Frank O. Gehry

Frank O. Gehry (Frank O. Goldberg; born 1929) was an American architect whose sculptured designs and use of vernacular materials won him somewhat belated but widespread recognition.

Frank O. Gehry was born in 1929 in Toronto, Canada, and moved to Los Angeles in 1947 with his parents, Irving and Thelma Goldberg (he changed his name in the mid-1950s). He studied at the University of Southern California from 1949 to 1951. After receiving practical experience as a designer in a Los Angeles firm, he returned to USC to complete his Bachelor of Architecture degree in 1954. Gehry studied City Planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in Massachusetts, an important center for the dissemination of the International Style. Leaving Harvard in 1957, the architect returned to the West Coast to work for a variety of firms before opening his own practice, Frank O. Gehry and Associates, Inc., in Los Angeles in 1962.

In retrospect it seems understandable that Gehry would move quickly to establish himself as an independent because he was a highly individual designer and talent. Gehry's childhood idol was Frank Lloyd Wright, who created a number of homes in the Los Angeles area during the 1920s. The bold individuality of Wright's California dwellings had an impact on Gehry's attitude toward house design. Also as a result of living and working in California, Gehry was exposed to the so-called "California progressives". Prominent in this group were Bernard Maybeck, Irving Gill, and Charles and Henry Greene; these designers were interested in experimentation with structure, materials, or form. Yet any suggestion that Gehry is a direct descendant of the progressive movement in California radically underestimates his own unique nature.

Critics falter when attempting to label or categorize Frank Gehry's work and attitudes. While some have called his architecture "post-modern" (referring to a movement that rejects the International Style in favor of pre-modernist ideas and models), Gehry's attitude is neither modern nor post-modern. Others have labeled him a deconstructivist, pairing him with such contemporary figures as Peter Eisenman who dismember (or "deconstruct") traditional shapes and forms in an attempt to free architecture from its theoretical and historical past. In short, what makes Gehry difficult to classify is his freedom from the constraints of popular theories, both past and present.

While Gehry rejects the minimalism of International Style architecture, he does appreciate the movement's love of man-made materials. Gehry goes further than International Style designers in embracing corrugated metal, chain link, and plywood. He celebrates these 20th-century materials in what he calls "cheapscape architecture." Gehry used these materials in his "Santa Monica Place", a low-budget shopping mall and parking garage of 1979-1981, as well as in his own home, also in Santa Monica, of 1977-1979. Yet through the years these inexpensive materials have become common in his work and are even regarded by some as his "signature".

If some of Gehry's buildings, including his residence in Santa Monica, appear to display qualities of deconstructivist architecture, they are created without the intellectual baggage of that movement. In his house project, the architect purchased a quaint 1920s suburban home, and wrapped it in chain link, other metals, plywood, and glass, thus creating the effect of an old house carefully preserved inside a newer one. Here his impulse was anything but deconstructivist; the "old" house gave meaning to the "new," and vice versa.

Gehry's architecture is characterized by an inclusive approach. He designs his buildings with a concern for the way people move through them. They are able to live and work comfortably within the spaces that he has created. His buildings are created to address the culture and context of their sites. In 1995 Gehry designed a building for the Department of Art at the University of Toledo, Canada; the building's architectural form was intended to represent the students' creative energy. In 1997 Gehry worked with the Experience Music Project (EMP) to design a 110,000 square foot complex scheduled to open in 1999 and comprised of an interactive museum, education center, and restaurant/nightclub showcasing live music. In the spirit of capturing the nature of contemporary music, the design for the building calls for fractured forms that will resemble guitar bodies. Exhibition spaces will resemble industrial rooms with pull down doors - a tribute to contemporary bands' beginnings in warehouses and garages. "I share EMP's goal of creating a place where the exhibits and the building treat music as a living and evolving art form," Gehry said in an article in TCI, March 1997.

Gehry stated once that "I approach each building as a sculptural object." In keeping with his sensitivity to sculpture and painting, Gehry enjoyed working with other artists in creating multimedia pieces. Perhaps the most famous of these projects was his collaboration with Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen in an outdoor theater spectacular in Venice in the mid-1980s. The architect has said that the irreverent Oldenburg was a continuing source of inspiration. Gehry also worked with the sculptor Richard Serra. An outgrowth of their contact was a furniture series in which Gehry created a number of lamps that resembled coiled fish. Other official contacts with the arts community have included the designing of homes for artists, as in Gehry's 1972 Malibu studio for the painter Ron Davis.

Partly because of his irreverent approach to design, Gehry belatedly received recognition from the official world of art and architecture. An important showing of his work at the Whitney Museum of Art in 1988 signaled the beginning of this new attitude of respect and appreciation. The following year he received the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the profession's top international award. In 1991 Gehry won two awards from the American Institute of Architects for a "spunky and provocative" nine-story warehouse in Boston and a "village-like" sequence of low buildings for a furniture maker in Rocklin, California. In 1992 Gehry was awarded the Wolf Prize in Art, as well as the Imperiale Award in Architecture given by the Japan Art Association. In October 1994, Gehry became the first recipient of the Lillian Gish Award for lifetime contribution to the arts.

Gehry's models, drawings, sketches and furniture designs have been collected in important museums all over the world and presented in numerous exhibitions. One of the most important exhibitions was presented in 1986 by the Walker Art Museum in Minnesota. The exhibit toured throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Further Reading on Frank O. Gehry

To learn more about the architecture of Gehry and his peers— and see excellent illustrations of their works—consult Post-modern Visions, edited by Heinrich Klotz (1985) and The Language of Post-Modern Architecture by Charles Jencks (1987). Two fine collections of writings on contemporary architecture that feature chapters on Gehry's house in Santa Monica are The Secret Life of Buildings (1985) by Gavin Macrae-Gibson and The Critical Edge (1985) by Tod Marder. Two monographs devoted to the life and works of Gehry are The Architecture of Frank Gehry (1988) and Frank Gehry: Buildings and Projects (1986), edited by Peter Arnell and Ted Bickford. Paul Goldberger has written several interesting articles on the architect, including "Studied Slapdash" in the New York Times Magazine (January 18, 1976). A perceptive appraisal of Gehry's place in the contemporary architectural scene is Janet Nairn's "Frank Gehry: the Search for a 'No Rules' Architecture" in Architectural Record (June 1976).

For autobiographical works see: Gehry, Frank O., Individual Imagination and Cultural Conservatism, Volume I, Academy Editions, 1995. For biographical resources about Frank Gehry see: Eisennan, Peter and Gehry, Frank, Peter Eisennan and Frank Gehry, Rizolli International Publications, 1991 and Steele, James, Schnabel House: Frank Gehry (Architecture in Detail), Phaidon Chronicle Books, 1993.

For periodical articles about Frank Gehry see: Architectural Record, July 1993; May 1994; and TCI, March 1997.

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