Metal guru

Tomorrow night, the Hollywood A-list pitches up to the only show in town: a stunning new Los Angeles concert hall designed by Frank Gehry. Can anyone now seriously dispute, asks Jay Merrick, that the Canadian is the world's greatest living architect?

The new Walt Disney Concert Hall sits on the corner of Grand Avenue and First Street on a section of road that has been coned off from traffic. From the corner, the avenue sweeps slightly downhill into the corporate, smog-veiled heart of Los Angeles. Nearby, a gang of construction workers is clustered round a pair of pale blue portable loos carrying "Throne Fit for a King" brand marks. They seem oblivious to the extraordinarily skewed folds of stainless steel that clothe the concert hall like a Renaissance robe, and from which the sun slides off in waves of incandescence.

The king, the metal guru of architecture, is inside the $270m fantasia, sitting not on a throne but on a rather plain chair on the Wells Fargo stage in the auditorium. With him are the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, the acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota and the orchestra's chief executive, Deborah Borda. But it's Frank we're here for, Frank O Gehry, the architect who startled the world with his design of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 1997.

The man who, just three years into the 21st century, has genuine claims to be a key influence on the new century's architecture, looks out at the 200-strong shoal of media people from all over the world and smiles in faux bemusement. "Who are these people?" he murmurs. He gets the laugh and, after a beat, adds: "Did they have to pay to get in?" He's wearing a black seersucker suit, peacock-blue Pro Camp sweatshirt and the kind of discount-store shoes that Daniel Libeskind or Norman Foster wouldn't be seen dead in. But behind this unassuming image, what's going through the mind of the world's greatest living architect?

The carp, maybe. The carp that Granny Caplan used to bring back from the market in Toronto every Thursday and tip, live, into a bathful of water to keep it fresh for gefilte cooking. The weekly carp that the seven-year-old Gehry used to study so obsessively. Was it those fish, whose languidly graceful movement through the tap-water seemed so hypnotic, that shattered the rules of architecture to such an extent that the words "modernism" and "postmodernism" stopped making sense?

Iconoclasm aside, does Gehry merit the praise that has been heaped upon him? If the titanium tsunami in Bilbao were his only great building, then obviously not. There has to be an "X" factor that separates him from such brilliant practitioners as Renzo Piano, the complex Libeskind, the extraordinarily creative Frenchman Jean Nouvel and the increasingly corporate Foster.

Gehry's edge is that he is, unmistakably, rawly artistic in a profession dominated by "signature building" artistes. He is a sculptor who happens to do buildings; a bender and a shaper, a scruncher whose Santa Monica studio contains a unique weapon of mass creation - the same Catia aerospace computers and digital scanners that the French Dassault company use to design Mirage fighters. Quite a change from 1989, when Gehry had to make do with a word processor and accounts software.

But, low-tech as his set-up was then, at least he was no longer certifiable, according to Peter Cook, the professor of architecture at University College, London. "In the Seventies, he seemed to go crazy," he told me in 2000, when Gehry won the Royal Institute of British Architects' Gold Medal. "He was using all these junk materials and throwing things around in space."

Certifiable or not, the junk man was on to something. When he began practising as an architect in the early Sixties, there were no clear signs of what would consume his creative impulses a decade later. In those very early days, his designs for the Danziger Studio in Hollywood and the O'Neill hay barn in San Juan Capistrano were merely interesting twists on modernism. If anything, his furniture designs were more telling: the Easy Edges chairs made of gloopily compacted cardboard, and lamps shaped like fish and coiled, diamond-backed rattlesnakes.

The Damascene conversion came in 1978, just as the rest of the architectural world was queueing to get into classical postmodernism. Gehry, using his own home as a kind of crash test dummy, ram-raided modernism instead. He literally deconstructed the place, disarranging elements of it and knitting it together with apparently absurd materials - chainlink fencing, for example, and other "found" bits and pieces.

Why? In a seductively argued essay in Gehry Talks, recently published by Thames & Hudson, the architectural critic Michael Sorkin suggests that "what's probably most important is the influence of anxiety. It was art, and Los Angeles, that saved Gehry from the seemingly inescapable consequences of universalism."

And this rings true. On Wednesday, sitting with coffee and biscuits in one of the Disney Concert Hall's upper lobbies, he said: "The guys who first supported me were artists. I hung out with them. I still see them. Ed Moses [the American Abstract artist] - I still revere him."

Moses was one of an astute band of artists who knew Gehry had released something potent when clients began to pay him to wilfully discombobulate their hip, oceanside homes. Moses, Claes Oldenburg, Cooseje van Bruggen, Robert Irwin - they all "got" it. So did the legendary furniture designers, Charles and Ray Eames, who came on a flying visit to see what all the fuss was about.

The roots of Gehry's architectural strangeness in the late Seventies are not too difficult to untangle. From an early age, there seemed to be some kind of inquisition in progress, a questioning of normality. His mother encouraged his neophytic interest in art, but it wasn't enough. When Gehry was 16, he attended a lecture at the University of Ontario, "and a wonderful man from Finland showed us a chair. I remembered the lecture, and later realised that the man was Alvar Aalto. I loved him. I loved the lecture."

Gehry was escaping his working-class expectations. His father, who sold slot machines before going bankrupt, bullied him; it was the same story at school in north Ontario. By the time he was 10, Gehry was working part-time in his grandfather's hardware store, where he particularly enjoyed taking apart and reassembling toasters and clocks. And Granny Caplan captivated him by bringing wood shavings home and sculpting them into houses.

In 1947, the family moved to Los Angeles, into a two-room apartment downtown, on Ninth and Burlington. Later on, when Gehry left the Harvard Graduate School of Design - which he didn't think much of - this assuredly meant that he was in the right place at the right time. California was a hotbed of architectural modernism so sharp that even its shadows threatened to draw blood.

And it meant that he could meet the people who mattered, the New Frontier architects: Raphael Soriano, Richard Neutra, Harwell Harris. He told me he liked Soriano best. Why? "Because he waved his arms around and shouted: 'You do this! You do that!'." Despite having these contacts, though, whatever architectural sedition Gehry was harbouring was kept under wraps. He was working for worthy practices such as Pereira & Luckman and Victor Gruen Associates; mall designs were part of his design diet.

It must have rankled. "I try things on," he said, "like I used to when I was a kid. I do it all the time. I get to know it. I assimilate it, and then it comes out some other way ­ translated. I used to be a symmetrical freak, a grid freak. I used to follow grids, and then I started to think and realised that those were chains ­ that Frank Lloyd Wright was chained to the grid, that grids are an obsession, a crutch. You don't need that if you can create spaces and forms and shapes. That's what artists do. They don't have grids and crutches ­ they just do it."

It's a telling remark, and shows a democratic frame of mind. Gehry's wide-angle absorption of stimuli ruptures the "Architects-R-Us" cliquishness of his profession. It also reflects an inclusiveness, particularly of people and ideas. He prefers to love his clients, literally. If it isn't a love thing, he drops the project; if the project is completed and there's a falling out, he won't visit it.

In some ways, his mind still works like a 10-year-old's. Take this riff, for example: "I think my ideas are derived more from painting than sculpture. But I'm all over the place. Whenever I go into a museum, I fall in love with something ­ Botticelli's Primavera, for example ­ but each time I see it differently from the first time... When I drive, I'm listening to Proust now. I read Proust 30 years ago. I wasn't ready. Now I just go nuts. I play it over and over. Now I'm listening to Trollope ­ The Warden, and the Barchester series. I hear the descriptions of the parties, and they're architecture."

There's a distinct voracity in the way Gehry sees the world, and takes it on. He may not have tumbled Proust the first time, but his gleaming, swooped and scooped madeleines have become the crucial architectural icons of the new millennium. Buildings such as the Guggenheim Bilbao, the Bard College Centre for the Performing Arts in Annandale-on-Hudson, and the interior of the DZ Bank in Berlin, are completely seductive ­ not just because they're physically riveting, but because they are delighfully nonconformist.

Gehry has an agenda ­ a kind of Whitmanesque pluralism ­ but he reveals it in a gentle way. The acutely cerebral Libeskind riddles his buildings with mathematically delineated meanings, usually associated with loss and memory. Gehry messes around interminably with models in his studio. In this respect, he's just like one of the the high priests of mid-century modernism, Mies van der Rohe. "It's like watching paint dry. I stare at it for weeks. It's not mathematical, it's intuitive. We made hundreds of models for the Disney Concert Hall, hundreds."

The way he won the competition for the DZ Bank probably infuriated the other significant players. It was, though, a typical Frank gig. "I started to play with the space," he recalled, "and I realised I couldn't solve it in time for the competition. I had this beautiful horse-head shape here in the studio, and it worked. So I adapted it and said: 'We'll change it later. They're not going to like it, but at least it's a finished thing. and it will look finished.' So we put it in and they loved it." Exactly the kind of laidback rationale you'd expect to hear from a no-nonsence guy who also insists that "every architect that's any good, no matter what they say, is trying to make some kind of personal mud pie."

The mud pie at the corner of Grand Avenue and First Street is certainly personal, a molten acropolis for downtown LA that took 17 years to bring to fruition. It is hugely significant in terms of its influence on the design of the Guggenheim Bilbao, which clearly drew from the daring forms that Gehry was already startling Walt Disney's widow, Lillian, with. "Lillian showed me pictures of buildings with thatched roofs and little ducky ponds, and I said I'd incorporate some of these things." Her love of flowers was specifically incorporated by Gehry into key forms in the internal structure of the concert hall.

"They were out to get me here," he said, "because I'm the local guy. And they think I'm chain-linking. So they started a barrage at me. Finally, I said: 'I don't care if it's toothpicks.' If you want me to look at it in metal, I'll do it. So I just took two weeks off and designed it in metal, and they all love it now."

Is it a great building? Well, it's a Gehry, and so you get more than a building ­ you get a new mindset. You look at it and accept immediately that, of course, there's no problem with a form that conflates fishes and folds of cloth and sails, or that such an unlikely combination of shapes should seem beautiful. The interior is, in places, ravishingly satisfying.

It's an antidote to the mundane chaos of the city, to the Exclusive Collision Centre in Century City, to Arby's Melts ("Get five for just $5"), All Greenwood's Bedstead Kingdom, Kent Shocknek being serious on CBS television news, and to being told in an advertisement for a feminine product, that "women with a uterus have an increased risk of uterine cancer".

Tomorrow night, Hollywood's A-list pitches up for a red carpet night out at the Disney Concert Hall. They may not, though, be as significant to Gehry as the mixed-bag coterie he hauled along to a warm-up show recently ­ "all the architects in LA, all the waiters at the restaurant I go to, all the guys at Gold's gym."

Nicole and Arnie and Catherine Z-J will meet a small, spry 74-year-old man whom Bob Geldof referred to as "a little dumpling" at the opening of the architect's Maggie Centre in Dundee recently. As they drink their Ernest Gallo chardonnay ("the preferred wine of the Los Angeles Philharmonic") Gehry might be thinking, not of them, but of folds of fabric and embracing arms.

"When you're a baby," he mused, "you're in your mother's arms, and it's comforting." In the City of Angels, the architectural Madonna of Grand Avenue reminds us that, sometimes, buildings are like Granny Caplan. They make something happen ­ something rather kindly, and something that's distinctly mysterious.

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