Boldness and vision: Frank Gehry talks about creative risks and 'serious play' at UCSC Foundation Forum

Frank Gehry had a candid and engaging public discussion with the architectural critic Paul Goldberger at UCSC.

Frank Gehry is famous for his swirling and billowing designs, and his sense of "serious play."

During Friday's Foundation Forum, one of the featured events of UCSC's Founders Celebration, the legendary architect spoke about risk-taking and following his own creative path over a career that has spanned 60 years.

At the forum, Gehry, 84, who keeps copies of Don Quixote and Alice in Wonderland by his bedside for inspiration, spoke of the "kind of innocence" that infuses much of his work, in spite of budget constraints, deadlines, and the high profile of his work.

During his on-stage talk with Paul Goldberger, a leading architecture writer and contributing editor to Vanity Fair who is writing an authorized biography of Gehry, he spoke of the innocent truthfulness of children, and how he tries to infuse that spirit into his work, "and be willing to take the stuff that comes out at you for doing that."

Asked about the role of play in his work, Gehry, among the honorees of this year's Founders Celebration, remarked, "We do 'play' with ideas. We test things out. The most incredible people in business are creative. They are artists … exploring. It's all about play in a sense—but it is serious play."

His blithe comment about the "stuff that comes out at you" was his way of acknowledging controversy he's weathered over the years.

Though it is now regarded as a masterwork, his Walt Disney Concert Hall, in downtown Los Angeles, was once likened to "broken crockery.

And though it is now recognized as a force that single-handedly revived the economy of Bilbao, Spain, his Guggenheim museum there once led to a violent and ugly denunciation in the Spanish media, along with an invitation to "kill the architect."

In a 1994 profile in the New Yorker magazine, the writer Lawrence Weschler—a distinguished UC Santa Cruz alumnus—remarked on Gehry's "aesthetic of juts and jumbles; he seldom shows any particular allegiance to the perpendicular." Weschler mentioned Gehry's use of "chance alignments," "negative spaces," and "disorderly order."

Over the years, he has worked hard not to repeat himself, following an ever-changing process that has much to do with the wants and needs of his clients, along with a boundless ambition. Once again he defeated expectations by revealing the design for a new Facebook campus in Menlo Park—a marked departure from previous works. Gehry interacted playfully with the audience, answering their questions in detail, and pointedly asking people in the crowd if they considered him an "expensive" architect. "Tell me the truth!" he said. When a large number of hands went up, Gehry assured them that he never comes in over-budget unless a client adds extra amenities "or because of cataclysmic circumstances."

He also emphasized that his designs are "spaces for people. That is the number one priority. I don't want them to have to stand on their head to look out the window."

The university later awarded Gehry its Foundation Medal at a gala dinner held at the Cocoanut Grove in Santa Cruz. The medal—UCSC's closest equivalent to an honorary degree—recognizes individuals of exceptionally distinguished achievement whose work and contribution to society exemplify the vision and ideals of the university.

Gehry was recognized as an outstanding exemplar of the 2013 Founders Celebration theme of "Creativity, Innovation and the Arts" for his exuberant creativity, openness to collaboration, willingness to take risks, and his love of the interplay of the arts.