Saturday, December 23, 2006

Frank Gehry: the lion in winter

A poignant interview with architect Frank Gehry. You might imagine him as an egocentric genius, but instead he comes across as a thoughtful leader and manager. The interview reinforces how important people and management skills are to the completion of any complex project. Mad geniuses have their place, but it takes another set of skills to get big things done.

Iconic figures in the modern world seem to incorporate two sides: the flamboyant outward persona that gets investors, backers and the press excited, and the internal face that actually runs the organization. Confidence in the individual leader may get the project going, but ultimately that leader has to be effective on the inside.

WSJ: Frank Gehry is 77, white haired, paunchy, and when we talked one afternoon in late autumn the topics of age and death never seemed far off. Mr. Gehry is, of course, one of the world's great architects, creator of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao and enough of an icon to have been among the personalities featured in Apple's "Think Different" campaign.

Describing what it takes for him to accept a commission, Mr. Gehry says, "The determining factor is: Can I get it done while I am still alive?" Explaining why he doesn't build houses any more, Mr. Gehry says, "They involve a lot of personal hand holding. I guess at my age I don't have the patience."

Probably more than most architects, one sees Mr. Gehry's buildings -- buildings that have been described as resembling ruffling sails or looking like they are melting -- and has a sense that there is a single personality behind them.

...Because Mr. Gehry's buildings are as much feats of engineering as they are of architecture, it is strange to walk into his office and notice that there are no computers. Mr. Gehry's office is surprisingly spartan. There is a desk and there is a conference table and on one wall are photographs of friends. Sitting at his conference table and speaking of technology, Mr. Gehry volunteers, "I don't know how to turn on the DVD. I barely can use the technology in my car. It's a wonder I don't get into an accident."

The actual physics and engineering of Mr. Gehry's buildings are managed by teams of employees. Some 150 people work for him, and when Mr. Gehry talks about what exactly he does that leads to a building, it seems that he is almost more a manager of personalities and processes than he is someone who sits down with pencil and paper. "The building process is complicated. You have an idea, an image, a dream. You start to fantasize. You've got to get that feeling through thousands of hands to build a thing. Meetings, bureaucracy, accounting."

Considering that Mr. Gehry's buildings appear almost completely indifferent to conventions, I expected Mr. Gehry to be something of an egomaniac. Instead he turned out to be surprisingly modest. Describing a hotel in Spain that he just completed, Mr. Gehry said, "the rooms are comfortable," and when talking about the Guggenheim in Bilbao, he said that he was relieved that the people of the city liked it. The only time Mr. Gehry showed strong pride was when he was discussing being a good employer.

Most architects of Mr. Gehry's stature can staff the lower rungs of their office with volunteers and interns. "I am very proud," he says and sits up at the conference table. "Everybody gets paid. Everybody here is paid. There's no freebie interns. I've never done that. A lot of my colleagues do that, but that offends me so I've never done that." Like only one or two other topics in our conversation, this issue of how he cares for the people who work for him is something that seems to get him excited. "I am very proud," he says, again referring to his employees, "that they always get cost of living index raises and bonuses and more."

Another aspect of Mr. Gehry's old-fashioned virtue is his concern for what will happen to his employees once he dies. When I ask him if his age adds greater urgency to picking projects and finishing projects, Mr. Gehry says, "No. I am not that megalomaniac. No, I think the day will come and . . ."

Then apropos of very little in particular, he says, "What I am interested in is, since it's 150 people here and a lot of people's lives and futures depend on it, how do you create a succession?" Again Mr. Gehry sounds passionate. "There's a way to leave it and pull the plug and I am fine and they" -- referring to his employees -- "lose." As part of managing for his own death, Mr. Gehry has been trying to build the public personae of the people who work for him, trying to direct some of the limelight that seems always oriented towards him in their direction. In the catalogs and exhibits devoted to his work, he makes sure to mention the people who worked with him on his various projects.

As the interview wound down and the theme of age began to seem a more and more dominant part of our conversation, Mr. Gehry started to talk about some of the problems of getting older. Because he cannot program and has to work through others in order to engineer a building, he said that he is in some ways obsolete. Referring to these computer skills, he asked, "If I knew all that, could I be a better architect?"

...Asked how he handled these limits he saw for himself, he said, "I keep going. Keeping going is important to me and not to get sidetracked and to get caught up in self-pity."

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