The ArchRecord Interview: Frank Stella
BR: I’d like to name quickly a couple of projects and then maybe you could talk about your inspiration for them and what you think really sets them apart as architectural works: “The Ship” (1:00)?
FS: Ah, yes. There’s no question that’s one of the many variations on what started as the leaf on the top of the Groninger Museum. And that was originally intended to go on top of a building that was and is built. It was supposed to be a rooftop addition.
BR: And the “Gate House” for the Peter Lewis Estate?
FS: Oh yeah, the Peter Lewis thing, the “Gate House,” (0:10) was supposed to be a house entering the property. And Philip [Johnson] and Frank [Gehry] were working on the main structures in the building. And I was assigned to make the entrance to the property and to the projects.
BR: And “Remembering Henry,” the form of which is somewhat similar.
FS: A little bit, but actually, “Remembering Henry” (0:05) has a new-star form, and that’s the most recent thing that I’ve worked on. And that’s pretty much sculptural, but it’s architectural in the sense that it’s a memorial or a mausoleum so you go down into a space that’s a kind of conventional underground space and then you look up at the sculpture above.
BR: What if I just say the word “curves”? How do you respond?
FS: One way or the other, the issue of compound-curved surfaces somehow just dug in, and then that’s probably where the computer came in—when everyone decided that they can do curves and they can do blobs and anybody can do it. But not just anybody has been able to actually build them because they still are a problem.
But you know with Nervi and Le Corbusier, the curved forms, they’re there. It’s not that they haven’t been around. But the more complex versions of the curved forms have been sloughed off. You can see it even in Frank. Yes, he has the curved surfaces, but, by and large, they’re dealt with in quite a traditional way. It’s not that easy to make the surfaces run. But Nervi certainly and Corbusier did do it.
And with cement, you can build any form you want; it is just not a popular form of construction right now. But I have a feeling it’s going to come back with a vengeance with the new polymer-reinforced cements that are pretty strong structurally and pretty light and can do a lot.
BR: Speaking of materials: A lot of architects are obsessed with certain materials, but I don’t see the same materials obsession in your work. Am I wrong? Are there materials that you want to see your work built in or that you especially enjoy working with from an architectural perspective?
FS: I don’t think about the materials in all honesty; I think the materials come at the end. I have the form. It’s like: What material will take the form, will be able to let the form be? This piece here [the “Chinese Pavilion”] would be easy to cast and build with the new cement, but I like it with the carbon fiber. Now you could build a single carbon-fiber house on a modest scale, like the “Guest House,” but, actually, I don’t think one exists, believe it or not.
BR: How about other living architects whom you especially admire? We’ve mentioned quite a few names. Who are some others we haven’t mentioned who have had an influence on you?
FS: I like Paul Rudolph a lot. I really think he’s very underestimated, certainly an underappreciated architect. He did some really interesting big buildings in the Far East. And of course Bruce Goff. And of course, we haven’t mentioned the most obvious of them all, Frank Lloyd Wright. A lot of the titles of my early paintings were from the area around Florida Southern College, which I loved and for which Wright designed the bricks to let the people there build their own buildings. You know that was interesting to me that Wright could go both ways: very expensive buildings, very elaborate and elegant; and then a very beautiful kind of building that people could build in the simplest way. Those are still common and great ideas. I haven’t gotten to that part yet—of how to build something simply. And cheaply. But you never know. There’s always hope [laughs].
BR: I interviewed Vito Acconci a couple of weeks ago, an artist who 20 years ago completely ceased his artistic output to focus on architecture. And if I could paraphrase his reasons, one was he wanted to have a larger impact on the public, and he felt the art audience was too small. And two, he was really interested in the way people would respond to his creations. He didn’t want viewers, he wanted participants. How important in your design stages are the final uses of a project? Are you thinking about the users, or is it more the form that interests you?
FS: No, it’s really the form, to make the form big enough to become functional and make sense enough that you can … I’ll have to use this horrible word, so you can shoehorn the functions into it. But that’s the way I think; I can’t help that. I can’t sit down and worry about where the chairs are going to be, what the circulation is going to be. And I don’t really feel that’s my problem because I don’t have projects in which that’s a real issue.
BR: You’ve said you want to make exalted art. Do you also want to make exalted architecture? And if so, what does exalted architecture look like? How do you achieve that goal?
FS: Well, I think I got a better chance of making exalted art [laughs]. But I think the "Chapel of the Holy Ghost"—that could get to perhaps cathedral scale and it might have an exalted sense of interior and exterior. If I get it right, that’s the one thing I have as a goal: to make the exterior and interior equally dramatic and really integrated. And I guess that’s why I like Calatrava so much, that sense of the engineering, that the forms really are alive and beautiful and do condition the interiors.
BR: What are some adjectives you would use to describe your architectural work?
FS: Well, desperate I guess is the one that comes first to mind [laughs].
BR: Exuberant is certainly a word that’s frequently used by critics. Is that a word that you find useful?
FS: I don’t know if it’s exuberant, but in the notion of exuberance is the notion of movement, and that’s really important. If you wanted to criticize architecture in general, you could say when it’s static it’s bad. When it moves, one way or the other, whether it’s an illusion or it literally moves, that’s always better.