Small stocky figure in navy costume, very white hair, the back is obviously his straitjacket. It is enough for the conversation to interest him so that his bluish eye lights up and he leaves this circumspection of facade, as if an eternal young man were hidden inside the old master. Disruptive, leaving his assistant Meghan to check names, dates and facts, he released his iPhone to show his half-Korean daughter-in-law, the yacht he designed for a Californian friend or this first Korean project in Seoul, Cheongdam-dong Avenue in the ultramodern district of Gangnam, south of the Han River.
Gehry was inspiredelements of traditional Korean architecture and culture, such as the 18th-century Hwaseong Fortress, or the plunging movements and immaculate costumes of dancers performing dongnae hakchum or dance of the crane. Incisive, the architect of Los Angeles, born Frank Owen Gehry in 1929, in Toronto, Canada, often takes side roads or accelerates the pace to spin his idea. He is used to being followed, even obeyed like a master who has seen everything.
LE FIGARO. – Compared to Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, which you imagined in 2014, this Louis Vuitton Maison Seoul is miniature. Did you appreciate the change of scale?
Frank GEHRY.- I liked the idea of thinking about the concept of a store. In my young life, I worked for Victor David Gruen, an American commercial architect, who was doing some shopping. So I participated in teamwork. Michael Burke (CEO of Louis Vuitton and member of the executive committee of LVMH, Ed) understands what a shop is. Louis Vuitton has perfected its brand through its stores. So what do you have to bring to something that is already almost perfect? Bernard Arnault told me about this project just after the Foundation. My first sketch started from the glass walls forming a cape around the store. We did not like it. We made many models before deciding that the glass should integrate the facade. At the Louis Vuitton Foundation, the glass walls are double. Here, there is only one. It must withstand the climate of Seoul (humid continental, of the same type as in New York, summers marked by high heat and humidity, and harsh winters), be waterproof and remain an attractive phenomenon as in Paris.
What do you like in South Korea?
I know Seoul well, I did not build anything there, but I worked in the first museums of Ms. Lee, the wife of the president of Samsung. I spent a lot of time there, visiting places with my Korean friends for guides. I fell in love with a fifteenth-century Confucian temple, the Jongmyo Shrine, of absolute beauty. The elders built a long, flat wall on the elevated platform on which the temple stands. A single step that must be straddled allows access to it. A wall of protection protects him (he immediately draws on the paper napkin). The temple is just a roof on this platform, the columns are superb. Pure architecture! I have always cultivated a passion for Japan, but, by comparison, Korea seems to me less decorative, harder and lively, interesting.
Why has Asia been so important in your architectural career?
I studied architecture right after the war. My teachers were veterans, returning from Japan. When they returned, Los Angeles built flags by the millions. With the wooden frames, it was easy to assimilate the ideas of Japanese architecture. One of the first houses I built in Los Angeles was like this, with its enclosed garden and central pavilion (Gehry immediately looks for the image in his phone). I had to wait a long time before I could go to Japan in Nara (capital of Japan between 710 and 784, the historical monuments of the ancient city were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1998). In 1989, I received the Pritzker Prize for Architecture. And, in 1992, the Praemium Imperiale with filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, who was very big for a Japanese. I know some of the Japanese architects.
Have you been understood and accepted faster in Asia?
I do not know. If so, it makes me happy. Even if today the question of being understood or loved no longer worries me (Laughter). It's true that Asia in general and Japan in particular have had a big impact on me. In 2003, I brought Gagaku, the set of registers of Japanese court music, which had never left the Archipelago, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and, all of a sudden, Los Angeles looked like Japan! As a student, I was part of a group of Gagaku as a percussionist. I intervened from time to time by striking a sound (laughs). My sister, who was a harpist in the university orchestra, introduced me to music. I became a music lover and they gave me this small and powerful role. A sensei (master) came from Japan to teach me how to breathe, which is not easy. In my life, I never knew how to play that Hawaiian guitar!
Do you go back to the buildings you created? Do you see, for example, the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain every time?
It's double-edged. Whenever I see one of my buildings, I want to erase something. If I had been a painter, I would have been the one of repentance and repainting! Francis Bacon destroyed all his surrealist period … This is the point common to all artists. You get older and you see your mistakes, even if no one else sees them. Maybe we need mistakes to feel human. In the Noh theater tradition, a slight imperfection is needed to create balance and beauty. It's a universal idea, actually. I often go back to Bilbao, they have become friends, they come to see me in Los Angeles. In New York, I go to the Disney Hall concerts, and in the tower I built where I have an apartment. I sometimes go to the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) from Toronto, because it's my hometown and I have family there. My favorite city is Paris, OK? (laughs) I lived here for a year, and it was a great experience. I often dream of moving here, but my agency is too big now and relocating would involve too much change. It remains a fantasy.
You are Russian by your father, Polish by your mother. Do you feel marked by this European heritage and Mitteleuropa?
The Russian vanguards and Malevich have always seemed extraordinary to me. I studied this movement a lot. I went to Russia, but it did not lead to a concrete project. No Frank Gehry building in Russia, nor in Poland! My father was born in New York, like most of his family who emigrated and lived in America. I was still living in Toronto when I was 16, when the survivors of Auschwitz arrived. They always had their tattoos. I did not want to know too much. I later went to Poland, and the Polish government gave me a list of the 30 members of my family who died of the Holocaust. From Russia, I did not ask for accounts, but I kept the literature, Tolstoy, War and peace, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, "everybody" (In french in the text).
Are you a great reader?
I read all the time, by car, everywhere, And then I stopped, I do not know why. Today, we can read on screen but technology is a problem for me …
Frank Gehry does not like technology?
We have the experience to use it big, not small. At the Vuitton Foundation, we have achieved crazy technical feats thanks to this technology, which is French in fact. We invented a software with Dassault. There are two ways to look at things. From a creative point of view, it's emotional and immediate. From an architectural point of view, my long experience is to understand the technology, the process, the program, the budget. From all of this, we make judgments. We make sure that the building is buildable, that it respects the wishes of the customer, the place, the costs. On the one hand, it's spontaneous, like the first draft in writing, and we do not even know where it comes from. On the other, it's reasoned. So, when we go to see the Vuitton Foundation, these two phenomena reappear. And for me, it's time for self-criticism.