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The Stata Center at M.I.T., designed by Frank Gehry (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Associated Press)

When architects cannot erect they write, and thus we can expect an imminent increase in publications by underemployed practitioners of the building art. However, good times or bad, producing books has been mandatory for architects ever since the modernist masters (and masterly self-publicists) Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier committed their ideas as well as their plans to print.

Frank Gehry, the most acclaimed American architect since Wright, is not a ­natural-born writer. To satisfy the considerable demand for personal explications of his work, Gehry, who turned 80 in February, has avoided the agony of authorship and cooperated with several interviewers on transcribed texts during the past decade. The best of them — the architectural historian Kurt Forster’s “Frank O. Gehry/Kurt W. Forster” and the curator Mildred Friedman’s “Gehry Talks” (both released in 1999) — contain valuable insights into the subject’s idiosyncratic approach to a profession he has recast as an experimental art form and advanced as a technical discipline.

Barbara Isenberg’s “Conversations With Frank Gehry” is the latest attempt to elicit the essence of his creative method in his own words. Isenberg, a Los Angeles-based writer on the arts, exhibits neither Forster’s intellectual sheen nor Friedman’s comprehensive expertise, but nonetheless offers worthwhile new information for architecture devotees and an engaging introduction for general readers.

Doubtless eager to remain in her subject’s good graces, Isenberg poses few questions of the confrontational sort that wise interrogators withhold until the end of a session, lest they be shown the door. For example, from her upbeat recapitulation of Gehry’s Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn — a large-scale mixed-use urban redevelopment centered on a professional basketball arena — you’d never know that the scheme has aroused heated opposition from community groups and planning experts, or that its future is imperiled by the current economic crisis.

Isenberg is no Oriana Fallaci, that fearless guerrilla of take-no-prisoners Q. and A., but she occasionally goads her subject into revealing responses. For example, ­Gehry (né Goldberg) is vexed by her query about his adopted surname. He defensively counters that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn also assumed new nomenclature, and wonders, “Why are people so interested in the name change?” — an odd complaint from the biggest name in contemporary architecture.

Until the stupendous success of Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao — which opened in 1997 and rendered his false modesty preposterous — the architect cultivated the persona of a neurotic bumbler much like Woody Allen. In “Conversations With Frank Gehry,” he finally admits it was just a pose. As he explains, “Architects in New York . . . were kind of attracted to me as long as I was subordinate to them. As soon as I came out with work that got attention, there was kind of a backlash from them. . . . They think I’m an ‘aw shucks’ guy and then I turn out to be every bit as ambitious as they are.”

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Martin Filler
New York Times

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