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10/14/2014 09:29 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

CultureZohn Off the C(H)uff With Frank Gehry: How Does He Do It?

It was a beautiful September Indian summer day that was fixed for my journey to visit Frank Gehry's new Fondation Louis Vuitton building in the Bois de Boulogne, the capacious park in Paris' northwest extremity. A few weeks earlier I had had a long lunch with Frank at his expansive but no frills office in a mostly industrial sector of Los Angeles to talk about the Fondation, his other projects, and his state of mind as he continues to achieve the pinnacle of architectural success and I was filled with anticipation. (Full disclosure: I am married to an architect and have known Frank for many years.) I took the Metro (station stop: Sablons) and walked into the Bois, the entrance is just around the corner. I wasn't sure I was going the right way and so I asked a shopkeeper who had never heard of this enormous building going up just a few blocks away. So much for the idea that all the neighbors were upset.

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FLV Image by Iwan Baan

I'd mistakenly worn heels and a pencil skirt, however, so I inquired at the first gate I hobbled past since as of a few weeks ago there was no signage pointing the way. (How could I go to Louis Vuitton, the paragon of luxury, in sneakers and jeans, my default metro-riding outfit?) A postman overheard me asking and offered me a ride (how cool was this?) and said he was en route to make a delivery anyway. I don't normally hop into postal vans but it seemed a particularly down-to-earth (and blister-free) way to begin seeing what must surely be one of the most soaring, extravagant buildings in the world. Suddenly, without much warning, around the bend, we came upon it.

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FLV Image by Todd Eberle

It's a wow. There's no way not to be wowed. You would have to be the greatest skeptic in the world not to be impressed. On my tour, for much of the time I am silent, marveling at the construction. I feel like Tom Wolfe, thinking in all caps and exclamation points. My reporter's eye peers at joins, buttresses of wood, sails of milky glass, massive steel beams, materials not often juxtaposed with one another. But all the while my female gaze is taking in the more domestic details: the maids with their vacuum cleaners, the window washers dangling from the arced glass, the spaces that will be fantastic for parties.

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Image courtesy FLV

I'm in awe, even having seen the LV videos about the construction and learning about the collaboration with the technology of Dassault, the aviation company. It actually seems despite its substantial heft it could indeed take off. But mainly I'm wondering:

HOW DID FRANK DO IT?!!!!!!!

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FLV Image by Todd Eberle

The building has been likened to Le Corbusier's Notre Dame du Haut Ronchamp chapel ("I go every few years and I cry," Frank admits), Piranesi, a Romanesque church, and of course his own previous work. But he took exception to some other comparisons I posed. "I don't think my building is anything like the Grand Palais," but he went on to clarify:

"I was inspired by the idea of doing an idea of a building in the park as having a glass quality to it because the problem at the site is that the building could be some sort of an intrusion. The idea of creating something ephemeral was important because we wouldn't have gotten it approved without it ... there were height restrictions and all kinds of stuff, but once we made this gesture, they all liked it and said, yes, I mean its an expensive model but that's what had to happen."

Is it like Disney Hall or Bilbao? I press. "Sure, there's a signature there," rejoins Frank. "Everybody has one, you can't help that, even if you do a painting."

How about comparisons to the Sydney Opera House?

"I like the Sydney Opera House, but I don't know. Certainly not consciously."

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FLV Image by Patricia Zohn

Some details cannot go unmentioned: the stairway which reaches from the bottom to the very top of the building like a Russian Constructivist Tatlin and can be seen from atop (if you don't have acrophobia like I do), the joins of the wood cross beams to the steel structure (the bases recall the industrial construction of the Grand Palais or Eiffel Tower), the marvel of the slot in exterior roofline which frames the Eiffel Tower in the distance, the resplendent milky glass sails which reflect the perfect lawn and the Jardin d'Acclimatation (zoo) next door. Seeing the nuts and bolts is no cliché here.

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FLV Image by Todd Eberle

From my perspective, it represents a refinement of everything he's been doing in a way that is unexpected even though I could recognize it as a Gehry building immediately. It's massive but elegant, complicated but iconic, green in its water treatment but ample with custom design elements that exist for pure beauty. In his case, form does not always follow function. Frank tells me he's on budget, but when I ask him what the final budget was he says he doesn't precisely know, though he is willing to allow that it is bigger than the figures quoted in Vogue and Vanity Fair ($135 million). Perhaps that's just for the central "iceberg" structure? (The Foundation will not release figures.) It reminds me of the Hollywood concept of the "rolling break even" which is an accounting term for the fuzzy distribution of profits of a film. You don't ever really know if you've gotten there, so it's impossible to actually accrue any.

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FLV Image by Patricia Zohn

It may be that well-to-do neighbors who have a bird's eye view see it as looming larger. It is moored in a basin which captures a lush but minimalist stepped waterfall with a nod to the nearby historic Grande Cascade of the Bois. But the essence of the building struck me immediately instead in a much more diminutive way, as a perfect companion to the toy sailboats that children launch in the boat pond in the Tuileries Garden. And Frank is still like one of those boys: playful, ambitious, competitive, wanting to launch his giant version into the world. Will it float or sink under the weight of the critical attention it is sure to garner?

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Another, more cosmic, California-type thought came to me even before I saw the building. I may be the first to remind Frank that, like me, he is a Pisces and we just naturally gravitate towards water images despite the more earthbound history of his long-term interest in the fish motif he recounts.

"I studied the Japanese woodcuts all my life since I was an architecture student. In Japan I liked the koi."

As he struggled years ago with many of his colleagues going post-modern, he thought:

"Well, the model of post modernism is Greek temples which is anthropomorphic and I thought, well, okay guys, if you're gonna go back let's go back 300 million years to fish."

Then he laughs and throws me a (fish) bone.

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Frank Gehry with his fish lamps. Image by Patricia Zohn

"It was accidental. I don't know why I said that, maybe it's because I'm a Pisces. I started studying and drawing fish as a symbol of my search for finding a new way from post-modernism," he starts over in a more thoughtful vein.

"I was already looking for a way to express movement with inert materials. I tried it on Norton Simon's house. I was building a trellis and he stopped me after the third layer. He said, 'Enough.'"

"When I built a fish for [fashion company] GFT, in Italy, I made this 36 foot long wooden fish at Cinecitta [the historic Roman movie studio], it had eyes and a tail and a fin. It was embarrassingly kitsch, but when you stood beside it, it felt like it was moving, and others felt it, I realized that I was onto something. The next thing I did was cut off all the kitschiness, and I still got movement, and that's in the fish sculpture I did for my Walker Art [Center] show, and for Jay Chiat's [advertising firm in Venice] offices, that led to the language. There was Rebecca's restaurant [in Venice, California]. Once I learned how to do it, I could continue it, I could learn how to play with those forms."

(Critic Paul Goldberger has done a book about the fish theme concurrent with Gagosian Gallery fish lamp shows.)

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Frank Gehry outside his office. Image by Patricia Zohn

The building originally grew out of conversations Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH, had with Frank after he saw his museum at Bilbao.

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Frank Gehry with the FLV model at his office. Image by Patricia Zohn

Monsieur Arnault wanted a statement building for his own collection and that of LVMH. Arnault, who himself plays the piano and whose wife was a concert pianist, came to LA to meet Frank, and even had a chance to play in Disney Hall. The theater at the base of the Fondation building (which I was only able to view partially) will have a full artistic program (after its mini debut for a fashion show last week} beginning the 28th with a Lang Lang concert. Arnault hired the same acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota, who worked on Disney Hall).

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Berrnard Arnault and Frank Gehry. Image courtesy of FLV

Arnault is influential at magazines, newspapers, in government, fashion, and art. LVMH controls sixty or more companies that are primarily oriented towards those with a great deal of disposable income. Sophisticated local Parisians who fall into this category whom I saw during my stay were incredibly curious about the building. Arnault has a certain reputation, lingering among the cultural elites, which hasn't necessarily dovetailed with his current iteration as magnanimous patron of the arts. And yet. What Medici has not been like this? Many historically great works of art were commissioned by wealthy, controlling autocrats with a vision that served self-interest and the public at the same time. France is not in good financial shape and there are those who will use the LV building as a fulcrum for their frustrations. But the notion of private museums is really not a new one and the fact they are proliferating at an unprecedented rate speaks more to the perilous economy of all our federal governments -- including the formerly artistically flush European ones -- than any exclusionary tactics. It would be nice if all this art was going to be seen for free in perpetuity but it's not and at least we'll have a chance to take a look -- and it will be extremely well conserved.

When I asked Frank how well he had gotten to know Arnault, if they often had dinner or had taken trips together, he demurred. "I don't know him that well, we haven't socialized too much." Frank's not designing jewelry any longer for Tiffany, a previous foray into the luxury goods market. "They dumped me," he says somewhat defiantly. "They weren't promoting it." That is certainly not the case here, where client and architect seem harmonious.

But he is at pains to remind me that he is also doing a great deal of pro bono work: in Berlin for the Divan Orchestra, in California schools for the Turnaround Arts project, for Maggie Houses for cancer patients, at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City. He also shows me the comparatively conventional house his son has designed for him in Santa Monica. (Yes, he's finally leaving the famous chain-link original behind.) Frank has huge commissions now but he has a certain image which may not always dovetail with the idea of a luxury goods house, as his uniform of rumpled black t-shirt and unshaven chin attest.

"Do you ever turn things down?" I ask him."All the time. Ever since I started. If I feel it's going to not work, just by the way people talk about it, then I'll stay out of it. Sometimes to my own detriment."

That opens the way to a question about other architects. He's fearlessly candid in the way that alpha males can afford to be, yet he knows with top projects still at a premium he must also defend his turf. He shows me the project he did not win in China and how Jean Nouvel's revamped design which won the commission resembled his own entry, and the Eisenhower Memorial in DC which has had him at odds with the family.

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Frank Gehry leaning on a test for part of the Eishenhower Memorial. Image by Patricia Zohn

He's skeptical when I ask him about the new Aspen Art Museum, the work of this year's socially conscious Pritzker prize winner Shigeru Ban, which he's not yet seen. He's concerned about the changes Renzo Piano has made to the park surrounding the Corbusier Chapel at Ronchamp, though he hasn't seen it yet either. He's prickly about the new lighting that was installed without his approval at the Cinematheque he designed in Paris.

And so on. I get the feeling change is good but mostly when Frank does it. The Fondation LV will donate the building to the city of Paris in 55 years. It's a beautiful building and I hope the government will have the resources to care for it the way it now cares for the Luxembourg Gardens, by way of another, very different, but equally extravagant civic example.

I couldn't resist also asking the postman -- a decidedly working-class Frenchman -- what he thought of it. He thought it despoiled the beautiful park and that it reminded him of the eyesores at La Defense, the business complex in the west of the city Parisians love to hate. (Oddly, the view of La Defense from the top of the Fondation makes it look plausible.) Yet, I reminded him, isn't that what people must have thought of the Eiffel Tower? Yes, he allowed, it was possible he could change his mind, he would wait and see. I have a feeling that everyone will make peace with the Fondation as they came to make peace with the Beaubourg, which by the way, is in desperate need of some of the Fondation's elbow grease. In perfect synchronicity, a retrospective of Frank Gehry's work has just opened here.

Frank has an affinity for Paris, and for France. He worked there in 1960 for a firm he did not admire, but had a chance to travel all over and see things. "I was just a little pisher," he says, "but I met amazing people and they have stayed friends." He had been in the army (Leonard Nimoy was master sergeant in his special services division but they did not know each other at the time) and worked for Gruen (a larger firm). All this time he was storing things up.

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FLV Image by Todd Eberle

Here's my takeaway: there's no art that could possibly compete with this building, however handsome it may look once installed. I was prohibited from seeing galleries where the art was already in place last month (the press is invited this week for the first time) but I did see some beautiful but empty, very regularly shaped large galleries with huge skylights and one special Gehry gallery that is shaped suspiciously like the tiny LV handbag he showed me at his office which I covet (and I have never owned any LV bags or suitcases).

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About the opening he was resolute, "I think they [Fondation LV) [were] conflicted, because people say the building is the work of art so lets open it with nothing in it, but I refused, I said I won't come, I just won't do it unless it has the art in it. They've been struggling for what that should be for an opening show but they have plenty of stuff."

I've heard rumors about what is going in for the first show, and that artist Taryn Simon has been commissioned to do a project with interviews of the people who worked on the building which I imagine will be fascinating. The restaurant and gift shop were just being finished during my stay -- and the restaurant will be called Le Frank. I look forward to a meal there overlooking the greensward which has flourished in this summer's wet Parisian weather.

Frank, now 85, has been likened to Picasso -- the indomitable artist who never stopped and even at 92 was churning out work. "Really?" he says with a mischievous grin. I tell him we took as our theme for a PBS Picasso documentary some years ago this idea of Picasso's work changing every time he changed women. I tease him about this specific notion of creative longevity. He laughs and almost blushes.

"Picasso had a lot of ladies," he agrees. ."In my salad days when I was between marriages, we could talk about it, but now I'm too old. But Picasso, did, I know, that's why I'm envious!" "

Do you think that women are an influence on your work", I ask, sensing a fleeting window. "I do, Berta (his wife) works here, my kids work here. I like pretty women, I like women, I've got women here in serious jobs, I'm very supportive of women, I like their shape so I'm inspired by them."

Frank, who designed a new Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi, reached out by email to Zaha Hadid when she recently took strong exception to a Martin Filler piece in the New York Review of Books about her alleged treatment of workers on a project in Qatar. (After Hadid threatened a lawsuit, Filler retracted his comments.)

Over the years as his dynamic and acclaimed new projects have been unveiled, I have asked Frank -- who has a way of being a (charming) curmudgeon -- about being "filled up," about finally smiling, and understanding his good fortune. "You have the dream job," I remind him, "Probably the number one architect with the possibility of having everything in here" -- I point to his head -- "come out here" -- and then I point to the earth. I know there were many years when he felt undervalued by his own city. But he has been resolute about believing in his own ideas.

"When everybody started doing post modern then I got sort of strangely out of it because I didn't know where to go because I was trained as a modernist, right? Boom boom boom, so I had to think about it..."

But he adds on a more philosophical note, "Well, you live a couple of lives. For me personally, I feel like the luckiest guy ever."

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Frank Gehry in his office. Image by Patricia Zohn

Of late, Frank has been mulling over his past in a more intimate way. Though he says he can't remember all the details, he's "been trying to figure out where the DNA came from." He muses now that it was due to his father who had been a window dresser, a "lousy" slot machine salesman and had worked at a grocery store. "It never would have occurred to me, but he took me on this trip to Chicago, we saw everything." His mother also was talented, he adds, she worked in the Broadway Hollywood department store and then owned a dress shop in Florida. He is looking backwards, then, not in anger or resentment, but with a certain inclusive peace.

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Jardin D'Acclimatation next door to the Fondation LV

Still, there is a legend about the Jardin d'Acclimatation that feels apt. It seems the lions were waking up Monsieur Boussac -- the original industrialist behind the house of Dior (now part of LVMH) whose apartment overlooked the zoo, too early in the morning. In a fit of millionaire pique, so it is said, he bought the zoo and had the lions shipped off. This then was how the piece of land on which Fondation sits was originally acquired.

The Vogue story about the Fondation LVMH suggested it was Bernard Arnault who is roaring today. But perhaps, even though fish and boats and glaciers are his chosen metaphors, it is Frank Gehry who has come to take the lion's revenge, and is roaring back.

The LVMH site (in French) for more videos and information.