Looking at Heaven With Frank Gehry

The architect so famous he spawned his own Simpsons character bets big again in Manhattan

“Where would you like to go?” a construction worker asked. Everyone was in hard hats.

“Uh, we’re going to 37, take us to—” someone started to say.

“Heaven!” Frank Gehry chimed in. “We’d like to go to heaven. Press heaven!”

As the recently installed elevator at 8 Spruce Street floated soundlessly upward, Gehry, the building’s architect, stood facing the closed doors, his hands laced together in front of him.

Joe Rechichi, a project manager with developer Forest City Ratner; Gehry’s chief of staff, Meaghan Lloyd; his daughter, Brina Gehry; his son-in-law, Daniel; and a construction worker on the 76-story building—the tallest downtown—were along for the ride.

“Heaven, I’m in heaven, and dah dah … Who’s that?” Gehry asked the group.

“Fred Astaire,” Lloyd answered.

“Yes, you’re right, it was him.” He continued humming the Irving Berlin melody.

The doors opened at the 37th floor. Rechichi shepherded everyone to what will soon become the leasing office for the 903 luxury rentals available in early 2011. Built by developer Bruce Ratner’s conglomerate, Gehry’s first residential high-rise is a 1.1 million-square-foot silver taffeta tower of rippling Jenga blocks. In an unusual fusion of the public and private sectors, the tower includes, from the bottom up, an underground car park, a 25,000-square-foot hospital and a five-story public elementary school in the brick-clad base.

Striding across the raw concrete floors, Gehry gravitated toward a curve in the bay window. At about 400 feet above the East River, the architect was cheek to cheek with the wispy early-morning clouds. Northward, through the tall glass panes, were the tops of Cass Gilbert’s 1913 Woolworth Building and McKim, Mead and White’s 1915 Municipal Building. Below, the Brooklyn Bridge Expressway uncoiled like a silver Christmas bow.

Gehry turned toward the group, the left side of his mouth curled with the slightest bit of mischief, “Well, these are good views, right?”

Swiveling back toward the window, he added, “If you have to live in New York …”

Gehry, who is a bulldog of an 81-year-old, lives in Santa Monica, Calif., in a house of his own design with his wife, Bertha. When asked if he would ever live in New York, the Pritzker winner shook his head while continuing to gaze at the northern view.

When the leasing office opens in January, Mary Ann Tighe, chairwoman of the powerful Real Estate Board of New York, suggested the building’s apartments will likely be the most expensive rentals downtown. Although she predicts the building will “be a triumph,” other industry insiders are more skeptical. “I like the developer, but it’s always very tough to make something successful at the high-end level with a public school in the building,” Donald Trump said.

Gehry’s debut in Manhattan’s skyline was the much-lauded IAC building. Completed in 2007, it floats along the West Side waterfront like the tufted pirate ship made of clouds in the last scene of Peter Pan. “It was the first building after 9/11 in the downtown area that was really hopeful,” IAC chairman Barry Diller told The Observer. “It kind of had a smile to it.”

The smile was soon disfigured by an oversize IAC logo, to the architect’s dismay. “At first I thought we spent so much money on the building we should put our name on it,” Diller said. “But Frank was right. We’re taking it down.”

“The reason it works so well is because of Frank,” Diller added. “Because it’s unique, it looks like nothing else. And I suspect that given how Frank tends not to repeat himself it will always be unique.”

Critics and naysayers suggest Frank Gehry isn’t fit to sharpen his claws on the New York skyline given such failures as the Atlantic Yards arena, also undertaken with Ratner, and the Guggenheim on the East River, a project that Gehry insists “was never real. It was always more of a dream.” Eight Spruce Street—the building’s official name, though it was first known as Beekman Tower—almost wasn’t real, either. At one point, soon after the September 2008 economic crash, construction stopped at 38 stories, prompting forlorn Curbed commenters to gripe, “so depressing, the resulting building is just going to be a huge, shiny, stumpy thing.”

But after a two-month hiatus, construction resumed, resulting in a finished product taller than the design originally proposed. “When we started, it was lower,” Gehry said. “It was 66 floors, and when you go from a 66-floor building to a 76-floor building, there’s a big cost implication. So I had to prove it, but when you saw the models of the building, it was obvious that the proportion got a lot better.”

The building is 1 foot taller than the Trump World Tower, which had been the city’s tallest residential tower. “I told Bruce to make it a foot lower so we don’t have to deal with [Trump],” Gehry said. “You know, he asked me to do a project for him and I turned him down; and then I went to a thing for Peter Arnell, something for the Fire Department, and Trump was seated next to me because he’s a friend of Peter’s. And he turned his back to me. I tried to shake his hand and he said, ‘I don’t talk to people like you.’ So he doesn’t talk to me.”

“Well, it’s his loss, right?” Rechichi, the project manager, soothed.

“I don’t care.” Gehry shrugged irreverently. After several seconds of silence, he said quietly, “I don’t like his hairdo anyway.”

Trump replied bluntly, “Maybe I just don’t find him interesting. It doesn’t mean I don’t like him.” He also said he does not know what project of his Gehry might have turned down. “I really only like one job he has done—that was in Balboa. I’m not a fan of much of his work, although he’s a darling.”

“Look, here’s a good example of the bay window,” Gehry beckoned into a small room.

Gehry was dressed in all black, with round-toed leather slip-on loafers. While he stopped playing ice hockey three years ago, he still runs 30 minutes on the treadmill or swims laps daily. Tufts of white hair, a sleek digital-faced watch and stainless-steel rimmed eyeglasses are his only accessories.

“It’s like standing in space, isn’t it? It’s fantastic! I mean when people see this they’re going to go crazy!” Gehry beamed.

The repeated bay window, which undulates across the building’s facade, was inspired by Gehry’s fascination with the drawings of fabric by Renaissance artists. “You know the difference in the folds, don’t you?” he asked excitedly. “Bernini is edgier, Michelangelo is softer. I went for Bernini. I did a Michelangelo once in Dusseldorf; the curves are softer.”

Gehry, who designed the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, is a classicist. He glimmers like the facades of his buildings when he discusses Renaissance art. “We were at the Academia in Venice a few weeks ago, and they opened the vault for me and showed me Leonardo’s drawing with the guy.” He extended his arms out to the side emulating the Vitruvian man. “I had the original in my hand!” He laughed, still star-struck by the experience.

“So the bay window really bloody works,” Gehry went on. “What I would do if I were living here is I would make this a window seat, so you sit here and read, right?” He moved his hand through the air, palm down. “Oh, but we didn’t put a light above it.” He looked up at the fixture-less ceiling, spirit slightly dampened. “I could live here,” he said, revising himself. “But I want the top floor.”

The architect credits his ability to stay within a given budget to his longtime use of “fancy software,” shorthand for Digital Project, his proprietary three-dimensional modeling technology.

Gehry first forged the technological frontier after his completion of the Vitra Museum in 1989 in Weil am Rhein, Germany. “I couldn’t solve one of the shapes with descriptive geometry, that’s how you used to do it. You’d sort of build the curves with straight lines, so I was trying to make that curve and then they built it with a kink in it. So I said to the guys, ‘If I use curves like that, how do I do it?’ So they went to IBM and IBM took us to this French software company and we’re still working with them.”

“The computer allowed every piece of the custom curtain wall to be detailed and precise,” Gehry told The New Yorker’s architecture critic Paul Goldberger during a recent question-and-answer panel about Beekman’s rippling bay windows. He has since spun off the software into a separate company called Gehry Technologies, which sells Digital Project to other developers and architects.

Meanwhile, Gehry’s faith in technology doesn’t fully translate to his personal life. He has only mastered his BlackBerry. “I have an iPad, but I don’t know how to use it. I get mad at it, I want to throw it out every day.”

Gehry has neither a Facebook nor a Twitter account, although Lloyd, his right hand, said she has to shut down fake Frank Gehry Facebook accounts everyday.

“I met the guy who invented Twitter,” Gehry said. “He was a nice kid. He was in jeans and, you know, kinda cool-looking. He started talking to me about Twitter and I said, ‘You know, with all due respect, I really thought it was something for gays because they keep talking about Tweeting.’ He said he’d never heard that one but he liked it.”

Frank Owen Goldberg was born in Toronto in 1929 to Eastern European Jews, though Gehry’s father grew up one of nine children in a small apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. “They sort of just made it in the streets,” Gehry said of his father, who was a slot-machine salesman after moving to Canada. “I grew up in the carny business.”

Gehry remembered building cities out of scraps of wood scavenged at his grandfather’s hardware store, where the young Frank Goldberg spent much of his youth. “I had a lot of toys to play with, so I got to know what the game was so I could fix toasters and clocks and things like that.”

The fledgling mechanic also received generous exposure to the arts through his mother, a Hadassah activist and violinist, who would take her young son to the local art museums (one of which, The Art Gallery of Toronto, Gehry recently renovated) and classical music concerts.

Growing up, Gehry leaned toward chemical engineering, by accident more than anything else. “I had a cousin who was a chemical engineer, so I decided I should be like him.” Though after the first day of handling nitracins—or, as he describes it, “watching paint dry”—he realized it wasn’t for him.

In his teens, he moved to Southern California and became an American citizen, and was drafted into the Army just after architecture school at the University of Southern California. He served two years in Atlanta during the end of the Korean War with Leonard Nimoy as his master sergeant. “I didn’t know who he was then because he didn’t know who he was.”

The day after his bar mitzvah, Frank Goldberg became an atheist. “I really studied that bloody thing, the Torah, and learned it by heart and everything, and then I did it at my grandfather’s little synagogue. And as I came out, there were all these old Jewish guys, so I started talking to them about the content of my Torah reading, and they didn’t know what I was talking about. So I said, ‘Have you read it?’ And they all said, ‘Nahh, where’s the Schnapps?’ So I went home and I said, ‘They’re all a bunch of frauds.’”

Frank Goldberg changed his name to Gehry in the late 1950s at his then wife and mother-in-law’s behest. “My ex-wife worked for Nixon’s lawyer, and she was going to have a child, and there was a radio program called the Goldbergs, Molly Goldberg, it was very much a caricature and she couldn’t stand that; she didn’t want a child named Goldberg. So she started lobbying for this [name change] bong-bong-bong,” he hammered his fist in the air. “Like drip water.”

Why Gehry?

“Gotta pencil?” He positioned a torn piece of notepaper in front of him.

“I wanted a G, because my initials are F-O-G, and I didn’t want to lose that. So this is how I wrote Goldberg.” He began to write Goldberg in rounded lowercase cursive.

“So I’m a visual artist, right? So these go up, and these go down.” He sliced lines through the upward “I” and stem of the “D” and through the downward tail of both “Gs.” “So I said, ‘You gotta do that and it’s gotta be a G,” so they played with letters until they got one to do that.”

At the recent question-and-answer panel Paul Goldberger introduced Gehry by highlighting the fact that the architect has achieved the rare status of both high- and pop-culture icon, noting Gehry’s Pritzker Prize—the highest honor bestowed on an architect—and his cameo on The Simpsons.

Asked about The Simpsons, Gehry smiled, then turned to his coat pocket, “Where’s my BlackBerry?” The PDA’s wallpaper is an image of his yellow cartoon figure, hard hat on, building plans in hand.

Gehry proceeded to outline the entire episode of the sitcom in which Marge Simpson mails Gehry a letter asking him to design a music hall for Springfield, a spoof on his Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. “So I come home, then there’s the letter from Marge, and I crumple the paper and drop it on the ground and then I say, ‘Frank Gehry, you’re a genius!’ Now, I had to say that. They used my voice. So I was in the studio with Julie Kavner [the voice of Marge], she’s really a nice lady, and I couldn’t say it! It’s hard to say that with conviction.”

The crumpled-paper shape became the music hall. “But it wasn’t, you know, just crumpled paper; but the general public thinks I really do that because they don’t know how I get the shapes.”

The hall gets built in Springfield, and when no one comes, the town turns it into a prison.

“Then there’s a prison break,” Gehry chuckled deeply, “and for some reason, Marge’s husband—what’s his name? Homer, right—was part of the prison break and one of the prisoners is sliding down one of the shapes saying, ‘No Frank Gehry prison is gonna hold me!’ It’s really very funny.”

“But you should know I work from the inside out. Where’s a piece of paper, do you have one? So Disney Hall is a block, right?” He held the rectangular sheet of paper on its side. “And all I did was this, right?” With his thumb stabilizing the base of the piece of paper, he used his forefinger to curl one corner, as if frozen in the middle of dog-earing a page. “That’s all. You go and look at it and you’ll see its little tweaks here and there like that.” He then turned the page into a cylinder shape, showing another option. “All of those shapes are like that; they’re ruled shapes. But then the complicated part gets like that, it’s like a double curve.

“So it’s very precise. It’s not like crumpled paper! And Beekman used the same process. … It’s all flat or this,” he said, as he curled the corner edge.

Back at Eight Spruce, Rechichi uncovered the freshly installed lobby desk for Gehry’s approval. Inside the foyer, Gehry gestured past the revolving doors, which were in place but awaiting the glass panes. “This is going to be a park,” he said proudly, referring to the throughway plaza connecting Beekman and Spruce streets.

“I haven’t been here for a few weeks. My guys are here, but they try to keep me out because I always come and try to tweak things at the last minute.”

The lobby desk is a white concrete jigsaw puzzle the color and heft of Mount Rushmore. Each piece was carved in Los Angeles and shipped cross-country to be assembled on-site, replete with benches carved out of the concrete, dressed with cushions of supple tan leather. Bending and rippling like the carats of an unevenly cut stone, the Gaudi folds of the desk resemble an artfully crumpled sheet of paper. Inspired by a letter from Marge Simpson? Gehry smiled. “Well, sure, but it’s a feeling.” He ran his hand across the angled surface, palm down, like a jockey caressing his steed. He sighed as a concession. “We like to get a little artsy sometimes.”

In a studio apartment on the 37th floor, Gehry inspected the kitchen fixtures and door handles, which he designed.

“I’m home,” he grinned.