What’s Behind Frank Gehry’s Raised Middle Finger to Contemporary Architecture?

Architect Frank Gehry’s raised many controversial buildings over the years, but few as controversial as the middle finger he recently raised during a press conference in Spain. During a press conference for Gehry’s upcoming receipt of the Prince of Asturias Prize from the hands of Spain’s King Felipe VI, a journalist touched a nerve when he asked if Gehry’s buildings were just about public relations-grabbing spectacle. Gehry glowered and raised the one-finger salute in response, a clear, if vulgar (and not necessarily international) sign of his displeasure with the pejorative title of “starchitect” he’s been saddled with over the years. Gehry’s gesture captured the headlines, but it was his response to the next question at that press conference where he really expressed his concern not over his reputation, but rather over the purpose of contemporary architecture itself.


A courageous journalist finally broke the long, awkward silence by asking Gehry if he thought that Gehry-esque “emblematic buildings” would continue to be built. Perhaps admiring how agilely the reporter danced around the “starchitect” word still hanging in the air, Gehry opened up: “Let me tell you one thing. In this world we are living in, 98% of everything that is built and designed today is pure shit. There’s no sense of design, no respect for humanity or for anything else. They are damn buildings and that’s it. Once in a while, however, a group of people do something special. Very few, but God, leave us alone. We are dedicated to our work. I don’t ask for work … I work with clients who respect the art of architecture. Therefore, please don’t ask questions as stupid as that one.”

It’s unclear whether Gehry’s stupid questions remark was aimed at the first, second, or both reporters, but it is clear that he sees a fundamental problem in contemporary architecture much bigger than him, his reputation, or his buildings. While many praise and pursue Gehry for “The Bilbao Effect”—the economic boom the faltering, former industrial city of Bilbao, Spain, enjoyed after the 1997 rise of architect Frank Gehry’s game-changing design for the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum—others criticize him for his unconventional designs that catch the eye but, they claim, fail to do much else. The Philadelphia Museum of Art recently staged an entire exhibition titled Making a Classic Modern: Frank Gehry’s Master Plan for the Philadelphia Museum of Art broadcasting their “master plan” for Gehry’s revitalization of their classic main building first opened in 1928 (which I wrote about here). Is Gehry really all sizzle and no steak for people hungry for meaningful architecture?

Gehry clearly believes he is making meaningful architecture. He contrasts his work against that with “no sense of design, no respect for humanity or for anything else.” For Gehry, a building is bad if “[t]hey are damn buildings and that’s it,” implying that other buildings (perhaps his) are more than just damn buildings. There’s a touch of un-starchitect humility in Gehry’s weary, “Once in a while, however, a group of people do something special. Very few, but God, leave us alone.” Gehry clearly includes himself in that happy few making “special” buildings, but also indirectly gives credit to those unnamed like minds that make up that humanist 2%.

I’d always struggled with finding meaning in modern architecture until I read Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness. de Botton’s signature combination of philosophy and psychology applied to architecture opened my eyes to how we live depends in part on where we live, work, play, and otherwise spend our time. Spending time in inspiring places can refresh the soul or challenge the mind. Conversely, as de Botton points out, the spare simplicity of a building such as Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye might be the perfect tonic for a world looking for order in post-war chaos.

The question people should ask isn’t whether Gehry is a “good” architect (with all the messy disagreements that question involves), but rather whether he’s providing that tonic for what ails the modern human. You can question Gehry’s means, but there’s no questioning his end of making buildings that say something rather than nothing, which, for Gehry, is the true unpardonable sin of architecture and not unconventionally curving walls that aren’t to everyone’s taste.

After the combative press conference, Gehry apologized for his behavior and cited the effects of jet lag on his 85-year-old body. But Gehry has no need to apologize for his passion for designing buildings with the individual in mind. Gehry takes heat for how vigorously his leaves his stamp on his designs, but I see that powerful individualism not as grandstanding but rather as passionate communication. Here I am, Gehry says in his buildings, and here you are, too.

It’s no accident that Ayn Rand chose to make the hero of The Fountainhead an architect. Rand may take individualism too far, but that doesn’t dismiss the fact that architects literally leave their personalities on our landscape as few others can. “The Bilbao Effect” isn’t about the cold economics of profit as much as about heating up communities chilled by economic and social circumstances. Whether Gehry’s “98%” is an accurate estimate or a jet-lagged exaggeration, the fact remains that anything that sheds light and heat on how our environment influences us—even a rude gesture—deserves a hearty thumbs up.

[Image: Frank Gehry speaking in 2007. Image source.]

Related Articles

Scientists sequence the genome of this threatened species

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

Surprising Science
  • A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
  • It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
  • Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

elephant by Guillaume le Clerc

Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons

13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.

It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.

Why cauliflower is perfect for the keto diet

The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.

Purple cauliflower. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
  • The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
  • It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
Keep reading Show less