Living in Frank’s house
The house is on a block between Pacific, which runs parallel to the beach, and Speedway — a filthy alleyway that gives on to the service entrances and dumpsters from the restaurants on the boardwalk. Marlowe stays here in Farewell My Lovely: “Outside cars honked on the alleyway they called the Speedway. Feet slithered on the sidewalks beneath my window.” Not that much has changed. If you buy meth on the boardwalk, the Speedway is where you squat behind a dumpster to smoke it. Most of the apartments are rentals, some still cheap. Mattresses get left out at the beginning of each calendar month and are sometimes sprayed with the words “Nothing Else Mattress”, which is funny, the first few times you see it.
I walked over to the house on my lunchbreak, established that it was for real, that the owner had commissioned it herself, was acting without an agent, as she had done since the 80s. I made offer on it there and then. I hadn’t asked the Mystical Sea Wonder, but I figured if I couldn’t talk her into living in a Gehry building by the ocean our life together was going to be unworkable.
Gehry’s early sketches were in the first room of the retrospective at LACMA. The place is one of two on the lot. The back house, which was intended as the owner’s residence is taller than ours. You can see the arrangement of the two, with one peering over the top of the other, was obvious to him even in the conception of the building. It’s striking, in fact, how much of the first draft has made it in to the final version. What insane confidence not to dismiss it for its sketchiness. How did Gehry get people people take him seriously, get them to execute the things he’d drawn on the back of a napkin? Not just his clients, but his draughtsmen and contractors? Like when did he stop having to explain people “No, not *like* that. Actually that”?
The building is in Gehry’s early style. It has the chainlink fence, the exposed beams and reinforced glass in commmon with his home in Santa Monica. It predates his use of computers, and his manipulation of its angles is more geometrical than organic — the kind of thing you could do with a slide rule and a set-square. The floorplan is rectangular, with a square lightwell running from the roof through the first floor (the second floor as they call it here) down to the living area on the ground floor. It’s the pane of this skylight, set at a diagonal, that you can see on the roof in his sketch.
We moved in with no furniture apart from a bed, a ping pong table and a folding stool. The downstairs, which is cool and shady in the summer, accommodated it perfectly. I would eat breakfast, write at the table and, when guests came over, we’d play ping pong. It was paradoxically spartan and playful. It was a lovely way to live. Now we keep the table on the roof. We do lose balls, but a pack of 60 is only $10 on Amazon. How decadent not to care, to paff them off the roof like a French aristocrat.
The Mystical Sea Wonder is the grandaughter of a Manhattan interior designer. He’s still alive and well, but at 92, doesn’t entertain as much as he used to. He sent us his duck-egg blue couches, duck-egg blue coffee table and a baroque antlered mirror. The dining chairs came from her parent’s New York apartment, unused since the 80s, she cleaned the white leather with saddle soap and the chrome with Coca-Cola. The dining table is a piece of varnished MDF on Burro saw horses, which, we discovered via the LACMA show is the exact arrangement used by Gehry at his practice in Marina del Rey.
At first this influx of furniture was unsettling. The Sea Wonder’s brother brings us a grill from San Diego, which we put, along with our bikes under the bougainvillea in the small, gravelled back garden. The house is quiet. We’re not 30 metres from the boardwalk, ground zero for all forms of craziness, but even on a Saturday afternoon in the summer, when the strip is heaving, it’s quiet here.
You can’t see the ocean, but on days when the surf is especially high you can hear it at night. There’s a log fire in the corner of the living room, which, along with the exposed beams and open stairways would contravene modern building codes. Grandfathered in like this, no one can take them from you. It’s only cold enough to build a fire for two months of the year here (I know, poor us), but on New Year’s Day I go surfing with Brother Sean at 6.00am. There are two other men at the breakwater at that time as well as a bottling seal. We come back and light the fire and feed it with the Douglas fir that the Mystical Sea Wonder has procured from a lumber yard in San Diego. As Vonnegut had it, ‘if this isn’t nice, then I don’t know what is.’
Living in Venice you’re closer to more of Gehry’s buildings than anywhere else in the world. From the excellent (the Chiat/Day Building on Main Street) to the ignoble (the Santa Monica mall, also on Main Street). His son Alejandro’s paintings were on sale for a time at the Love Shack, a retailer of outdoor furniture and boardwalk art, now defunct, on Lincoln Blvd. The pictures were bizarre in the extreme, showing female porno actresses in Roman centurion’s garb, or First World War uniforms, kissing against newsprint images of men in gas masks, or charioteers. Clearly he’d inherited his father’s conviction in his vision, but not his talent.
Dennis Hopper’s old place in Venice is shown in the old realtor’s photos with a living room big enough to store your Harleys in. It’s now occupied by a virtual reality studio. Zack Galafanakis apparently owns the row of three artists’ houses that Gehry built on Indiana. Google now have the Chiat Day building, but you can buy the conference table online. If you have 15K spare.
Maybe because he lives in LA Gehry understands privacy. The comfort of a high wall, or a chain link fence. Our blinds open thoughtfully from the bottom up — an arrangement that allows you to walk around naked, not that being naked is a huge problem here. Gehry doesn’t always exclude the outside viewer completely. We drive round to his house in Santa Monica, a generic Californian family home with a Gehrified superstructure, and I peer through the gaps in fence made from stacked railway sleepers, arranged at a slight angle to each other, through which you can see his damp, perfectly green lawn, and the rain on the limbs of the trees in his garden.
So many of the homes nearby make too much of their ocean view, you can look into their interiors from the boardwalk, see the unfriendly spaces, white and tiled, you can almost see the echo. Gehry vernacular, particularly at the scale of our house is human and thoughtful. Outside the back door we have a shower. I get money off my rent every time I get up in the morning to surf the breakwater and come back and stand under it, naked and steaming a few feet from the sidewalk. There is no roof on the main bathroom which ensures intimacy. A 70s utopia where one can continue an argument even while taking a shit.
My Dad comes to stay with us so I drive him from Venice to Grand Central Market. We walk up the hill to the Disney Concert Hall. Really these Downtown blocks are too long for pedestrians. This little cluster of buildings, the Broad, MOCA, The Disney Concert Hall and the LA Phil’s building, even the market, are as close as LA comes to a municipal arts district like the Southbank. I’ve only seen the Bilbao Guggenheim in pictures, but I can understand the tendency to see the Disney building as an attempt to tell a brilliant joke twice — it’s technically still good, but also a let down. In the Sydney Pollack film, Sketches of Frank Gehry, the architect talks about the feeling of exposure inherent in what he does. You can imagine him waking up in the middle of the night to worry about this part of himself that he’s left out here in the open in the middle of LA. To put anything out there, you have to get over your embarrassment, or maybe not get over it, but suppress it for long enough to do your work. It’s not gone forever, that feeling of crippling shame, only pushed down. Maybe for Gehry, whose shapes are so coprolytic, those sensations are especially intense.
He’s obviously made the sacrifices an artist has to make to be completely himself. His therapist suggested that he should make up his mind whether or not to leave his first wife. He packed his bags. Maybe that’s the lesson of Gehry, to be you most outlandish self, visibly, in public.
In the final room of the LACMA exhibition there were about 20 of Gehry’s models. The Guggenheim model, the model of the Chiat Day Building. The one that really moved me was John Baldessari’s new house in Venice. It presents a fairly blank side to the street, but from the models you can see it’s designed is built around a courtyard. A window stands out at the corner like the prow of a ship. It’s so thoughtful and personal, the model even contains a tiny version of one of Baldessari’s artworks. There is a feeling of getting the band back together — these two artists, who were doing something that might have ruined their lives, whose vision seemed crazy, who are now institutions.
The Baldessari house is the perfect reconciliation of the early style, combined with the smooth-as-shit Guggenheim stuff, the corporate stuff. It feels like two old friends talking, discussing the weirdness of success. A joke about the price of a double lot, on the corner, in the leafy part of Venice called Oakwood, once known as Ghost Town.
At certain times of the year the moon is visible through the triangular skylight that intrudes a foot into our bedroom ceiling, our own Incan oculus. We play a game where the house is ours, that we stumbled upon it and bought at a moment when the market was low, maybe in the aftermath of a tsunami, or an alternate reality where the earth’s population has begun to plummet, or one where we found out about this little known architect, called Frank Gehry. We’ll stay in this house as long as we can. As long as the landlady does not put the price up by more than $50 a year. We can stay here until we have children who will want to crawl between the bannisters around the mezzanine and swan dive on to the polished concrete.