So here's the diary of George Hay's attempts to find a few precious seconds with Frank Owen Gehry
Dundee, viewed from the Tay Bridge at 8am on a bleak Thursday morning, seems a strange spot for the world's greatest architect to place his first UK building. Scotland's fourth city is notable for little apart from inclement weather, the fine poetry of William McGonagall and a kind of cake served for high tea by great aunts.
But on this very day, it is to become briefly famous throughout the country, thanks to a small cancer counselling centre situated next to the monstrous bulk of Ninewells Hospital, designed and shortly to be opened by Frank Owen Gehry.
The media is interested in the event because, after the Bilbao Guggenheim, Gehry is one of the few building designers that people outside the worlds of art and construction have heard of.
And to underline his status as King of the Architects, he's staying with the Earl of Strathmore in the palatial splendour of Glamis Castle, where he's sleeping in the late Queen Mother's room. Not bad for a working-class lad from Toronto who spent the first seven years of his adult life driving trucks …
However, the Maggie's Centre has not yet attained the fame of the Guggenheim: my taxi driver has never heard of it, so he drops me at the main hospital building. After an undignified scramble down the grassy hill, I'm standing in front of an odd little building with a tower, a crumpled steel roof and a sort of external pulpit. Walking in, there's a large kitchen and lounge on the left; the reception and tower staircase are on the right, and on the other side is the pulpit, from which you can see the Firth of Tay stretching all the way to Perth.
One of the points you should have grasped from the preceding paragraph is that this is on a miniature scale compared with the Guggenheim, or the recently opened Disney Centre in Los Angeles, where the great man lives. But the lineaments of the Gehry look are present – the extraordinary, undulating plywood ceiling, the curving walls and the funky colours. The designer's philosophy, which is that buildings should always look unfinished, thereby capturing the restless, provisional nature of life, is much in evidence. Or to put it another way, the building is architectural poetry, not prose.
Turning from my contemplations, I find the lobby suddenly full of journalists in frayed suits, long-haired intellectuals, camera crews in jeans and jumpers, glamorous television presenters and PR people brandishing clipboards. There must be 60 people milling around the tiny space and waiting to talk about Frank.
The babble fades to silence as the man himself ambles in, flanked by Charles Jencks, Maggie's widower and architectural theorist, and none other than Sir Bob Geldof. Gehry makes his way to the tower steps, stands on the second one up and proceeds to tell the crowd why he became involved with the project.
The second interview is with a woman from Tay FM, who tries the ancient journalistic gambit of inserting her microphone up the interviewee’s nose
"Maggie was a close friend. When she contracted cancer, she always complained about the demoralising state of the hospital settings. She wanted the comfort of a warm place to reflect and thought that these big institutional hospitals rather missed the point."
The centre, he goes on, is meant to be a place separate from the hospital where patients feel comfortable enough to discuss their illness, to share their problems and to cry, if they need to. All this takes him quite a long time to say – he speaks slowly and softly.
When he's finished, a brisk PR announces that he will be going up to the tower to give "soundbite" interviews for the radio and some 20-minute jobs for the television. Foolishly, she forgets to mention the print media, so I follow my colleagues to the tower where Gehry is telling BBC radio that the centre is "a caring place to encourage courage", which is about as good a soundbite as you're likely to find in the whole of west Perthshire.
The second interview is with a woman from Tay FM who employs the ancient journalistic gambit of trying to insert her microphone up the interviewee's nose. Gehry takes it from her and pretends to eat it. "Is this what you mean by a soundbite?" he asks.
One of the more surreal aspects of journalism is that a subject called upon to give a number of E E interviews in a short time will be repeatedly asked the same questions, and will usually give the same answer (with the same pause for thought, the same show of emotion and the same spontaneity) every time.
A little way into the Tay woman's questions ("… and what would you say to Maggie now?") Gehry realises that this is happening to him, and begins to look more and more downcast. Fortunately, he's got his answers down pat. Asked about the weird stainless steel roof, he says: "Don't worry. When it rains it'll stretch out and flatten." And when a Canadian TV crew "doing a documentary" asks what he and Jencks have in common, intellectually and artistically, he responds: "We like the same women."
After the last of the broadcast media are finished their work, I stride forward for my 10 minutes with the great man, only to receive a body check from the PR woman that would be considered unacceptably violent in a game of ice hockey. When I come to my senses, Frank has relocated to the pulpit outside, and is happily mugging for the paparazzi.
After that we're on to more speeches. Frank's low-key gratefulness to Laura Lee, chief executive of Maggie's Centres, and Marcia Blakenham, Maggie's best friend, is touching. But he's upstaged by Geldof who, undeterred by an anticlimactic balloon release, defines the purpose of the centre with his usual acerbity (you'll have to do the voice yourselves).
I’m thrilled to get this splendid quote from Geldof – this is only slightly diminished by hearing him repeat it to every other journalist he meets
"Cancer is a vicious little bitch of a disease," he says. "It creates tiny little humiliations and tries to make you less than human. But what Frank has done is to bring humanity back into healthcare, out of love and respect for his friend."
This ruffles a few feathers among fundraising Scottish aristocracy, who have now gathered for lunch. "He really is very rude," I overhear Blakenham whisper, "… but rather wonderful."
Geldof later gives me the answer to the question that has been on everyone's lips all morning: what is he doing here? It turns out that he and Gehry met about 20 years ago at a charity motorcycle race in California. Although Geldof's appearance indicates that he hasn't washed his hair in the intervening two decades, I am impressed by his analogy for the relationship between the Maggie's Centre and the Guggenheim. "It's like Michelangelo finishing the Sistine Chapel and then being asked to paint his mother's kitchen ceiling," he laughs. I'm naturally thrilled at getting this splendid quote from the Geldof – a thrill that is only slightly diminished by hearing him repeat it to every other journalist he meets that day – with, of course, the same pause for thought, the same spontaneity …
Lunch is served, but not to the hungry hacks. Ladies and gentlemen of the press are booted out to allow the dignitaries to enjoy their lunch without having to watch oiks trying to eat sorbet with their fish forks. Luckily, just as I'm about to be ejected, I run into the larger-than-life figure of Piers Gough loitering by the pulpit, and we chat long enough for me to escape the wave of deportations. "Great little jolly, this!" he roars, and leads me to where the feasting and wassailing is to take place. And, as I turn round, I find myself next to Frank Gehry, shorn of his guards …
Suppressing the urge to ask him what he would say to Maggie now, I tackle Gehry's other UK project in the pipeline: a collection of misshapen 40-storey tower blocks on the Hove seafront known to the development community as the King Alfred's Leisure Centre. Was he aware, I wondered, of the depth of local opposition to it? Gehry reveals that he is only too aware of it. "It's a little bit precarious at the moment," he says. "It's a bit big for the town and we have to consider what we're going to do. One of the problems with the competition is that you don't have enough time to put detailed drawings together."
Gough, whose practice CZWG is working with Gehry on the scheme, confirms later that, like Maggie's, the final building may bear little resemblance to the initial plans. "We might build length-wise instead of so high," he says. "But whatever happens, it'll be massive. It always is when you get this man involved."
The man in question now leaves the building, heading back to Glamis for some rest and recreation. I roam the hospital car park seeking a bus back to the centre of town, when I hear a familiar voice, booming "fancy a lift?" It's Gough, hailing me from his taxi, which also contains Jim Heverin, Zaha Hadid's second-in-command, and a well spoken and smartly dressed lady who turns out to be Jill Ritblat, the wife of British Land chief John and stepmother to Delancey head Jamie.
Unfortunately, not even Gough can smuggle me into the gala dinner at the Maggie's Centre that night, where further speeches and feasting take place. Frank rounds the day off with a dram or two of Glenlivet with the earl, and the rest of the pack head for Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre where they get comprehensively trashed on heavy.
Friday, 26 September
The next morning we're greeted by the startling sight of Dundee bathed in sunshine. An ideal day, then, to spend in semi-darkness at the Breathing Space symposium at the Arts Centre for a forum examining how hospitals can benefit from design quality. The Glamis air has clearly done Gehry some good: he's on jokey form, sharing a debate with my new friend Heverin about the relative merits of his Maggie's Centre and another being designed by Zaha Hadid in Fife. Frank seems to have been expecting Hadid, rather than her lackey. "Who is this guy?" he asks the audience.
Charles Jencks then follows up with a brilliant speech on the theory of humane healthcare spaces. Or so I gather. I have to hare off after Gehry to see his last engagement of the trip, the conferment upon him of an honorary degree from Dundee University. Managing to negotiate the PRs with most of my original teeth, I sneak into the ceremony, which turns out to be unexpectedly entertaining.
A be-robed Gehry is sitting on stage next to a bearded academic wearing a kilt as he is informed that Dundee University has moved up to fourth in The Sunday Times Scottish league tables. The kilted academic keeps on pulling his national dress over his knees, aware that the audience is well placed to ascertain whether he's a genuine Scotsman. The vice-chancellor sets the tone by introducing a lady from Gehry's new building as "Maggie Wells from the Mary Centre", and then closes proceedings before Gehry has had a chance to deliver his speech.
Coming to a city near you: Frank’s future schemes
- The masterplan for a cultural centre in Lisbon’s Parque Mayer. This mix of residential, office space and theatres is Gehry’s first major masterplan.
- A major ice hockey stadium reportedly in Brooklyn, New York – reflecting Gehry’s obsession with the game.
- At Gehry’s degree ceremony, professor Charles McKean reveals that in the same way Richard Meier oversaw the masterplanning of Edinburgh park, the council dearly wants Gehry to play a key role in the regeneration of Dundee Riverside.
- The King Alfred’s Leisure Centre complex in Hove, a £60m mixed-use project, should go to planning this time next year. In the meantime, Piers Gough and Gehry say they may change the designs.
- Gehry’s also designing a house for himself and Berta, his wife, on Venice Beach, Los Angeles.
- More Maggie’s Centres – Dundee is the third, and there are 10 more planned.