Gehry returns to Yale to teach graduate seminar

Frank O. Gehry — adored by the critics and revered by the press — may be designing Princeton’s new library. But Yale has the man himself, and has for years.

As he has periodically since 1979, Gehry is teaching an advanced studio class for 12 students at the School of Architecture, commuting between his California firm and New Haven.

“He’s one of the great architects — what a great privilege to get to know him,” said Architecture School Dean Robert A. M. Stern, himself one of the field’s more notable figures.

The project for Gehry’s class this year is to create a suitable one-room memorial space to stand on the World Trade Center site.

At first, Gehry said Thursday, he did not plan to address Sept. 11. But, inspired by a news conference by former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, he changed his mind.

Gehry said a speech by fellow Pritzker Prize-winning architect Philip Johnson formed the the backbone of his course: the idea that the most important buildings are one-room spaces. Such a meeting space, he said, would be an appropriate memorial.

“It’s a charged emotional scene you’re coming to,” Gehry said.

In February, Gehry and the students will visit Turkey to see Hagia Sophia and other mosques. Turkey’s mosques, he said, are precisely the kind of space where students should find inspiration.

The project should be a challenging one.

“This has to be a damn good piece of work,” Gehry said. “It forces you into your own vocabulary.”

Since the construction of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Gehry’s star has shone so brightly it seems worth asking whether students might be overawed by his presence in the classroom.

“His judgement carries a lot of weight,” said Gordon Kipping, Gehry’s co-teacher and protege. “There’s an awe that he exudes that rubs off on people.”

Kipping said many students look to an architect of Gehry’s stature for affirmation, as though his blessing would lead automatically to success in the field. Nevertheless, Kipping said Gehry does not temper his comments.

“He’s pretty straight with his criticism,” he said.

Rather, Stern and Gehry said, the class can serve as a useful apprenticeship, what Stern described as a “master class” for the next generation’s leaders. Gehry, who is 72, said he went through a similar process coming out of college.

“When you get out of school you pick a hero and follow him until you get your sea legs,” he said.

Which is not to say that he thinks people will, or should, imitate his style.

“We don’t want little Frank Gehrys, and I don’t think that Frank Gehry wants that either,” Stern said.

Gehry will only be present in the studio for six days this spring, although he will occasionally hold video conferences from his Los Angeles office. The lack of contact with his students, he said, makes it difficult to get to know them.

“I’ve really turned down 99 percent of teaching offers because it’s not gratifying,” Gehry said, adding that the demands of running a successful firm made it nearly impossible to commit any more time.

Kipping said the result of being paired with such a beloved architect, whose visits are infrequent, made him feel like the “dragon” of the studio.

“It makes it difficult for me because he’s so inspiring,” he said. “The overall sense is, ‘Your name is not Frank Gehry.’”

Gehry’s passion for teaching, Kipping said, is making it hard for the studio leader, too.

“When he left, he was saying, ‘I don’t want to leave, I love these kids,’” Kipping said.

And Gehry left no doubt as to why he choose to accept Yale’s teaching opening.

“I love Yale the best of all,” he said.

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