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The Discipline Of Design And Working Alongside Frank Gehry:
A Conversation With Architect Jose Antonio Gonzalez
Interview by Mona Bavar
Article by Lynne Myers
“You have to be patient and you have to be disciplined.”
~ Jose Antonio Gonzalez
It seems only fitting that after growing up around architecture in Puebla, Mexico, Jose Antonio Gonzalez would go on to establish his own successful career in designing spaces. Now based in Los Angeles, Gonzalez has amassed a colorful resume: from an internship in Berlin, to working alongside Frank Gehry in his LA studio.
Since founding his own innovative and leading-edge practice, Jagar Architecture and Design, Gonzalez has left his mark on LA’s built environment with a number of restaurants and private homes under his belt. DLISH spoke to the architect to hear about his experiences, what it was like to work with Frank Gehry, and the potential impact of COVID-19 on architecture.
Mona Bavar: How did you get into architecture?
Jose Antonio Gonzalez: I grew up in central Mexico in Puebla, which is a midsize city of about a couple million people. My parents were young liberal architects who met in architecture school back in the 60s. They graduated, they got married, and they opened their own firm. Then I was born into that. Me and my brother, we grew up in an architecture studio and on construction sites – he hated it, but I liked it. And when we had to decide what we wanted to be, my brother went into finance, and I, the more creative one, wanted to be an artist or graphic designer. Eventually I hit architecture because, first of all, I was very familiar with it. Secondly, I wanted to be artistic and creative, but I also wanted to be part of the professional machine, something more real. I wanted to be licensed in something. So, I thought maybe architecture was that.
Then I got into school and I loved every part of the construction classes and model making and design. But then I started getting extra ambitious. I was in a private school in Puebla and in my second year, I transferred to the University of Texas at Austin. They have a very good architecture program and I used to swim. So, I combined both things and I transferred to university in the United States. I really liked the school there and I liked the culture. In general, the US was more studio oriented. Mexico was a little more old school. And that was it: I graduated from Austin as an architect, and that's how I ended up in the field.
Jose Antonio Gonzalez
MB: How did you end up working for Frank Gehry?
JAG: I was living in Berlin for almost two years and I was working in this great firm doing competition work. Then I came back because my brother got into UCLA Business School and he always wanted to live together at some point, because, we were always far apart. I had told him, ‘Well, if you get into a business school in a cool town, like New York or LA, I'll join you and we can live together’. Then when I returned, I thought ‘I'm going to go to LA and try to get the best possible job.’ And I got super lucky and I got a job with Frank Gehry.
MB: How was your experience working with Gehry?
JAG: It was awesome. Let’s say he's not for everybody. It's one of those things that either works or not, and I think in my case it worked great. I really loved spending time in the studio, there were very talented people all around and crazy projects. I was there for almost nine years: I spent a long time with Frank.
MB: What is the most memorable project?
JAG: The very first one in Panama, which was probably one of the reasons I got hired. That was the first project in Latin America for him and he had a new, young designer. He was trying to put together a design team and all the other designers in the office were a little jealous or territorial. So, Frank said, ‘You go ahead and hire your own team’. That's when I came in. I assume it had a little to do with speaking Spanish and my European experience. The project was a biodiversity museum in the canal. Then from there, we did a winery and we did all the Brooklyn projects in New York, Beekman tower in Manhattan.
Walt Disney Concert hall in Los Angeles
MB: What was the biggest thing you learned from working alongside Gehry?
JAG: In this business, it doesn't matter how creative, or eccentric, or artistic you are. Your work really must be founded on two main pillars: you have to be patient and you have to be disciplined. This is something Frank told me and it took me a little while to understand, but those are the two things that make a career successful. And it takes a while because at the beginning you think you know the answers to everything.
Frank is very quiet. He's very process oriented. He would say, ‘Well, that sounds like a good idea, maybe we should do what you're saying, but first you have to prove to me that all the other directions aren’t better’. Then you start developing one option, and then another option. Then by the fifth one, you realize that your original idea wasn't even that great.
After some time of pursuing the same process over and over, that's when you’d go to Frank’s office. You’d see mountains of models, and I tried to do something similar with my own practice because it's part of the process. It's very disciplined. We don't get to conclusions quickly.
I totally understand that discipline and I think you have to go through it to train your brain to understand. I mean, when you see somebody like Frank Gehry you think he’s doing crazy stuff, but really it took him 50 years of his life to reach that. It’s definitely not a fast-track career.
MB: You’re originally from Mexico but you’ve traveled all over the world, where’s home for you?
JAG: Los Angeles is home, and it has been for the last six or eight years. Before that I was definitely still in traveling mode. I was in Texas, New York, and Berlin, but it gets to a point where you have to find a place to base yourself and pursue it from there. One of the reasons why I was going all over the place was because I was exploring and finding what I liked. In LA, I found a good platform. It’s a very creative place, obviously it has it’s negatives like every major city, but for me, it worked out. I think it’s a good place for architecture. It’s challenging and it’s very competitive.
MB: How much of your work is inspired by your Mexican background?
JAG: I think inevitably, a lot. I think as an architect or as a creative, you use what you are. You take the best of what you have and your experience and portray it in your work. When it comes down to the final product, you realize there's actually a lot of things that you took from different places: from childhood environments to experiences working in Europe. I also have a lot of Frank in me that I’m always trying to use and trying to explore. It’s definitely there.
MB: When you travel and when you experience things, what is it that moves you?
JAG: I definitely have an appetite for experiences and the good news is the world is so rich in terms of culture and different environments that you could spend your entire life traveling and you would never be satisfied because there's so much to see out there. In my personal experience, traveling is a part of my work. I really need to keep my tools and my gunpowder dry through traveling because it allows me to see things. We're not going to reinvent the wheel, we know that there's amazing stuff going on everywhere in the world so I think it's very healthy to see not only the new stuff but also the old stuff, and see what people did for different reasons.
It moves me the fact that you can go to a small lake somewhere and go into a nice tiny village and people can have an amazing life in 1000 square feet, when we’re designing 6000 square foot mansions. It grounds me to remember just because it's big doesn’t mean that it's right. There are different qualities to different spaces.
The Speakeasy at Cantina Frida Beverly Hills
MB: With regard to traveling, are you concerned that COVID-19 is going to affect these experiences?
JAG: No, not really. Traveling will always have a little bit of a risk, but it's totally worth it. What you get back is much more. I think there have always been risks. I mean, it's never been a perfect world, which we're not interested in either.
MB: How do you think the current health pandemic is going to impact your world?
JAG: Big time. If you're in the creative world and you're trying to stay on the edge and do truly new, experimental, contemporary work, one of your biggest enemies is fear in general. Fear to change, fear of diseases, fear of bombs, fear of anything. Why do you want to change your house if you're safe there now? Why do you want to renew your business if it’s working? COVID-19 is unfortunately adding a layer of fear that we didn't have before. However, I think we are on the human side of the profession. We're not engineers or contractors, we deal with humans and I think we just have to keep our flexibility. We’ve just got to be as talented as always, and then be flexible to what the new needs of consumers are going to be.
MB: If you were commissioned to design a socially-distanced restaurant or café, what do you think that would look like?
JAG: That’s a good question. We just did a couple of really successful restaurants here in LA - Margot, and then we did a bigger one called Cantina Frida Beverly Hills. They were both doing very well and then suddenly they had to shut down. So definitely, something has to be done, but unfortunately, I think it will be more down to economics than design.
We might need to adjust the way we interact with layouts to make sure people are not as close together, but then square footage becomes a problem. If in a 100-person restaurant, you can only sit 15, then maybe those numbers won’t work economically. I think all those things have to be considered… it's a tough question.
I think big hospitality and entertainment facilities, like hotels and restaurants are going to be heavily impacted. They have been already and it's going to take much longer for them to come back because people will be hesitant of cramped places or going into a bar shoulder to shoulder with other people. Instead, we're probably going to start seeing a lot of different, smaller food concepts that maybe cater to the situation in a better way, perhaps by having more casual outdoor seating.
MB: I’ve noticed that almost all of the restaurants you’ve designed include a long bar with stools, is that an intentional design strategy or a trademark of yours?
JAG: I personally like bars a lot, and in general, there are no good bars in America. Compared to Europe. When you walk into any place and there's a cute little bar where you can eat, dine and drink and just be standing. America had a whole generation of restaurants in the 90s that focused on non-bar situations. It also affected Mexico because I remember growing up in horrible bar places where the actual bars were for the waitress, there were no customers there.
So now that LA is a little cooler, we're really trying to push human interaction. We're always trying to create these ‘dining bars’ that are big, oversized, and super comfortable. America is strange because people like to have their own table and their own space. They like that feeling of ownership while at the bar it’s like you're sharing it.
In Cantina Frida for example, we have this 30-meter-long golden bar which is all brass, and when you go in on a busy day, everybody's eating there. Design wise, I'm always trying to push this. Plus, architecturally it becomes interesting because you have an object that is a reaction. It's almost like a gathering point, so you want to make sure it's sexy and attractive, so people want to spend time there.
MB: What projects are you currently working on?
JAG: About a year and a half ago, we started doing health and our first client is a project for advanced health treatment for active people. We did tiny rooms with a tub and a shower inside each one where you can float. It’s like an imitation of the Dead Sea using heavily salted water. The idea has been around since the 60s, but finally, about two or three years ago, the technology came to a point where it actually cleans after every use. It's almost like a gigantic toilet. You go, you float for an hour and it gets dark and completely silent and you meditate floating, it’s really fun. And then you leave, you shower, and you go back to work. It's like an hour and a half experience and every time the water filters itself completely for the next use.
MB: Do you have any words of wisdom you’d like to share with our readers?
JAG: I think it's important to understand that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. One of the few good things about something like COVID-19 is that it's an eye opener. Now we’re seeing the reality of many people, of many corporations, and many governments. I think we're reading things a little clearer, and we’re seeing who people really are. I think we just have to keep an eye on what really matters. We'll come back stronger, for sure. There’s going to be fun again.
Click here to see more of Jose Antonio Gonzalez's work.