With his 91st birthday (on February 28) a month away, the architect Frank Gehry has made few concessions to life in his tenth decade. Standing on the mezzanine of his vast Los Angeles studio, looking down on a panorama of model neighborhoods, six-foot skyscrapers, and blocky mock-ups as if it’s some dollhouse-scale Gehryland, he clearly relishes the sense of inventiveness and bustle. He takes the occasional Saturday off, but he’s mostly omnipresent, marching up and down the stairs from the studio floor to his office and library and keeping a close eye on the dozens of designs destined for sites on several continents. On his docket is a new Warner Bros. headquarters in Burbank, a mixed-use complex on Grand Avenue in downtown L.A. (across the street from his masterpiece, Disney Hall), a master plan for the Los Angeles River, an apartment tower at Hudson Yards, museums in Taiwan and Tel Aviv, and an art-in-the-schools program called Turnaround Arts.
A lot of my friends don’t run the office enough like a business, so they struggle, and they take jobs in China, where you don’t get paid. I won’t take a job unless we get fully paid and we like the people.
You won’t work in China?
I had a bad experience there,In 2012, Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Moshe Safdie, and Jean Nouvel submitted designs for the National Art Museum of China in Beijing. Nouvel won the competition with a glass-block scheme that Gehry felt had been (at the very least) inspired by his own. so it would be hard for me to feel comfortable going there to do a project.
Is there anywhere else you won’t work?
We’ve been asked to do stuff in Saudi Arabia. I went there a couple of times, and they tried to be nice, but it was somewhat insulting. They offered me lots of projects, and they said, “Pick a project, you design it, bring us the design, and if we like it, we’ll pay you.”
Is that the only reason you won’t work in Saudi Arabia, because it’s hard to get paid?
I have my own opinions about the politics, the Khashoggi thing, but I don’t want to make a big thing about it. I don’t want to get into a political thing where I knock MBS. Some of my friends are working for them.
Jean Nouvel took a lot of flak for the way construction workers were treated on his Louvre Abu Dhabi, and he said there was “no problem.” Zaha Hadid said the workers who died while building the stadium she designed in Qatar were not her concern. Your Guggenheim Abu DhabiGehry was hired in 2006 to design a Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island, a culture center with several museums, hotels, and an NYU campus. In 2011, artists, alarmed that foreign construction workers in the UAE were being exploited, threatened a boycott and the project was halted. Last spring, the Guggenheim Foundation’s Richard Armstrong said construction would restart soon. is finally starting construction soon, after many years of delay. Is this an issue for you?
Yes. We have a human-rights lawyer who represents us there. We made that a condition of our work, and the client agreed. We haven’t built anything there yet, but we’ll monitor that.