Sometimes, watching a film about a great artist can be disconcerting -- especially when one has artistic ambitions of one's own. Usually such biographies are littered with casts of powerful and important people proclaiming the impact and relevance of the subject, and naturally this would be even more pronounced when the subject is an architect. Architects only achieve greatness after they have managed to win and build a number of important commissions. Hence, the folks most qualified to discuss the work of someone like Frank Gehry are those who live in Gehry homes or have awarded him his biggest commissions -- the super-rich and mega-powerful.
I'm sure there are a number of architects out there who would argue the above point about greatness. Architecture serves so many purposes, how do we measure its impact? Certainly the architects who have designed and produced the strip-mall, the box store and the tract home have had more of a real effect (deleterious, if you ask me) on more peoples' lives than those rare few like Frank Gehry, who have designed fabulous (or fabulist?) museums and concert halls. However, architects on the leading edge of the discipline are often involved in a more intellectual, more conceptual dialogue with the world about what architecture means and what it could and should do. Love it or hate it, Frank Gehry's work pushes the idea of building -- and the buildings themselves -- into strange and wonderful new shapes.
Sydney Pollack's film, Sketches of Frank Gehry, is constructed the way most film biographies are, interviews intertwined with snippets of life story and gorgeous images of the art. Gehry is an unassuming character, which, as most of the folks in the film will attest, is a very effective mask for the man's ego and ambition, which would have to be huge to have constructed so many monumental structures. Even Gehry's long-time shrink shows up to add a telling detail or two. The filmmaker, Sydney Pollack is best known for his directorial work (The Way We Were, The Interpreter) and for that guy he plays in his own and other people's movies (Tootsie, Husbands and Wives) -- you know the neurotic-best friend-agent or the best friend-lawyer-neurotic. The inclusion of shots of Pollack filming his friend Frank, alongside the cast of other rich white guys made the enterprise seem a bit insider-ish. There's no getting around it, one needs a lot of cash to enter into a conversation with a top architect. One titan even spent 12 years and $5 million with Gehry designing a project he ended up deciding NOT to build. Now that's disposable income!
Ultimately, Sketches of Frank Gehry affected me in a more profound way than I expected. At the core of the film is the tension between the impulse to make art and the need to make money. If you think of architecture as an art, which the kind practiced by Frank Gehry most certainly is, it is alone in its inability to become fully realized without huge wads of cash. Filmmaking is a close second, I guess.
In learning how to combine "physics with free-wheeling art," Gehry had to not only become the architect he is today, but he had to convince others to support him while he did so. He says that becoming yourself is like jumping off a cliff. It's the same old story. Stop trying to make money and start making yourself happy and the money will inevitably follow. Many people take that leap of faith but are not caught by the buoyancy of success. Biographies are not made about those people.
Frank Gehry's artistic struggle was with the Modernist mantra that decoration is a sin. As an architect, how could one humanize a building without decoration? This is where his genius kicked in, he had a problem with the material world until he realized that the materials themselves could be expressive. Early in his career Gehry experimented with different kinds of industrial materials that were formerly thought of as ugly (corrugated steel, chain-link fence), but in the right combination and bent into the right shape, those materials became flexible and emotive.
The film is book-ended with sequences that evoked really powerful, connected, but conflicting emotions, which I think get to the heart of Gehry's place at the nexus of art and architecture. The first is early on, during a montage of private homes Gehry has built in Los Angeles. The second comes toward the end of the film, when we see Maggie's Place, a structure the architect produced pro-bono in memory of a friend who had succumbed to cancer. The first was about privilege. The homes were overwhelmingly beautiful, but were equally as inaccessible. This kind of beauty, this kind of life is only experienced by the very few and it felt like an excerpt from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, expressing America's obsession with celebrity culture and the longing for a life forever out of reach. In response to this feeling, Maggie's Place is a salve, the most beautiful structure in the whole film -- Bilbao be damned. The form itself spoke volumes about Gehry as a citizen of the world. It was built as a healing retreat for cancer patients and, though this hardly seems possible, seeing it made me feel like I knew Maggie, as though Gehry had created a portrait of his feelings for her out of wood and concrete and steel.
Sketches of Frank Gehry opens May 26, 2006.