Today, Spain bestows its highest cultural honour, el Premio Príncipe de Asturias de las Artes, on Canadian-born, American architect Frank Gehry. The awards, which began in 1981 at the behest of the then Prince of Asturias (Spain’s title for royal heir) and now king, Felipe VI, has numerous categories (Arts, Letters, Social Sciences, Sports, etc.), and has been awarded in the past to Bob Dylan, Woody Allen, Leonard Cohen, and Margaret Atwood. Little known outside of Spain, the annual arts Nobel here comes with €50,000 and a gala ceremony in Oviedo to the delight of the Spanish glitterati.
Yesterday, however, Mr Gehry was guest speaker at a so-called “debate” between him and acclaimed Spanish architect Rafael Moneo (premio winner in 2012), entitled “Arquitectura: el futuro, en construcción” in Gijón. I’m not sure why it was called a debate (since no one debated), but about 300 or so were delighted to hear Mr Gehry’s ideas about branding and architecture, and in particular about his Spanish creations: the Guggenheim in Bilbao and his recent Barcelona Fish.
After waiting about 2 hours in a make-shift line, the first 200 of us plebs were ushered into the airport-hangar space (room is not quite right) – appropriate it would seem for a debate (or conversation) between two architects – and seated in the peanut gallery outside a reserved (reservado) comfy-chair area for the hundred or so more well-connected dignitaries, who mostly arrived a few minutes before the start. One didn’t have to see the debaters although one could sneak a peek if you craned your neck enough. The inelegant seating arrangements did make me think of John Lennon’s remark at The Prince of Wales Theatre Royal Variety show before the Beatles’ final Twist and Shout number: “For those of you in the cheap seats I’d like ya to clap your hands to this one; the rest of you can just rattle your jewelry!”
The odd seating arrangements immediately made me think about accessibility in buildings, wondering if I would hear any debate about who makes buildings and for whom, and so I was pleased when Mr Gehry referred to what an architectural student should be doing these days to get a leg up in the biz: “You have to be in charge or you will be marginalized.” No doubt, good advice to his fellow all-stars more than budding young architects, but architecture as he further elegantly précised is a “process to create shapes and demystify them for construction.” Five years of architectural school would seem long after that.
His main motivation for making buildings he stated at the outset: “If someone calls me to do a building, if I like them, I accept.” He has no agent or publicist although he acknowledged that today’s young architects do. Well, not the four young architects I met in line, but I suppose he meant the older young Calatrava-like superstars. At 85 years old, he’s the master of the modern architect pantheon, who still prefers making models “to involve his team” than working from a computer.
To be sure, architecture today is about money and dealing with developers, although Mr Gehry noted that “When people find out Bilbao was only $80 million, they don’t believe it.” Compared to his $207-million Walt Disney Concert Hall in his hometown Los Angeles the Guggenheim in Bilbao is a steal. I don’t know what Mr Moneo’s Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels cost, which Mr Gehry noted he enjoyed seeing in his strolls around LA, and jokingly recalled that his pal had won the commission in a competition against him. One wonders what is different between a Roman Catholic cathedral and a Walt Disney concert hall – not the content it might seem.
As the conversation continued, it was obvious that Mr Gehry makes iconic buildings with marketing and branding in mind. Of the conservative city organizers in Bilbao, he said that they originally wanted something like the Sidney Opera House to usher in “a reawakening of a city” and that “Bilbao’s business model was amazing.” Fortunately, Bilbao got Mr Gehry’s impressive Cubist ship on the shores of the Nervion estuary, made of 33,000 pieces of gold-coloured, dimpled titanium. I can’t think of another modern building that has rebranded a city as much as the Gehry-Guggenheim, changing Bilbao’s industrial past into a cultural future, and ushering in the new age of city-branding. One travels to Bilbao to see Gehry’s art. Any city would kill for such tourism.
If the conversation had ended there, however, one might think Mr Gehry was just another royal – making buildings for money and the establishment, who doesn’t care much about what goes into a building or who uses it. Fortunately, at the end he briefly discussed his new project, an Obama-led initiative for impoverished schools called “Turnaround,” where artists like himself and Elton John talk to poor students, and in Gehry’s case get them to build cities with blocks in the classroom, encouraging a much-needed lateral thinking found lacking in their lives. The program has begun in 10 elementary pilot schools, he added, all with less than a 5-percent graduation rate with hopes of expanding to 100. Rebellious thinking indeed. As Mr Gehry noted about such new-age education methods, it’s “my latest fun thing.”
And then, he was whisked off without questions into the waiting black cars not more than ten metres from the airport-hangar-esque hall. It was like a presidential motorcade. All that was missing was the red carpet. Or at least I think he was – it was hard to see.
I wish we could all be Frank Gehry, superstar. Unfortunately, we can’t.
Frank Gehry, Sobre el terreno (From the ground up), October 24 to January 12, Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial, Universidad Laboral, Gijón.