‘Sketches of Frank Ghery’ (2005) could have been a lesson in how to observe model making… but wasn’t

March 2, 2008

The film Sketches of Frank Ghery is a feature documentary about a movie director – academy award winner Sydney Pollack – who seeks to capture the singular genius of a man who is arguably the world’s most prominent architect.  Taken from this point of view the film is nothing more than it claims to be: Sydney Pollack thinks Frank Ghery is an amazing creative genius and goes about using cinomatographic imagery for admiring his long time friend.  What the two men share is a humble upbringing, and a deeply rooted sense of fragility about the trajectories that have brought them both to positions of eminence in their respective fields. (For a more conventional revew see here). 

The tone of the film is infused with Pollack’s vision of the artist as freestanding creative fount. As such, the main story follows Ghery around, but skims over all of the apparatuses that are relevant for carrying ‘an idea’ launched by the architect to its magnificent final fruition in a functioning three dimensional building.  The film give place to only one apparatus in materializing an architectural concept – the few black lines that Ghery will first jot down on paper.  These are the sketches featured in the film title and in the central imagery of the film.  After some interjection by Ghery’s analyst of 35 years explaining the great progress he has made towards unleashing the artist within, the film then leaps immediately from the man to a contemplation of complete or nearly complete buildings. 

How does Frank Ghery do it?  Like the film maker, the viewer is left at the end as mystified and as enchanted by Ghery’s work as when the film began.  As he trails his fingers over the woodwork of a building of his somewhere in Germany that he is seeing for the very first time, we see that even Ghery himself is awestruck at the transformation from concept to concrete.  He contemplatively explains that in his own life he will only have the chance to experience the finished product a handful of times.  The scene is amazing because what we see is the artist grappling to comprehend the emergence of his own creative magnificence.  The man himself does not know the secret of his own art. 

Financial markets like architecture have the feel of being massive things.  The difference is that unlike a financial market which can seem diffuse and difficult to locate, a piece of architecture is an obviously physical craft because the final products are so evidently available for visual and tactile inspection.  The Guggenheim rises impressively out of Bibao for everyone to see.  Given this overwhelming materiality tracking its process of production should be more accessible for social scientific analysis.  A building most certainly does not — just as with the emergence of finance – materialize directly out of an idea laid out on a sheet of paper.   

Because of the strong focus on ideas, few moments in the film are devoted to showing Ghery’s backstage work space and support team.  Little emphasis is placed on even the intermediate work that must actually be done to move an idea out of the architectural firm and into the wider world.  Nevertheless, material things do spring forth at key moments and peeking around the director’s narrative, one can not fail to notice how overwhelming present working objects are.  Of key importance in making new and unconventionally shaped buildings stand is an intricate process of miniature model building. Ghery explains that his team builds the models in several sizes so that he does not become enamoured by the models and remains focused on the goal is to build a full sized edifice.  The team explains how they use highly sophisticated technologies to convert the models into digital representations, that can be plotted precisely, re-visualized, and subject to structural analyses.  

Pollack is clearly charmed by Ghery’s ability to direct the team to manipulate the models with his hands loosely folded over his chest.  The maestro’s position is such that he does not touch a pair of scissors much less a computer, which only reinforces his status as a pure talent, a genuine brain in a box (see Helene Mialet’s work on Stephen Hawking for an equivalent figure in theoretical physics).  Ghery’s attention to the importance of working as a ‘team’ is a signal of his modesty – he fully admits that without them he couldn’t build the models himself – but he does not go as far as to share the responsibility for innovation with the others.  He alone is the creator; the rest is ‘just technology’. 

In stark contrast, what the presence of the team signals to a social scientist attentive to material production, however, is that the innovative process is not solely in Ghery’s hands.  Rather the building is assembled out of and distributed over many people from associated designers, to clients, to engineers, to workmen placing rivets onsite…  In one magnificent shot, Pollack pans over the Ghery workshop from a birds-eye view, and for a few delicious seconds the viewer gains access to the enormity of the specialized technical staff that supports the execution of his architectural production.  In this space the idea begins to amplify out of mind to sketch, through numerous stages – models, digitized images, geometrical calculations and so on – as it passes on the first leg of its journey into full-sized three-dimensional space. 

In the film’s most intense scene, Ghery recalls having viewed in a museum a striking ancient statue marked: ‘artist unknown’.  His response to the perceived historical injustice of this invokes a deeply emotional response in which he speaks out in favour of ‘democracy’.  For him ‘democracy’ involves attributing art to its makers by name.  I could not agree more.  As I contemplated what another movie about architecture that took practices seriously might have looked like, I found myself admiring the long lists of credits that rolled behind the film…

2 Responses to “‘Sketches of Frank Ghery’ (2005) could have been a lesson in how to observe model making… but wasn’t”

  1. yuvalmillo Says:

    Martha – great review! After reading this, I know that this is definitely a film I would want to watch. Just a quick comment, there is a lingual/pragmatist notion that you imply to here, and that is (if we make it explicit) that buildings, like markets, or computers are social machines: they aim to influence and regulate human behaviour, and, not incidentally, I would think, the term ‘architecture’ is used in all three realms.

  2. javier Says:

    Interesting post. As someone who grew up in Bilbao and had to walk by the construction site every day on the way to school I have oftened marvelled at the ability of this building – and its design & construction process – to become progressively idealized. To the point where it gave rise to a “Bilbao effect” that is probably more famous by now than the city itself…

    The “origins tale” of the building, particularly of its counter-intuitive location in a derelict part of the city, supports your analysis. People often repeat how, one day, Fran Gehry went up to one of the moutains surrounding Bilbao, looked over, and immediately identified the perfect site for the museum – against the plans of the presumably uninspired city officials, who wanted a more conventional structure in a more conventional part of the city. He then proceeded to draw the basic sketch on a napkin, etc. I have heard other versions: that the spot was chosen by Thomas Krens, former director of the Guggenheim Foundation, while he was jogging in the middle of the night (?) up and down the bridge that arches over the riverbank.

    I think it’s interesting how the role of city officials is consistently erased in all these stories. When, if we try to put ourselves in their shoes, 20 years ago, the idea of building a Guggenheim museum in a crisis-ridden industrial zone in unglamorous northern Spain is actually pretty innovative…

    My 2 cents.

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