Conversations With Frank Gehry - A Review

A Book by Barbara Isenberg

Architect Frank Gehry Answers Questions in Venice, California, 2003
Architect Frank Gehry Answers Questions in Venice, California, 2003. Photo by Amanda Edwards / Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images (cropped)

Reading Conversations With Frank Gehry is like listening in on a warm conversation between longtime friends. Indeed, author Barbara Isenberg has written about Gehry for decades, and the interviews assembled in her 2009 book are both intimate and revealing.

Who Is Frank Gehry?

Whether you love him or hate him, there's no doubt that the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry has captured the world's attention with buildings that take on twisted, unexpected forms. Some critics say that Gehry is more sculptor than architect; others say he reshapes our concept of what buildings "ought" to look like. Nevertheless, the architecture of Frank Gehry is immediately identifiable in a style all his own.

He also has a reputation for being "expensive, difficult, and ornery," which IAC businessman and Gehry client Barry Diller denies—except for the ornery part.

Gehry was born in Canada in 1929. Turning 80-years-old when Conversations was published, the famous architect uses Isenberg's journalistic skills to assemble his memories into an oral history. He muses that had he stayed in Toronto, he probably never would have become an architect, which makes us muse on the possibility that this book would never have existed—or would it? How creativity and imagination are defined and expressed is the subtext throughout the book. Had Gehry not been an architect, he would be as provocative.

For Gehry, legacy includes a verbal explanation of his visualizations. For many people, this will be the real value of the book—to hear the process and the thoughts behind the design is especially gratifying for the casual observer of Gehry buildings. His is an architecture that can make one exclaim, "What was he thinking?" Conversations With Frank Gehry clears up some of that confusion.

What's In The Book?

In just under 300 pages, Conversations With Frank Gehry presents a sweeping view of Gehry's life. Sixteen interviews are arranged chronologically, beginning with Gehry's childhood memories and concluding with Gehry's thoughts about his mortality and creative legacy. Barbara Isenberg provides her own commentary in the preface and at the beginning of each interview.

Each interview includes sketches, renderings, or photographs that trace the evolution of Frank Gehry's work from early inspiration to completed project. He speaks about his incessant sketching and how his staff turns sketches into models. "By the time I start sketching, I understand the problem, its scale, context, budget, and constraints," Gehry says. "So the drawings are very well-informed. They're not just fluff." (p. 89)

And yet, the Gehry sketch has to evolve, which takes time and money. "The building has to be designed from the inside out," he tells his clients, "and you can't know all of that in the first sketch." (p. 92)

The conversations about Gehry competing for the Walt Disney Concert Hall commission is itself the stuff of drama. The 1988 presentation to the jury is a struggle to place words on ideas and renderings on intents. The local newspaper cast doubts when they pictured how Gehry remodeled his house with corrugated steel and chain link fencing—would Gehry dishonor Walt Disney? The press event that announced his winning entry was nerve-racking—he wanted to make good in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles. The project went on for fifteen years as committees raised money and battled Gehry on design. Gehry designed a building made of stone, but they wanted a metal building—and then the predictable expensive fixes he was blamed for when the metal reflected heat and light. "It's very difficult," Gehry says. "There is a mystical part of the creative process. I don't know why I intuitively do some things. But I try as best I can to explain the driving forces and the baseline issues that I'm dealing with which lead to my conclusions." (p.


Sometimes conversations fall on deaf ears. The business of architecture is hard.

The Bottom Line

Conversations With Frank Gehry is a friendly chronicle compiled by a writer who clearly admires the architect and his work. Rather than desconstruct the deconstuctivist architect, Isenberg touches lightly on the controversies and negative commentary that Gehry often stirs.

Perhaps because the author's approach is gentle, the usually-reticent Gehry speaks with a refreshing openness. Instead of dense architectural theory, the breezy, highly readable conversations offer a relaxed and human view of Frank Gehry and his creative process. The most touching comment may be when Gehry asks Isenberg, "Do you think after I die people will realize I was a better guy than they thought I was?" (p. 267)

Barbara Isenberg is a widely published author and journalist who has covered art and architecture for the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, and other publications. During her long career, Isenberg interviewed Frank Gehry many times, and Gehry asked her to help organize an oral history of his life and works. In December 2004, Isenberg and Gehry began meeting regularly to compile the book Conversations With Frank Gehry. Visit her website for her latest projects.

Conversations with Frank Gehry by Barbara Isenberg
Knopf, 2009