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FRANK GEHRY

AGENDA

There are very few people who can cruise into London on the transatlantic 'red-eye', hotfoot it down to the south coast, present a controversial new £220 million scheme to a sceptical council and still appear not to have lost all patience with the world.

Yet barely two hours after descending on Brighton, Frank Gehry has already made himself at home. He holds court with the AJ without batting a droopy Californian sun-soaked eyelid. 'It's 4.45am in the morning for me, so I apologise if I fall asleep in the middle of this, ' he drawls.

Gehry's adventurous designs for the King Alfred Centre in Hove have come a long way since Piers Gough first showed a picture of promenading Edwardian ladies to the Santa Monica-based superstar at the end of 2000.

Pre-planning designs for the scheme - including an 84m tower and a £45 million sports centre - were rubber-stamped by councillors last week.

The project is Gehry's first in England. So why has it taken him so long to work here? 'Well, nobody's asked me before, ' he responds. 'But it's great because each culture is a different experience. I grew up in Canada, which is pretty European in its outlook. And I'm probably closer to this culture than I am to Spain.' The King Alfred project seems to be finally shrugging off its aches and pains. Gehry was originally selected to design the development in July 2003, but toned down his original proposals in light of local opposition to the scheme's height. His first plans included four 120m towers.

But complaints forced the vision to be scaled back.

Despite the protests, CABE came down on the architect's side. 'They wanted a more colourful scheme, ' Gehry says.

'They thought what I showed them was too timid. I guess they felt taller and taller buildings are inevitable in this region.

But we want to be responsible - and Josh [Arghiros, the project's developer] doesn't want to rock the boat.' Gehry still has time to bring his critics onside. The planning application is due to be submitted in August.

He is currently working on the facades of the two towers - which predominately house the residential element of the scheme, comprising 750 flats (40 per cent of them affordable housing) - along with the lower buildings, which include a sports centre, retail and residential space, which he is designing in collaboration with HOK Sport.

'I don't know what the skin will be made from, ' says Gehry. 'Josh can only afford toothpaste, ' he jokes. The reality is likely to be metals such as stainless steel or zinc for the facades. 'That said, ' continues Gehry, 'I'm not sure they would look right in the light here.

Right now I think the towers should be white-ish. We're debating whether we can go 25 stories with plaster.' Gehry references his Der Neue Zollhof in Dusseldorf (1994-99) - a trio of buildings staggered in height, each member of the clan instantly identifiable. The western-most German building is clad in red brick, the central building in mirror-polished stainless steel, and finally the eastern-most building in plaster. 'Plaster would be my first choice, ' says the architect. 'That way we could easily meet our budget.

But then, with budgets, you break 'em every time. People cry a little, but it's very useful.

It's cathartic.' As well as having the power and influence to bend the odd budget, as one of the international illuminati, Frank has his fair share of friends in high places. Charles Jencks handed him a copy of his new book, The Iconic Building (reviewed on page 215), when the pair met the previous evening.

Inevitably, the subject of the iconic status of the Hove scheme arose in conversation.

'Everything's iconic, ' says Gehry, 'because it's residential and in a different place.'

'Charles has a way of labelling and quantifying things, ' he continues. 'I think if you get into that you lose spontaneity. I don't want to know if there are seven things like mine in the world and mine is number four, ' he concludes.

'Apparently, I'm known in the right circles as a Modern exotic Post-Minimalist flamboyant.' Although Jencks is keen to label Gehry, at least his comments are more positive than those of another friend and superstar architect. Gehry is a fan of Richard Rogers and was predictably shocked at Rogers' reactions to his King Alfred proposals.

Gehry says: 'I showed the scheme to Richard and he said:

'You can't build that there.' I was surprised by what he said.

He may be right in the end, but who knows.'

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