In Box

Epiphanies from Frank Gehry

The starchitect on his first project in the Arab world -- and why it's hard these days to find a benevolent dictator with taste.

Ask someone to name a living architect, and it's a good bet the first name you'll hear is Frank Gehry's. The Canadian-born, California-based Pritzker Prize winner virtually created the idea of the celebrity globe-trotting architect, with his iconic Guggenheim Museum Bilbao single-handedly revitalizing the sleepy Spanish port city in 1997 and launching his career into the stratosphere -- at the ripe young age of 68. "I've had a good run at being relevant, but I want to be more relevant!" he says. "I would like to do a big project in Outer Mongolia -- I don't care where." Now 84, Gehry is still involved in every detail of his firm's buildings, from undulating skyscrapers in Manhattan to twisted luxury residences in Hong Kong. Foreign Policy spoke with the starchitect on his plans for the future, his long-delayed first project in the Arab world, and the trouble with democracy.

The worst thing is when you go to places like Dubai. They're on steroids, but they just end up looking like American or European cities with these anonymous skyscrapers -- like every cruddy city in the world. One would hope there would be more support from within these places for architecture that responds to the place and culture. That's what I'm trying to do, but, man, no one else seems to be involved with it. It's just cheap copies of buildings that have already been built somewhere else.

I was a bit reluctant to get engaged in the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. It's so far away and the cultural issues seemed so different. I had never worked in an Arab country. What I bought into, when we talked to the sheikhs and the deciders, was that this was going to be a museum for a globalized art culture. I don't know of another museum in the world that will have the resources to show off this new era of contemporary art.

We hired a human rights lawyer from Human Rights Watch when we started on the Abu Dhabi project. Both we and our client were interested in making sure the project was in the clear. There was a time when they were being beat up on for the conditions of temporary workers. And they did something about it: They built relatively comfortable camps. These issues are important to me when I take a project.

If we're hired to do a project in China, we'll make it the best. We're hoping to do a little museum there, in Quanzhou, our first mainland project. The artist Cai Guo-Qiang likes my work, and it's his hometown. He paid for the initial design, actually. The Communist Party secretary wrote me a letter to say that she loves it. But whether we'll get to build it, I don't know. It's hard to work in China.

There's just not that many people doing capital "A" Architecture anymore. A lot of people don't get it, but I design from the inside out so that the finished product looks inevitable somehow. I think it's important to create spaces that people like to be in, that are humanistic. This neo-minimalism supercold stuff is weird to me. I need a place where I can come home and take my shoes off.

Hillary Clinton, in her farewell speech as secretary of state, picked up on a theme in my work. It was very cool, but I was shocked when she mentioned me! She said that my work was "intentional," that political structures have to look beyond Greece, beyond columns, to a new architecture for a new world -- like Frank Gehry, she said. Democracy, obviously, is something we don't want to give up, but it does create chaos. It means the guy next door can do what he wants, and it creates a collision of thinking. In cities, that means people build whatever they want.

I think the best thing is to have a benevolent dictator -- who has taste! It's really hard to get consensus, to have a tastemaker. There is no Robert Moses anymore. Michael Bloomberg wants to be one. In fact, he promised he would build 10 more of my buildings in New York, but, you know, he hasn't yet. Architecture's difficult … [sigh].

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello for FP

In Box

The North Korean Defector

What Kim Hyuk has carried with him on his harrowing journey from the streets to the speaking circuit.

Kim Hyuk, 31, can divide his life into two parts -- one for each side of the divided Korean Peninsula. These days, he lives in a small studio apartment 50 miles south of Seoul. He holds a master's degree in public policy and gives speeches about his experience on behalf of the South Korean Ministry of Unification. But growing up in Chongjin, a factory town in North Korea's frigid northeast, he was a street beggar and illicit cross-border trader, dashing into China to pick up iron and jewelry that he could sell back home. Arrested after one of those night raids, he spent 20 months in a North Korean "re-education camp," where meals were fist-sized helpings of corn husks and leaves.

When Kim escaped for good on Christmas Eve 2000, crossing the Tumen River -- the same route used by defectors today -- he left what remained of his family and possessions and began a perilous 353-day journey through China to Mongolia, whose border police ferry refugees to freedom in South Korea. He took with him only a couple of clothing items, some vitamins, 100 Chinese yuan (about $12), a lighter, a razor, and a safety pin. "The lighter, because I smoke," he explains. "The razor, you can use to slash yourself. And the safety pin, you can use it for getting out of handcuffs. You can also use it for suicide if you swallow it. If I had been repatriated to North Korea, I would have tried to kill myself."

When he arrived safely in the South, Kim was treated as any other defector: with an interrogation by intelligence officials and a mandatory stint at Hanawon, a government resettlement facility. It was this time of transition that he says ranks among the toughest. He has built a new life now, but he's still not sure what remains of those he left behind. His mother died when he was young, and he figures his father and older brother died of starvation, though he's not certain. These are the few things Kim acquired as he went from one life to the next.