'This one is MEANT to leak.'

Frank Gehry gets prickly: “It’s not just plop”. Exclusive interview.

I’m sitting opposite Frank Gehry over breakfast in an impossibly pretty sunlit town square in Arles, Provence. He’s here to launch the plans for his “Parc des Ateliers” project, described as a cultural Utopia. But I’m staring at a set of squiggles he’s just drawn in my notebook, and wondering if I should ask him to sign them. He’d reached for a pen, as architects in conversation do, and started sketching away. “I’m doing these pop-up stores for Bono,” he explains. “They’re for his Product Red company. I’m really excited by them. They’re like pieces of jigsaw.”

So he draws a piece of jigsaw, slowly and carefully. Simple enough. A square with a circular bite taken out of it on one side, and two equivalent circular tabs sticking out of two other sides. Then, moving much faster, he draws how that bit twists and interlocks with other bits. Finally he engages warp drive. His hand becomes a frenzied blur. “That’s what it’s going to look like,” he says, putting the pen down. The shapes left on the smoking page could be dancing figures, snowcapped mountains, a line of trees, blossoming flowerbuds, leaping salmon, marching elephants – you know how it is with Frank Gehry buildings. You see in them whatever you want to see.

I’m left with no real idea what Bono’s stores – profits from which go to provide AIDS-tackling drugs to Africa – are going to look like, but I’m wondering what the squiggles might fetch on eBay, if auctioned for the cause. Because Frank Gehry is the most famous architect on earth, and has been ever since he completed the titanium-clad Bilbao Guggenheim over a decade ago. Amazingly, this tubby, tanned little silver-haired man is 80 next February, yet has millions more Web mentions than any of his rivals, living or dead. Brad Pitt has worked with him. (“He’s interested in architecture – he came by. He’s a sweetheart guy.”) He’s been on The Simpsons, the ultimate barometer of fame – and is so proud of his Springfield doppelganger that he shows me a picture of his yellow cartoon self that he keeps stored on his phone. And now, he’s just built his own house in London’s Hyde Park. Sort of.

Actually, it’s officially this year’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, latest in the ambitious annual series of commissions that they like to hand out to starchitects who haven’t yet built over here. Though Gehry has previously done a rather good Maggie’s cancer support centre in Dundee, that was deemed not to count, that being in Scotland. As usual, he’s come up with something eye-rubbingly odd – great baulks of timber at crazy angles set high in the air, bristling with spiky steel, beneath which are slung big overlapping panels of glass. This is without doubt the most over-designed gazebo in the history of the world, and it doesn’t try too hard to keep the rain and wind out, either. I like it.

“Does it look like an ancient Roman catapault?” asks Gehry, leaning forward with mock anxiety. “That’s where it came from. We’re storming the British Empire. We’re coming back.” Well, now you come to mention it, Frank – yes it does look like some mighty siege engine, hurling gobbets of challenging art from in front of the normally well-mannered little Serpentine Gallery. “I don’t know why that came to mind in doing this project, but it was definitely the first thing that came to mind,” he reflects. Be aware that “I don’t know” is Gehry’s favourite refrain, his dry response to most questions about why he does things the way he does. It’s like Bob Dylan fobbing off questions about the meaning of his lyrics. It’s his way of saying he works intuitively, is no cold rationalist. It’s the response of an artist more than an architect, but he is highly sensitive to the charge that what he does is sculpture rather than buildings. “I work from the inside out,” he says. “Ask my clients.”

As for keeping the weather out – summer storms traditionally greet the unveiling of the Serpentine pavilions, and they usually leak, sometimes spectacularly – well, Frank asked about that. “I said – what about keeping the rain out? Julia (Peyton-Jones, director of the Serpentine) said, no problem. Then she phoned me later and said – ‘but Frank, I have one little problem. It rains a lot'”. He raises his eyes heavenwards and makes a strangulated noise of frustration. “This one is meant to leak. Everyone should bring an umbrella.”

But as usual with Gehry, it’s not as simple as his storming-the-empire line might suggest. Those great angled baulks of timber – ah, he says, he’d used that idea first in a house he designed for himself, but never built. “So I guess I built my house at the Serpentine.” Right, I say. But here we are in Arles, where you are designing a new artists’ district for philanthropist and arts dynamo Maja Hoffmann, and your models appear to show similar big framed timber devices. “Oh, that’s just Edwin Chan, who works with me,” he laughs. “Don’t assume I’m going to do that. Edwin always takes the stuff I’m working on and puts it in everything else when I go out. Then I have to come back and re-do it..He’s always doing that to me”.

This tells you a lot about how Frank Gehry works. Everything is designed by him – that’s his company’s proud boast – yet he employs around 175 people. What do they do? They play around with scraps of wood, plastic, card, paper. Frank is perversely proud of being computer-illiterate, remarkably given that he runs a world-class computer-design business called Gehry Technologies, used by other leading architects such as Zaha Hadid. He contributes an idea, and goes out. His assistants try to work it up in the Gehry manner. And then he comes back, tells them they’ve got it wrong, and alters everything. Slowly, a workable design emerges from this trial-and-error process. And when Frank’s happy – then the mighty computers finally get to work, scanning the models, creating templates the real buildings can be built from.

“I hate that computer-design look,” he says dismissively, and rightly. “I like to feel the actual models in my hands.” And the models he makes are changing. They used to be all sinuous curves, part-inspired by the fluid,muscular shapes of fish and duly covered in scales of titanium or stainless steel or glass. Look at the Bilbao Guggenheim or the Walt Disney concert hall in Los Angeles or a dozen other Gehry buildings, all rippling and twinkling in various ways. But now – he seems to have gone all chunky, stacking up boxes in his latest designs. When you got close to them, there was always a rough-and-ready side to Gehry’s buildings, belied by their shimmering outward form. Now, they’re getting interestingly primitive. Why? “I look at this, and I think – maybe I’m commenting on that other architecture that’s coming out at the moment, that’s all smooth and voluptuous, very computer-driven. If so, it’s done with a sense of humour, rather than being a polemic.”

Thus we come to the reason we are enjoying the summer sun in Arles. Gehry has dropped by to talk about his emerging masterplan – a work in progress – for what is ambitiously being called a “cultural Utopia”. This is the Parc des Ateliers, which at present is a sprawling collection of former railway repair workshops, conveniently close to the centre of this ancient sun-baked Provencal city. In recent years, some of the buildings have been taken over – in some cases lightly converted – for arts use. The feel is not dissimilar to China’s edge-of-Beijing arts district, as colonized in recent years by artists and dealers.

Hoffmann is a scion of the Swiss-based Hoffmann-Roche pharmaceuticals dynasty who lives in the Camargue. Her LUMA Foundation, devoted to photography and film, is behind the project. She and Gehry see the 14-hectare site becoming a campus development in a public park. Three of the buildings are existing: the fourth – Gehry’s stack of blocks – will be the new LUMA building, which will include exhibition space, artists’ residences and a rooftop restaurant with views across the Camargue. The cost of the whole venture is estimated at around 100 million Euros.

“These are the first ideas. Some of them are controversial, some of them are stupid, some of them are OK,” Gehry had said at the launch. “No-one has to get upset.” And a work in progress it most certainly was – a succession of largely wood-block models, offering various configurations of the site. Whether it makes sense to convert what is at present the largest building on the site – a railway shed of cathedral-like scale – into what is effectively a covered car park is no doubt one of Frank’s little provocations. Stupid, controversial, or OK? To be fair, in that iteration the building would have had other uses as well. Whatever, this is Gehry’s way to test reactions. In general, the Parc des Ateliers scheme is interesting and above all appropriate. Gehry originally thought of a taller new building there, he says, but changed his mind when he got to grips with the context. In this landscape of mighty Roman structures, its block-piled-on-block rationale makes more sense than you might imagine. As do those siege-catapault grace-notes, if Gehry lets Chan keep them in. Oh, and note this – it’s a Gehry masterplan, where other architects are expected to take part over time. That’s unusual for a man associated very much with the one-off buiding.

His current chunky mode may be a passing phase, he warns. Indeed, his design for another Guggenheim – this time in Abu Dhabi, one of a string of starchitect-designed new cultural buildlings for the Emirate – reverts to fluidity, making dramatic use of cone shapes. Abu Dhabi represents the present culmination of the icon-building craze, which is something that Gehry’s none too keen on. “It’s like a group grope,” he says. “People choose one building by me, one by Norman Foster, one by Zaha, one by Jean Nouvel, one by Daniel Libeskind. It becomes a cabinet of horrors. That’s what they’re doing in Abu Dhabi.”

Strong words from someone who might be said to have revived the icon-building fad as a type in the 1990s, but that’s not quite what he means, as usual. “Public buildings deserve to have a certain level of iconicity and personality,” he says. “Historically, that’s what makes them define the cities and communities they’re in.” However, he’s plainly not so keen on a jostling scrum of them. Besides, it depends where the plum site is, and in Abu Dhabi, it’s his. “Had I been given Zaha’s or Nouvel’s sites there, I wouldn’t have accepted the project,” he says. “I don’t know why they did. They gave me this point right out on the edge so I’m totally alone and it’s fine. I’m doing Mont St. Michel.” When I get back home, I look up the designs. It’s like his siege-catapault remark, entirely apt. He is indeed building a modern Mont St. Michel out in the Persian Gulf.

But doesn’t he feel in any way responsible for the icon-building frenzy, I persist? This riles him, and he shoots right back: “The only regret I have is that literate journalists say that. The presumption is that we’re illiterate, and I don’t like that. I mean, I read books, I listen to music, I study a lot of things. And it’s not just…plop.”

He knows where this is headed: criticism of funny-shapeism in architecture. And he’s right – his buildings aren’t just plop. Love ’em or not, you have to concede that they’re impressively thought through. It’s lesser talents who do plop, and that’s what I was getting at. But suddenly, on this sunny July morning in Arles, coffee and croissants in front of us, Gehry is getting into a bit of a strop. Later he asks who I write for, and starts muttering about an English critic who “really hates me”. Intrigued, I run through the names of my various colleagues. He keeps shaking his head. It occurs to me that I was once a bit rude about his Disney Hall in LA. Has he remembered?

The cloud passes. Real icon-buildings are one thing, fevered imitations are another, he agrees. “The distortion now – turning that into a hysteria – is sort of stupid. And the people who promote that are stupid. And you can quote me.” We discuss his other projects – he likes doing little commissions, like designing a sailing boat, or jewellery. He’s designed some for a female tennis star, for instance, he says, and names her. At which point his assistant, wearing rather fetching Gehry-designed silver bangles, intervenes to remind him that this is, ahem, confidential. So I can tell you no more about the lovely Ms. X’s forthcoming adornments. But it shows you what a brand Gehry has become.

We consider the rocky ride he’s had in Britain. Two buildings so far – one temporary – plus plans for a housing scheme and sports centre in Hove that got so compromised, he quit. Of the Battle of Hove, he feels let down. All he will say is “something went on there that I don’t completely understand.” Meanwhile, he designed both the Maggie’s Centre in Dundee, and the Serpentine pavilion, for free. “So in Britain it’s zero for zero in terms of my financial rewards. I’m not complaining.”

Gehry in his 80th year still has a way to go to match the productive longevity of Frank Lloyd Wright or Oscar Niemeyer, co-designer of Brasilia – still busy at 100. So – what are his plans? This makes him a bit Eeyorish again, but he rallies. His son Sam – “a budding architect” worked with him on the Serpentine, “I like to let the kids start things. Then I jump in and play with them.”

He admits that he can’t imagine doing anything else. And that insecurity drives him as much as anything. “When Bilbao finished, ten years ago, nobody asked me to do another museum, until now. When I finished the Disney concert hall five years ago, nobody asked me to do another concert hall. It’s not important, it’s only curious. My friend Peter Sellars (the theatre director) says – they didn’t ask Wagner to write another Ring Cycle. But I don’t think that’s the reason.”

So what is the reason? “When people choose an architect, they also choose a style. But if they pick me, they know they’re not going to get that. So they don’t know what they’re going to get, so they don’t take the chance. They think I don’t listen. They think I just do THIS – ” – and he crumples up a piece of paper in his fist and throws it down, just like his Simpsons alter ego did. “If someone took the time to ask my clients, they’d find out it’s quite the opposite.”

Is he ever overawed by his own work, I ask? Was it hard to get past the triumph of Bilbao? “If I get self-conscious about that, I’m dead,” he replies. “I just assume I’ll continue to push myself. I’m very insecure. I never expect that the building I’m doing is going to be great. And so I try – and it is what it is. I’ve been lucky.”

We’ve sat unnoticed in the square, but now it’s time for Frank’s next press conference, and he strolls off in the sun to meet the great and good of the French arts scene. I open my notebook, and find his sketches there. But who’s going to believe me? They’re unsigned.

The Serpentine Pavilion by Frank Gehry in London’s Hyde Park is open to the public from Sunday July 20. www.serpentinegallery.org

A longer version of the article first published in The Sunday Times, London, on 13 July 2008 as “He’s still bristling with ideas”. Text and portrait of Frank Gehry © Hugh Pearman. Image of Parc des Ateliers, Arles, courtesy of the LUMA Foundation and Gehry Partners LLP. Model photo of Serpentine Gallery Pavilion courtesy of the Serpentine Gallery/Gehry Partners LLP. Frank Gehry notebook sketches by himself. Really.