Whatever your position on Frank Gehry and his large, oftentimes convoluted structures that dot cities and countrysides throughout the world, he is the most important architect of his generation. Towards this point, early in Sydney Pollack’s astounding documentary The Sketches of Frank Gehry, the director, Gehry’s good friend, rhetorically asks, “What’s all the fuss about Frank Gehry?” He proceeds to spend the next 90 minutes attempting to answer his own question.
Curator and writer Mildred Friedman explains that Gehry is “an architect who is also an artist…he takes risks and that’s what artists do.” To anyone who’s ever seen his forms this explanation rings true. The “starchitect” has hijacked the traditional stringent rules of his medium and blended them with his own brand of artistic flair that he learned growing up in a community of artists.
Because of his relationship with Gehry, Pollack is able to get his subject to lower his guard. In a poignant moment of introspection and honesty, Gehry admits, “What bugs me are these goddamn rules that my profession has as to what fits and what doesn’t.” This admission, and others like it, set this film apart. The first-time documentary director uses his position to help us understand the architect’s motivation and process, yet keeps his critical distance. Pollack gets Milton Wexler, Gehry’s shrink of 35 years, to remark that at first, his subject was “empty, angry and bankrupt-not just monetarily.” It’s a humanizing revelation about a man who often seems to not inhabit our realm. Although Gehry’s star is one to be worshipped, Pollack rarely travels down that path.
Others, however, do lavish upon the man and his work. Fans who appear in The Sketches of Frank Gehryinclude Dennis Hopper and Disney CEO Michael Eisner. (Gehry designed a hockey rink in downtown Anaheim for Eisner.) In themselves, these cameos are not surprising as many architects have famous fans. The level of reverence that they hold for him, however, is shocking. The reactions aren’t “Oh, I met Frank Gehry at a party and liked the man,” they are more “I’ve studied his work and think he’s a genius.”
This is the key to Gehry’s work. More so than almost any other of his contemporaries, Gehry’s architecture elicits an immediate and strong response. In this quick-to-judge, value-driven world, this leads one to form an opinion about the man himself. Love him or hate him, there is no in-between. Thums for every Hopper or Eisner, there’s a Hal Foster, the Princeton Art and Architecture Professor who labels Gehry’s masterpiece in Bilbao “a spectacle”.
But the man himself is immune to such criticisms. Getting ripped so frequently in the press and the journals (Pollack artfully inserts cut scenes of negative press clippings after Foster’s comments) would hurt a person of lesser stature, but Gehry brushes the dirt off his shoulder, remarking “I just keep going. I mean, what am I going to do?” It’s a refreshing view and a key into his longevity in this cutthroat game.
Another secret is his philosophy. For Gehry, architecture is all about the process. His buildings begin from little scribbles drawn during meetings with his clients to whom he actually listens, and then progress through a series or models and plans until everything is perfect. His studio is enormous, filled to the brim with trusted assistants, discarded designs along with designs in progress, and crumbled paper. Without such a staff, his work would be impossible. The man can’t even use a computer, yet all his final ideas are digitally rendered.
Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao Spain
This, in a nutshell, is his charm. The man’s a genius and he knows it. He doesn’t have time to concern himself with petty problems such as drawing plans. He’s the vision, adding a little flair to a model here, a corrugated metal piece there and saying “make it happen”. And happen, it does. The Sketches of Frank Gehry paints his process expertly.
If the movie has a flaw, it’s that could use more special features. The only ones included are a Q & A with Pollack and a series of previews for the film. But it is good to leave them wanting more.
In the closing line of the movie, Wexler says that “when an artist comes to me, he wants to know how to change the world.” From Anaheim to Bilbao and hundreds of buildings in between, the man who bears a striking resemblance to Yoda, has. Pollack’s film captures this exquisitely, taking us from initial conception to finished form. Along the way, Gehry receives help from any number of sources. But in the end, it’s all about him and his sketches.