Tropolism Films: Sketches of Frank Gehry


Los Angeles Correspondant John Southern reports on the LA premiere of "Sketches of Frank Gehry".

There comes a time in an architect’s career when self-preservation (in an archival sense) begins to seep into the sub-conscious like water under a dam. Building great works of architecture can only provide one with the fleeting feelings of monumentality in as long as they are left standing. Film, however, is easily reproducible and thus may well exist for eternity. All you need to complete the equation is a friend with a movie camera and a penchant for probing questions and its “Lights! Camera! Action!”.

The last phrase invariably came to mind on Monday evening when I attended the LA Premiere of “Sketches of Frank Gehry” directed by his good friend, Sydney Pollack. The film was shown at an event entitled “Reel Talk” hosted by Vanity Fair and Tiffany’s at the Directors Guild Of America building- a piece of architecture so banal that it almost does injustice to the artists it seeks to unite.

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The evening couldn’t have felt more like Hollywood, with ear-piece wearing, dark-suited security thugs omnipresent, and models showing off the jewelry designed for Tiffany’s by none other than the true star of the evening: Frank Gehry. After signing in and getting my wrist band (for the “exclusive” after party to be held later) I stuffed my business card in a Tiffany’s box so as to have a chance to win some of the Big Man’s “bling-bling”.

For those of you who are outside the LA Architectural community, Gehry is perceived here as a kind of Fidel Castro of Architecture- He did some great things and was a revolutionary, but now he’s just another plump guy with a cigar draped in revolutionary nostalgia. Most of us wish he’d just go away, and clear the territory for some new blood in LA’s architectural “Super Star” scene.


“It’s So Stupid Looking its Great”

This out of the mouth of the Big Man during a design session with his partner, Craig Webb, who meekly cuts another piece of paper to add to the model they are working on. Pollack has essentially woven the cinematic tapestry of the film out of three threads: 1) Personal discussions between Gehry and himself. 2) Candid shots of Gehry’s buildings and office, with the Big Man merrily leading the audience around, looking like a kid in a candy store. 3) Brief commentary by some of Gehry’s longtime friends, and in the case of Hal Foster, critics.

I think overall this last thread is the most entertaining bit about the film, because you have a group of respected professionals from all walks of life (Ed Ruscha, Charles Jenks, Philip Johnson (Philip Johnson folks! Walking amongst us again!), Dennis Hopper, and many more) talking about the Big Man and his work in a candid fashion, that unlike Sydney Pollack’s conversations with Gehry, come off as genuine. Julian Schnabel takes the prize for best celebrity friend, and dishes out the accolades while doing a perfect impression of Jeff Bridges in the Big Lebowski, complete with drink and bathrobe. At one point in one of Mr. Schnabel’s monologues, he is practically rolling on the floor, so taken is he in his praise of the Gehry (though it could’ve been the cocktail).

Frank Gehry is no Clark Gabel, nor does he have the sinister panache of Robert Mitchum. In the movie, of which he is the star, he comes off as “just another guy from Canada” and this is what makes the film a bit difficult to watch. No one likes to see another Forest Gump- especially in the narcissistic field of architecture. We want to see stars! Alien creatures like Rem Koolhaas, Jean Novel, and Zaha Hadid- People who don’t seem to eat, shit, or fuck, and exude a “God-Like” aura in both their persona and their work. Gehry certainly has the latter, but as for the aura, well, it’s just a dim glow.


“What don’t you like?”

As someone who is not particularly interested in Hollywood or its product, I surprised myself by wishing for more celebrity aura in this film. Perhaps, it is because Frank Gehry’s work has played such a tremendous role in shaping the connections between Architecture and Contemporary Culture. After all, without him, there’d be no “Bilbao Effect”. He can be directly credited for ushering architecture into the computer age as his later work cannot exist without it. In short, the contributions he has made to our culture go beyond the simple beauty and monumentality inherent in his buildings, and extend to making architecture popular again. There are enough “everyday joe” architects and with architecture enjoying a renewed love affair with the general public, it’s only fair that we give them the stars they want. But Gehry doesn’t want to be the star. In the film he’s always the blushing teenager who’s embarrassed that his dad has the video camera out at his birthday party. This is never so clear as at a point early on in the film when Sydney Pollack is grilling Gehry about a model he is fussing with. “What don’t you like?” he asks innocently. “I don’t know yet.” Gehry purrs. “It seems rather pompous”.

Well, Mr. Gehry, maybe that’s alright.


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