“Sketches of Frank Gehry”

by F.

I’m on a documentary bender lately and so I picked up Wall, Sketches of Frank Gehry, and The Buena Vista Social Club the other night.

First off was Wall, about the barrier Israel started erecting in April, 2002, in the Palestinian West Bank. Interesting. And timeley. I couldn’t wait to see it. But I should have been tipped off by the logline: “A meditation on the separation fence in Israel-Palestine that imprisons one people while enclosing the other.” Meditation. That means “boring.”

Wall is just about the most boring documentary I’ve ever seen. I think the director should make a trilogy. The next one can be called Grass, which would show a day in the life of a lawn. Then maybe Paint about the epic quest of colored latex to dry. In the first 10 minutes of Wall, there’s just a lot of shots of… the wall. And the wall just sort of sits there, as walls do, looking menacing. It’s very wall-like. Wally, you could say. There’s a little barbed wire to spice it up, but it’s too little, too late.



Sketches starts off pretty good, showing Gehry designing a building with another architect in his office. He works with models a lot, and that’s what you see him doing—cutting cardboard and moving things around. I read this review in the Huffington Post, the point of which seemed to be that the doc doesn’t show how architects really work—dealing with the mechanical shit, and the codes, and the program, and all that boring stuff. And I’m glad, because that shit is… boring. “Oh, let’s see. Hmmm… Section 10.b(i)(a) requires that we have three exits at least three feet wide on the first floor, let me check the plans to see if we got that.”

Wake me up when something interesting happens.

Instead, we see Gehry playing around with silver cardboard. Now, is this a deceptive picture of the way most architects work? Maybe. But he’s not most architects. Is this a deceptive picture of how he works? I doubt it. First, he can do what he wants: he’s got the money. Clients come to him. If he wants to make a model out of polenta, he will. And the client will more than likely eat it up, tell him to build it, and then hand him a check for $12 million. He’s lucky to be in that position. He knows that.

And I don’t think it’s that deceptive, really. I mean, having witnessed the design process in action, that’s sort of the way design goes. You try some things. You look at it. You wait. You try something else. You ask your friends for their opinions. You change things around. You look for ideas in other artworks. And so on. It’s pretty unmysterious. There’s just not that much to it—which is not to say that anyone can do it. If Gehry seems unconstrained by minutiae when designing that’s because, (a) he is and (b) thats what the flunkies in the office do: they make sure it stands up, is up to code, and contains the right number of toilets. Gehry doesn’t know how to use CAAD or even a computer. But does he need to? No. There’s a really interesting sequence showing how the models get digitized, then imported into CAAD so the structural stuff can be done.

A.O. Scott, in the New York Times, gets it right, I think:

“Sketches of Frank Gehry” respects the essential enigma of its subject even as it illuminates his ways of thinking about form, space and construction. As its title suggests, this absorbing documentary, the first directed by Sydney Pollack (“Out of Africa,” “The Way We Were” and so on), is a modest undertaking, offering glimpses of the architect and his work rather than a full-scale portrait or catalogue raisonnĂ©.

I loved Gehry’s work before seeing this and now I love it all the more. There’s nothing like it. And it generally looks cool. Sure, there are a few miscarriages, like the EMP in Seattle. But then there’s Bilbao.