Frank Gehry, World-Renowned Architect, Back at the Parsons Table

Speaking to not one, but two jam-packed auditoriums at The New School last week, university president David Van Zandt highlighted the bond between Frank Gehry and Parsons School of Design.

He noted that Gehry was the first-ever guest of At the Parsons Table, an ongoing series of interviews with cultural luminaries hosted by Pulitzer Prize–winning architect and former Parsons dean Paul Goldberger.

He then discussed the connection between Parsons’ pedagogical approach and Gehry’s creative vision.

“Design is not just about arts and crafts, or engineering; it’s about people and how we improve their lives,” Van Zandt said to both the audience at the Tishman Auditorium and the audience watching the video feed of the event from The Auditorium at 66 West 12th Street. “Design is about human interface, human beings. The hallmarks of Mr. Gehry’s work reflect exactly that: He designs so that people can exist comfortably in the spaces he creates.”

Gehry, the world-famous architect known for his cityscape-altering museums and concert halls, was welcomed with open arms by the New School community during his return to At the Parsons Table. During the intimate conversation with Goldberger, Gehry discussed his buildings and working methods, favorable reactions to and backlash against his work, and the importance of finding one’s artistic voice.

To the delight of the architecture enthusiasts in attendance, Gehry gave a play-by-play of the creation of some of his iconic buildings. He delved into the design of his building at 8 Spruce Street in New York City (“the first building that was parallel to the Woolworth”), the Walt Disney Concert Hall (“a real people place that solves a problem”), and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (a building that “had an incredible economic impact” on the Spanish city).

Gehry’s buildings—large-scale construction wonders that stand out dramatically from their surroundings—have transformed the urban environments in which they’re situated. One striking example is the Guggenheim Bilbao, which catapulted the northerly Spanish metropolis from obscurity when the museum opened in 1997.

“It changed the culture and politics of the city,” Gehry said of the structure. “I didn’t know you could do that.”

While Gehry has garnered critical and public acclaim for his work, not all of the reviews have been favorable. As Goldberger, author of the recently published book Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry, noted, Gehry’s buildings have often been criticized for being garish and expensive.

“What do you make of that perception—or misperception: the notion that everything you do is weird, along with the notion that everything you do is too expensive?” Goldberger asked.

“It may be weird, but it’s a comfortable weird,” Gehry said, adding that his work is sometimes misunderstood.

“If you make a building, you want it to be something that’s uplifting, a place you want to be in, a place that makes you feel good, that gives you something to think about every day—something that adds to the mystery of life,” he said.

The price tag for his buildings, Gehry said, is often overstated.

“If I go to an audience of business executives and ask, ‘How many people think Guggenheim Bilbao was expensive?’ all the hands go up,” he said. “But it was only $300 a square foot, which was pretty economical for the time. Spending a lot of money isn’t crucial to making great architecture.”

What is crucial, Gehry said, is “finding your language”—homing in on a visual style that differentiates you from other designers. Gehry knows from experience that “people may like or hate your language, but you don’t have to worry about it, because you’re the only one who knows what it is.”

“A lot of us worry about what other people think, whether you’re at the back of the line or the front of the line,” he added. “I was at the back of the line so many times.”

Through his human-centered approach—an approach embraced at Parsons—Gehry has made it to, and stayed at, the front of the line of the architecture and design world.