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Frank Gehry and Cai Guo-Qiang Walk Into a Barn

By M.H. Miller

The multi-structured glass and sequoia house in Chester, New Jersey, is on a property that once belonged to an Olympic horse rider.
 
Stefan Ruiz
The multi-structured glass and sequoia house in Chester, New Jersey, is on a property that once belonged to an Olympic horse rider.

The hour-long train ride from New York City to Morris County, N.J., cuts through the dreary industrial swamp of the Meadowlands, goes past the concrete caverns of Newark and edges along leafy college towns, before finally ending in Morristown, the county seat, a Revolutionary War stronghold and the former site of the curiously named Fort Nonsense, now a nondescript village full of hulking suburban houses. (In an episode of the final season of ‘‘The Sopranos,’’ Morristown is where Tony Soprano dreams he goes to die, just before waking from a gunshot-induced coma.) A 30-minute drive from Morristown is Chester, a tiny, bucolic community of horse farms, where families of deer amble down narrow roads and rolling hills loom hazily in the distant skyline. There, at the end of a dirt path, is a sight so unexpected that it feels as if it had descended from another world, quietly and without explanation: the country home of the artist Cai Guo-Qiang, designed by his friend Frank Gehry.

Cai is best known for what he calls ‘‘outdoor explosion events,’’ public installations in which the medium is gunpowder, his signature material. Gehry shoulders the burdensome mantle of being the World’s Most Famous Architect: The phrase ‘‘Bilbao effect’’ — which was coined after he designed an outpost of the Guggenheim Museum in what had been a depressed post-industrial Spanish town — has entered popular usage as a means of explaining how the presence of a marquee architect’s buildings, and Gehry’s in particular, can transform a city’s fortunes.

Stefan RuizThe artist Cai Guo-Qiang, photographed at home.
The artist Cai Guo-Qiang, photographed at home.

Chester, which Cai stumbled upon while looking specifically for ‘‘a huge horse barn where I could create artworks,’’ is unlikely to become a global destination. But his home here does answer the question of how one popular artist creates a place to work and live for another. Contemporary art and architecture are often thought of as contiguous, at least since the post-war era, when the division between various practices — sculpture, painting, design — began to collapse. Gehry’s swoopy, post-modernist buildings have often been compared to the work of like-minded artists, including Claes Oldenburg — Gehry designed the Chiat/Day Building in Los Angeles around Oldenburg’s 1991 ‘‘Giant Binoculars’’ sculpture — and Richard Serra, who once noted, ‘‘Frank and I have been talking to each other through our work for years.’’ Still, it’s rare for a living architect to be considered an actual artist, and artists generally avoid creating habitable structures. Gehry is unusual in his ability to straddle both worlds — he’s had exhibitions of his designs at galleries and museums, and he’s described his buildings as having ‘‘movement and feeling.’’ He’s also built homes for artists in the past, most famously Ron Davis, though many of those projects, he told me, were anonymous. (‘‘It was the Los Angeles art scene,’’ he said, ‘‘and it was just friends and we would help each other.’’)

If Oldenburg’s sculptures of repurposed household objects were an aesthetic precursor to Gehry’s designs, which often make use of ordinary materials, Cai and Gehry have much less in common aesthetically beyond a shared interest in theatricality. That an architect and an artist as different as Cai and Gehry have had any ongoing creative dialogue at all is remarkable; that the most complete expression of that dialogue is a weekend home hidden in the New Jersey countryside is even more so. And yet Gehry’s house for Cai, designed in collaboration with his former student Trattie Davies, is a kind of brick and mortar reflection of Cai’s character: by turns boisterous and understated, flamboyant but ultimately serene.

Stefan RuizFrom left: A maquette of the house's design; a gunpowder painting by Cai hangs in a common room which has 14-foot ceilings.
From left: A maquette of the house's design; a gunpowder painting by Cai hangs in a common room which has 14-foot ceilings.

One morning in early June, Cai greeted me in Chester. He had the haircut of a drill sergeant, which belied his occasional bursts of giddiness. He bought the former horse farm, built in the 1920s, from an Olympian equestrian in 2011. (The horse is New Jersey’s official state animal, and the headquarters of the U.S. Equestrian Team is in nearby Gladstone.) The barn where the previous owner used to train is now a 14,000-square- foot studio, large enough to drive a truck directly inside and unload materials. (Many of Cai’s paintings require controlled explosions of gunpowder and pigment, and for the last several years, he’s made these at a fireworks factory on Long Island; new works in this series will debut at an exhibition at the Prado Museum in Madrid this fall.) The stables — which for now look as if they’ve only recently been abandoned by horses — will become archives and, once the hayloft is removed, give way to an exhibition space with towering ceilings for large-scale pieces.

Cai has had many elaborate studios — including his current one in Manhattan, renovated by Rem Koolhaas’s OMA firm — but they’ve all been separate from his home life. He eventually plans to turn this property into a foundation open to the public, but for now, he can both work and spend time with his wife and two daughters. Combining his personal life with his professional one, he said, was one of his goals. ‘‘An artist is like a cook,’’ Cai told me, his studio manager translating his Mandarin to English, ‘‘who needs not only the dining area but also the kitchen.’’

Stefan RuizFrom left: A bedroom in the guest wing; paintings by Cai's daughter alongside a work by Willem de Kooning on the right.
From left: A bedroom in the guest wing; paintings by Cai's daughter alongside a work by Willem de Kooning on the right.

The 9,700-square-foot main house is a cluster of glass-and-sequoia structures with titanium rooftops that seem to curl up at the ends, which Gehry designed to look like flying carpets. The facade is embellished with numerous small balconies that jut out of corners, adding a complex geometry to the original stone core. Artists, Gehry told me by phone, are ‘‘willing to explore visual thinking. Most people don’t think that way.’’ He’s working on another house now, for a technology entrepreneur, and, he told me, she thinks more like a building contractor. ‘‘We supply the art and she gets it built,’’ he said. ‘‘So it’s a different attitude, and I love that — that different clients come with a different point of view. If you can tap into that as an architect, that’s great, because the building gets personalised. The flying carpets are about Cai. I think they resonate with him.’’ (Cai broke into laughter when I asked him if flying carpet rooftops were something he requested from Gehry. ‘‘If I said, ‘Oh, Frank, can we do flying carpets?’ he would say, ‘Design it yourself.’’’ Asked about Cai’s specifications, Gehry said, ‘‘Well, he talked about how he needed a bedroom.’’)

The house is situated along two paths leading to separate entrances, a main one for family and a second entrance for guests. Each entrance is guarded by a stone lion, sculptures from Cai’s project for the 2000 Whitney Biennial that explored feng shui, a philosophy that was outlawed in the Maoist China of Cai’s upbringing. For the Whitney, Cai visited the homes of New Yorkers who thought they had feng shui problems and if he agreed, he sold them a stone lion ‘‘to defend against any evil.’’ ‘‘Some rich guys,’’ he said, ‘‘they are rich enough to buy anything, but they didn’t really have feng shui issues, so I ended up with some leftover stone lions.’’ His own feng shui issue, which a lion is currently staring down, is a skeletal tree that faces the main entrance and seems to loom ominously over the property — ‘‘a bit of a problem,’’ he said, looking at it with concern.

Stefan RuizFrom left: Stairs leading to the family's bedrooms; the kitchen in the guest wing with a view of a dining area.
From left: Stairs leading to the family's bedrooms; the kitchen in the guest wing with a view of a dining area.

Beyong their mismatched styles, Cai and Gehry are an odd pair temperamentally. Cai is warm, a proud family man who showed off his youngest daughter’s paintings, which were leaning against the wall of the house’s future library. (He pointed to a work next to one of her landscapes: ‘‘And that’s a de Kooning.’’) He’s given to cracking himself up in conversation, and as we spoke, he would occasionally pause to admire the wildlife around the property. Asked about the condition of the house when he found it, he responded by staring in silence for some time at a bird perched on the grass before declaring, ‘‘His enemy bit off his feather, so he cannot fly,’’ as if the bird had just explained this to him.

While both men are intense, Gehry is more severe, his laconic conversation punctuated by dramatic pauses. Our phone interview began with him asking, almost existentially, ‘‘Why are we doing this?’’ and mentioning that he thinks Cai needs a different haircut, which made us both laugh, though he didn’t seem to be joking. Still, he exhibits a surprising paternal tenderness. Of Davies, his former student, he said, ‘‘It’s been a wonderful collaboration, to watch her grow and become somebody really special in her field.’’ When I first brought up Cai’s house, Gehry asked, sincerely, ‘‘Does he like it?’’

Stefan RuizFrom left: Ceramic mugs in the kitchen; a view of a glassed-in area that connects the guest wing to the main house.
From left: Ceramic mugs in the kitchen; a view of a glassed-in area that connects the guest wing to the main house.

The two became friends when Cai had a 2009 solo show at Guggenheim Bilbao, a building that poses a challenge to artists attempting to fill it. Part of that show, ‘‘I Want to Believe,’’ featured a work called “Head On,”

comprising 99 stuffed wolves that appeared to run through the exhibition space into a glass wall. At the opening, Cai said, Gehry ‘‘crawled on the floor like a wolf.’’ ‘‘He was very excited about how I used the space,’’ Cai said. Later, Gehry visited Cai’s home in Beijing (Cai moved to New York in 1995, but still keeps a house there), which was full of paintings and drawings and seemed, Gehry said, ‘‘not lived in.’’ Cai had long appreciated Gehry’s house in Los Angeles, a deconstructivist icon built from the remnants of a pink bungalow in Santa Monica, a structure so radical when it was first completed in 1978 that it generated headlines in The Los Angeles Times like ‘‘Gehry’s Artful House Offends, Baffles, Angers His Neighbors.’’ Cai wanted a place like that. Work on the New Jersey house began not long after Cai bought it in 2011.

Stefan RuizFrom left: The rear of the house abuts an old grain silo by the barn. Cai has plans to eventually turn the property into a foundation and open it to the public; the renovated horse barn, which Cai now uses as a studio. The space is 14,000 square feet.
From left: The rear of the house abuts an old grain silo by the barn. Cai has plans to eventually turn the property into a foundation and open it to the public; the renovated horse barn, which Cai now uses as a studio. The space is 14,000 square feet.

Their relationship grew from there, and in 2013, Cai and Gehry traveled together to Cai’s hometown of Quanzhou to present a proposal for a contemporary art museum in that city. Quanzhou, a port town on China’s southeast coast, is more than 1,000 years old, its center filled with ancient buildings. The local government has started to develop a new city outside the old one. For Cai and Gehry’s museum, they imagine a structure reminiscent of a flower, the color a rusted red that recalls the traditional tiles of Quanzhou rooftops. ‘‘It’s far more than just a Western architect designing a Western-looking building,’’ Cai told me. ‘‘He references the local culture and history.’’ The project is mired in local bureaucracy, but Cai is optimistic, while Gehry, perhaps predictably, has a bleaker outlook: ‘‘They would like us to design it, but I don’t think we’re going to.’’ (Cai also has plans for a small cultural retreat on Mount Qingyuan, outside the city of Quanzhou, called the Cai Guo-Qiang Institute for Contemporary Art and Culture, that he has asked Gehry to design as well.) For now, though, there is the house, a place to live and work and a small monument to Cai and Gehry’s friendship.

A common critique of Gehry’s work, Cai admitted, is that his buildings are impractical, mere spectacles, but the artist disagrees, describing the architect as ‘‘very conscientious.’’ After walking the grounds, we sat in the small room that serves as a kind of crossroads between the main house and the guest wing. ‘‘When he worked on the design,’’ Cai said, ‘‘I felt this was a waste of area. But when I finally started living here, I realised my whole family loved sitting here. They feel as if they are in nature.’’ He got up to open a door, letting air and insects into the room, unbothered, and for a while we sat, listening to the birds.