes for compelling viewing, but pride of place has to go painter/filmmaker Julian Schnabel, who pontificates ("I feel very comfortable in his spaces, and if it does compete with the art, maybe the art isn't good enough.”) while dressed in a white bathrobe and wearing sunglasses, a cigarette in one hand, a snifter of brandy in the other, as if channeling Peter Seller's Clare Quilty in the opening scene of Kubrick's Lolita. Schnabel just had to pop on screen to send the audience into mounting gales of laughter.

One of the distinct advantages of portraying architecture on film is liberating it from the restricting, fixed perspective of still photography. Yes, you can simply stand and contemplate a building, but most of the time we take its measure by moving around or through it, something a motion picture can be very good at, especially in the scale of a large movie screen. Pollock deploys his camera well, moving like a lover's caress over the sensuous forms of the Guggenheim Bilbao.

What he's not as good at is dealing with the crucial, if inherently uncinematic aspects of making architecture. Pollack does little to counter the rap on Gehry that he's all about form, almost as an appliqué. The process from program to plan is missing in action. Judged solely by the Sketches, Gehry's buildings would seem to be created from the outside in; we never see how the "in" gets done. The interiors Pollack depicts present a very mixed bag. Those of Bilbao seems, alternately, overscaled and uninteresting. The actual concert hall inside the Disney center fares better (although the best space in the complex may be the outdoor walkway that wends its way between the structure's metallic forms). The interior shots of the Disney ICE rink in Anaheim capture the way its graceful, arching wood-beamed ceiling reflects Gehry's admiration for the work of Alvar Aalto. Most striking is the atrium of Berlin's DG Bank with its arching, spider-web-like skylight and massive, horse skull-shaped conference center that holds court like the statue of Zeus in the Temple of Olympus.

Pollock is also good at getting Gehry to talk of his early experiences, often filmed in a moving car as the architect is driving to the L.A. neighborhood where his family moved, away from the cold winters of Ontario, after his father suffered a massive heart attack . As a child, young Frank traveled with his father as he made his rounds selling pinball machines. In California, his father wound up driving a truck, with his son soon following suit.

"When I was a kid my father used to draw with me," Gehry recalls in the film. His first taste of recognition came when he drew a picture of Zionist leader Theodor Herzl, and the rabbi put it up on the wall, telling Gehry's mother that her son had "golden hands." Later, a palm reader told his mother her son was destined to become a great architect. Gehry's a great story teller and Pollock takes them all pretty much at face value. The only dissenting voice comes from a professor at Cornell who seems almost apologetic to be putting a damper on the party. Someone like Rem Koolhaas would have offered a more cogent opposing perspective, but then again, that would be a very different film.

The real theme of Sketches may be how this self-deprecatory "Who, Me?" personality has managed to attract and hold a team of associates who have turned his squiggles and paperboard models into what is perhaps the most popular and compelling architecture of our time. Pollack treads lightly, but he gives the last word to Gehry's longtime analyst, Milton Wexner, who observes that most of his patient come to him because they want to know how to change their lives. "When an artist comes to me," says Wexner, "he wants to know how to change the world."

Sketches of Frank Gehry, a Columbia Classic Pictures release, is currently in national release.


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© Copyright 2006 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.