Starchitect Frank Gehry on Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the emotion of architecture

The award-winning architect spoke to a packed auditorium at the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi

Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of Abu Dhabi's Department of Culture and Tourism, in conversation with architect Frank Gehry, who designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Gehry Partners. Victor Besa / The National
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Frank Gehry’s structures have transformed cities. His name is synonymous with great art and the power architecture has on our daily lives.

And at 93, he is a powerhouse of knowledge and influence, with no plans to stop working any time soon.

While in conversation with Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of the Department of Culture and Tourism — Abu Dhabi, during the second day of the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi, Gehry discussed how he became an architect, the methodology that has fuelled his illustrious career and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

He told a packed auditorium that he started his artistic practice studying ceramics as a young man and “was terrible at it”. His teacher at the time took him to a house under construction in California, where an architect was instructing steel workers on what to do.

“I got all excited,” Gehry said. “And so I went back and took the class in architecture and I did really well. I didn't know what I was doing, but I did well.”

The starchitect has done more than just "well" over the course of his career.

From the first building he designed for a graphic designer in California — that he describes as a “plaster box, very simple” and which still stands today as an art gallery — to his deconstructivist structures, Gehry’s work not only inspires architects of his and future generations, but emotionally moves people.

From the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and The Dancing House in Prague, Gehry has been prolific in his creations. No matter where they are in the world or their function, his structures are designed with the culture and heritage of the land they are built on in mind, and yet hold in their visual vocabulary, which is Gehry’s unmistakable emotive and monumental style.

Scroll through the gallery below to see more of Frank Gehry's structures

When considering the intention behind how, and more importantly why, he infuses emotions into his buildings, it is interesting to note one of his early inspirations was The Charioteer of Delphi, a life-sized bronze sculpture from ancient Greece.

When Gehry first observed the ancient work he was emotionally affected and cried, especially when he realised it was attributed to "artist unknown".

“In my office, I have a picture of The Charioteer behind my desk, because it reminds me of the importance of expressing feeling with materials,” he said.

“And if that guy could last hundreds of years and still make me cry…”

Abu Dhabi’s dream and Gehry’s vision will meld together with the creation of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, located on Saadiyat Island.

Gehry explained in the session that when he came to Abu Dhabi 20 years ago to start working on the project, it was challenging to think of a design when, at the time, the capital’s cityscape was completely different.

Yet through his observations of the people, elements and culture, he played around with ideas that struck a chord.

“I understood that the same form multiplied, was something that was part of the language of the architecture of the region,” Gehry said, referencing the echoing structures of minarets and domes in the building of mosques.

He firmly believes that “the most important thing is to be yourself” and “to remain curious” in order to find one’s own style as an architect or for any creative practitioner.

“Curiosity, I think is number one, right?” he asked. “I mean, you've heard that before. But I think that leads you to new ideas because new ideas grow out of the context of trying something new.”

Gehry also took a moment to praise the UAE not only for its curiosity and imagination, but also its vision.

He said vision is "the message of the miracle of your country".

“I've been watching it for 25 years now. Your people are looking forward.”

Scroll through the gallery below to see more from days one and two of the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi

Updated: October 27, 2022, 7:48 AM