Frank Owen Gehry, 89, has become one of the world’s leading architects, known for postmodern designs like the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. His Los Angeles firm Gehry Partners has 160 employees, but he still personally oversees every project.
I WAS BORN Frank Owen Goldberg in Toronto, where my family had a hardware store. My grandfather was president of a synagogue and used to read the Talmud to me. The Talmud is all about curiosity. It starts with the word “why.” I used to listen to the men sit and talk, challenging beliefs and ideas.
When my father had a heart attack, he lost his business, and in 1947, we emigrated to California, following his brother to Los Angeles. My father ended up working in a liquor store, four blocks from where we lived in a two-room apartment in downtown L.A.
We were poor, and at 17, I got a job as a truck driver and took night classes at Los Angeles City College. I loved woodworking, and after taking a class in architectural drawing, I was hooked and enrolled at the University of Southern California. Back in the ’50s, anti-Semitism was in the air. USC was filled with it. Teachers said I should change my name if I wanted to succeed. In 1954, when my then wife, Anita, got pregnant with our first child, I agreed to change my surname to Gehry.
After USC, I got drafted into the U.S. Army and, when I came back, went to the Harvard Graduate School of Design for city planning. But I didn’t finish because it was boring. I came back to L.A. to work for an architectural firm, then decided to start my own office in 1962.
I had a friend who wanted to build a six-unit apartment house, so we built it together. We pooled savings and bought the land for about $5,000, which was a lot for us. He had a connection to Kay Jewelers, and I designed a couple of stores and a warehouse for them. So slowly, Frank Gehry and Associates got started.
I didn’t go out with any intention to attract any particular kind of job. I’d done art installations at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for artist friends of mine and became part of the group meeting with investors when the city got ready to build the Museum of Contemporary Art. I did the Temporary Contemporary design, when MOCA didn’t open in time for the 1984 Olympic Games.
Working internationally requires understanding cultural differences. You have to want to understand the differences and make it part of your work program. I spent time studying and talking with Basque families, the Basque Minister for Culture [and Language Policy] and others to understand their culture before designing the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.
Frank Gehry’s Best Advice
Founder of Frank Gehry and Associates and Gehry Partners
TREAT ALL JOBS EQUALLY:
“With every project, no matter how small, act as if it’s the most important one. Make sure it’s technically and economically viable because you’ll be judged on the smallest things.”
“I don’t have expectations when I take on a project. I test ideas endlessly and ask why. I build 20 to 30 models for every project because you have to give the job its due. You don’t just do the first idea that comes to you, which is easy. It’s not fair to do anything less than your best.”
In the early days, they hire you because they know you’re struggling, and they think they can get you cheap. In the later days, when you have a name, they just want your name.
Now I work for people who make a lot of money from my buildings. But even back in the beginning, if a client’s wishes were totally counter to my feelings about the work, I wouldn’t take the job. If you do the best work with good people, the money comes. Today, my second wife, Berta, is CFO of the company and guides the ship financially.
Right now, I love designing concert halls. I just did one pro bono for the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings together Israeli, Palestinian, and other Arab musicians to play and talk to each other through music. Of all the awards I’ve received, the most meaningful was getting a doctorate in music from the Juilliard school. I don’t play a note, but I got it for making buildings for music.
The number of people practicing architecture as an art has dwindled. A lot of buildings are really just commercial models that, with very little effort, could become special. I believe it’s possible to create designs that are not faceless or aggressive but are reasonable containers to live in and play in, that bring something uplifting and communal to people.
A version of this article appears in the November 1, 2018 issue of Fortune with the headline “Frank Gehry.”