Mover & shaper

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 June, 2009, 12:00am

FRANK GEHRY IS a bit grumpy as he looks out the window of a suite in the Peninsula Hotel. It's late afternoon and pellucid sunshine is draped over the buildings of Hong Kong island, none of which bears the name of a man described as 'the greatest living architect' by, among others, Hollywood actor Laurence Fishburne, who likes to take Gehry for marijuana-fuelled rides on his motorcycle.

It's impossible to tell if the absence of a Gehry among the I.M.Pei and Norman Foster-spiked skyline of Central is the source of the 80-year-old architect's discomfort. His face wears a pinched and inscrutable expression, until he remembers something from 1961. Then his eyes flash with impetuous intensity as he describes a key turning point in a career that spans five decades.

'I was in Paris in 1961, I was married and I had two kids,' he says, crossing his black clad legs and pulling on the lapels of a jet-black jacket. 'I wasn't paid very much.'

The lack of funds meant Gehry had to live on the outskirts of the city where he began exploring the Romanesque architecture of the French countryside. The smooth curves of the semi-circular arches that are typical of 12th century churches entranced the Polish-Jewish architect who was born Frank Goldberg in Toronto in 1929 and studied architecture at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, his home city for three decades.

'I had been trained as a modernist,' says Gehry. 'Beaux arts was dead, decoration was dead. But in Paris and in the countryside I saw all these buildings where art and architecture worked in harmony.'

Echoes of the arches that define the barrel and groin vaults of Romanesque architecture can be found in Gehry's most famous building, the Guggenheim Bilbao, and will also be present in his next big project, the Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation, an art gallery that is now being built in Paris, in the Jardin d'Acclimatation, next to a children's garden in the Bois de Boulogne.

'When I was first taken to that site I thought I had died and gone to heaven,' says Gehry. 'I almost started crying. I loved the idea of doing this building where children play and I also knew that Marcel Proust used to walk there. When I get depressed I read Proust like the bible. He is so simple, so honest, so direct. I always go back to him.'

There are echoes of Proust in Gehry and vice versa. In the author's In Search of Lost Time Proust creates a 3,000-page puzzle and Gehry's Bilbao masterpiece can be equally disquieting, the structure folding in upon itself like a Proustian plot with no other purpose than to mesmerise and perplex.

Gehry first attracted critical interest with a range of furniture called 'Easy Edges' made with layers of cardboard. Although there was plenty of interest in the product Gehry did not want to be seen as a furniture designer, the canvas was just too small, but the experience was not wasted, for it revealed him to be adept at manipulating basic materials in unconventional ways and he carried this talent forward with a series of buildings, beginning with his own residence in Santa Monica, finished in 1972, that established a reputation for innovation.

By 1989 Gehry had been working as an architect for 37 years and his body of work was enough to win him the Pritzker Prize, an award that's like an architect's Nobel and Oscar wrapped in one - the prize guarantees academic respect while also making its recipient a superstar.

In an essay to accompany the prize, Pritzker jury member Ada Louise Huxtable wrote: 'Delight breaks through constantly; there are no gloomy Gehry buildings. One cannot think of anything he has done that doesn't make one smile.'

This compliment must have inspired Gehry for his most adventurous and amusing buildings post-date his Pritzker - the Frederick Weisman Museum of Art in Minnesota (1993), the Dancing House in Prague (1995), the Guggenheim Bilbao (1997), the Gehry Tower in Hanover (2001), the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (2003) and the Marques de Riscal hotel in Spain (2006).

For most observers the striking aspect of Gehry's designs are his exteriors, such as the soaring curved surfaces of the roof at the Marques de Riscal property, which looks as if the foil from the top of a bottle of wine has been peeled and draped over cantilevered beams. Yet Gehry insists that he does not design his buildings for their exterior effects.

'Everything is designed from the inside out,' says Gehry. 'The architecture should never override the purpose of the building, but complement it and take it to a higher plane of comfort and beauty.'

Critics have accused Gehry of being a one-trick pony. His defence is that the rolling surfaces of his buildings, which have become enough of a clich? to be featured in an episode of The Simpsons, are a new form of Classicism.

The design for the Louis Vuitton Foundation for Creation, which can be seen at the Hong Kong Museum of Art until August 9, will have several innovations that suggest Gehry's work has evolved since the Bilbao Guggenheim.

'I wanted to create a building where there is a connection between the structure and the art,' says Gehry. 'The white boxes that have come to dominate gallery design do not work for all types of art. I wanted the building in Paris to have a variety of spaces that provide curators with options. And it's in a park.'

This last fact persuaded Gehry to design a series of unique 'open' spaces for the building that will be protected from the elements, but will make visitors feel like they are outside.

'The building must let you see the trees and create romance,' says Gehry. 'You have to go through love to get to art and then you need to explain why the love occurred.'

This is a big ambition for a building, but Gehry has never lacked vision, or energy. Until recently he still played ice hockey - he started his own amateur league in Los Angeles - and rode a motorcycle and he still loves to sail. Plus he retains a host of ambitions. The Jardin d'Acclimatation project is his first significant building in Paris for 15 years. And he has never finished a major project in New York or Hong Kong. Maybe if he could win a commission for the latter he could finally look out across Victoria Harbour with a smile on his face.