Sketches of Frank Gehry
2006Director: Sydney Pollack
Cast: Frank Gehry
auded and loathed perhaps in equal measure, the work of architect Frank Gehry has been described as sublime, self-indulgent, pioneering, too sculptural, and abominable–among others things. This has primarily to do with the inaccessibility of his designs– often hulking, spherically curved masses prone to tumescence, of the oddest, most reflective materials, on the most fantastical, lurid scales, their strange logic confounding the (in comparison) staid surroundings they inhabit. (Bilbao in Spain and the Experience Music Project in Seattle are easy examples.)
But Mr. Gehry is an International Star; an architectural genius—“Our greatest Living Artist,” as the more excited characterizations will have it. To treat and document his work, or the process in which it is developed, seems a timely project considering Gehry’s growing ubiquity (a name-check by Jay-Z) in pop culture. Out of Africa director Sidney Pollack, a long-time friend, endeavors to do just that in Sketches of Frank Gehry.
Not so much a documentary (Pollack’s first) as an encomium to an old pal, Sketches captures interviews with Gehry’s friends and admirers—artists, architects, media moguls, Hollywood stars, sundry industry types—while following Pollack to the scenes of Gehry’s greatest works. Born in 1929 in Toronto and later relocating to Los Angeles at the age of 17, Gehry’s initial aspirations in pursuing architecture were discouraged by impolitic teachers, a result more attributable to anti-Semitism than Gehry’s lack of potential. Indeed, Gehry would later change his name (from Goldberg) on the advice of his first wife and in the hopes of a viable career as an architect.
Sketches touches on this, only in passing, when Gehry drives Pollack through his old Los Angeles haunts, his face lighting up as he points to his old apartment and, conversely, growing remote and evasive when he speaks of his first wife’s severity and his early professional tribulations. Pollack moves quickly from this, no doubt in an effort to protect his friend; though as an early “sketch” of Gehry, the outlines are easy enough to fill in.
And yet when we have chance to listen to Gehry’s therapist, Milton Wexler, only banalities are revealed. Wexler, nonetheless, is an interesting figure in Gehry’s trajectory, and while unable to entirely assuage Gehry’s feelings of anxiety and the artist’s general manqué, he convinced him to blend that self-doubt with equal parts confidence, tenacity and, most importantly, maturity. Wexler is also humble to admit that, on the contrary, Gehry taught him much more about himself. Still, his impact on Gehry veers to the mythical, speaking to the fact that other architects, aspiring for professional greatness, have sought out Wexler’s counsel, too, only to be turned down.
But of his craft and enterprise, Sketches offers an inviting look into Gehry’s workshop. Whether he’s tearing apart and reconfiguring scale models of future projects with one of his design partners, the taciturn Craig Webb, or being creatively chaffed by a young and ambitious associate, Gehry comes off as that benevolent despot we all hope our bosses’ to be. And at 77, neither his wit nor charm nor vigor nor curiosity has diminished. This is evident when he visits for the first time the DG Bank Building in Berlin, a modestly convex limestone exterior of obtruding windows leading into a technically novel yet altogether gorgeously spaced interior. Gehry seems almost over-awed with the result of the project, as he should be.
Perhaps the most engaging aspect of Sketches is that of the relationship between Gehry and Pollack, both artists of sorts attempting to create something meaningful in their commercially proscribed fields, and both equally inspired by observation as it relates to form and content. At one point, Pollack asks of Gehry, rather obviously, if looking at something in a particular way is translated back into the creative process substantially, likening it to the process of the filmmaker seeing an interesting shot. Gehry responds negatively, yet goes on to explain how seeing a particular painting unwittingly translated into a design project. Which is just to say that there is literally nothing that Gehry isn’t inspired by, a sentiment both men share and laugh over.
By and large, Sketches works as a warmed over primer on Gehry, genuflection rather than biography, enjoyable in a superficially redacted way. That said, I’m still looking forward to PBS’s critical appreciation of Gehry ten years from now.
Sketches of Frank Gehry is playing in selected theaters across Canada and the U.S.
By: Ron Mashate
Published on: 2006-07-06