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Frank Gehry (1929-)

Gehry’s enduring career spotlights a world that has long lain waste to the spatial conceptions and obligations of the Renaissance

Frankgehry portrait niklascoskan architecturalreview

Frankgehry portrait niklascoskan architecturalreview

Illustration by Niklas Coskan

While having a big ego, he’s highly sensitive, while being the original starchitect, he hates the term. While convinced of function, his buildings appear to defy the notion. There are more than sixty Gehry books on Amazon, but somehow there’s little appeal to reading them. He elevated his own signature to the building art, but is very much a team player. When everybody else is ready to quit, apparently that’s exactly when he gets started. He’s jumped off every cliff himself, but he’s also a cultural phenomenon; firmly commodified. He’s ‘grouchy’ but also ‘sweet’ (perhaps just awesomely Pisces). And according to Rowan Moore, even the much vaunted ‘Bilbao Effect’ (fake) was pretty much a consequence of unique conditions, and therefore unlikely to be repeated (authentic).

As the most famous architect in the world today (and it’s tawdry to blame that on The Simpsons), Frank Gehry’s reputation takes a little unscrambling. 

Mark Rappolt tried gamely to analyse Frank’s sketches in the hefty Gehry Draws (2004). Bombarded with so many clues and plenty of action, we remained a little in the dark regarding motive. For the cognoscenti, a satisfying plot refused to unravel as it should. Paul Goldberger took on his biography; it’s exhaustive but sticks close to the script. Even given Gehry’s tough early life and general quirkiness, it offers no Rosebud. Even the best book on Gehry, Frank Gehry: Buildings and Projects (1990) could only give us the first half of the story; the stuff architects still love him for.  

Frankgehry 1991 guggenheimbilbaosketch architectural review

Frankgehry 1991 guggenheimbilbaosketch architectural review

Gehry’s 1991 sketches of the Bilbao Guggenheim. Image courtesy of Gehry Partners, LLP

Frankgehry louisvuitton paris drawing architectural review

Frankgehry louisvuitton paris drawing architectural review

Drawing of the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris

But by putting four section drawings together on the same page – those of the Wagner House (1978), the Vitra Design Museum (1989), Guggenheim, Bilbao (1997) and the Louis Vuitton, Paris (2014) – we get the kind of sequence traditionally used to demonstrate, say, the development of the Gothic cathedral over four hundred years, yet done by one man over a mere forty; with a trajectory resembling some kind of controlled explosion.

Arriving in Los Angeles in 1947, Gehry fell in with those ‘studs on the range’ artists of the Ferus Gallery (Ed Ruscha, Robert Irwin and LA art’s first wave of cool). He wasn’t necessarily like them; they called him ‘the most unobtrusive man they’d ever met’, but he bought their art when nobody else did. Digging their approach, he joined in, and in 1972 completed an unusual house for Ron Davis. When Philip Johnson paid a visit, Davis thought it was to view his paintings.

This house, an enigmatic wonky trapezoid, was followed by a trio of unbuilt houses in the late 1970s – the Gunther, Wagner and Familian – all shouting wit, intelligence, cool art practice, as well as a fresh interpretation of site and culture. 

Frankgehry housesantamonica susanwood architectural review

Frankgehry housesantamonica susanwood architectural review

Gehry’s own house in Santa Monica, which gleefully cannabalised an existing dwelling. Photography courtesy of Susan Wood / Getty Images

Frankgehry chiat day binoculars venice bobak ha'eri architectural review

Frankgehry chiat day binoculars venice bobak ha’eri architectural review

The Chiat/Day Binoculars Building in Venice, California (1985). Photograph courtesy of Bobak Ha’Eri / Wikimedia

But it was Gehry’s extensions to his own house in Santa Monica in 1978 that provided the shock to really accelerate his career. Hated by neighbours and sometimes even by genteel guests, it proved a media sensation, becoming his first ‘must see’ destination. Next came the Norton house on Venice Beach, eerily predating Baywatch, then the Binoculars Building, also in Venice, originally an advertising agency, and the aviation museum, complete with stuck-on fighter plane. More conservative improvements to the Loyola university campus even found Frank dabbling in boisterous block-like neoclassicism. These either felt like a constant series of smart pop songs or irritating jingles.

‘Gehry’s unbuilt houses of the late 1970s all shout wit, intelligence, cool art practice, as well as a fresh interpretation of site and culture’

So gradually the architect of shopping centres who was told architecture was not for him in school, shrugged off the conventions, to assimilate ‘happenings’, Oldenburg, De Stijl, Japan, jazz, fish, Jung, snakes and the kitchen sink, to become as authentic an architect for the Nowhere City as he might have been a character in Alison Lurie’s novel; with an office slap bang on the beach and movie-star interns.

Biography

Key works: 

Own private residence, Santa Monica, California, USA, 1978
Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany, 1989
Chiat/Day Building, Venice, California, USA, 1991
Dancing House,  Prague,  Czech Republic, 1996
Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain, 1997
Museum of Pop Culture, Seattle, USA, 2000 
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, USA, 2003 
MARTa Herford, Herford, Germany, 2005 
8 Spruce Street, Lower Manhattan, New York City, USA, 2011
Louis Vuitton Foundation, Paris, France, 2014
Biomuseo, Panama City, Panama, 2014
University of Technology, Sydney, Australia, 2015

Awards:

Pritzker Architecture Prize, 1989
Praemium Imperiale, 1992
AIA Gold Medal, 1999
Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2016

Quote:

‘In the world we are living in, 98 per cent of what gets built and designed today is pure shit’

Specifically, this in a context where selling mattered. Gehry’s work is not so much seen as representative of the social, political and economic framework, but as something that actually helps it. This knack was recognised early by Victor Gruen, but on an early hiatus abroad, Frank refused his offer to head up mall design across France, and returned to LA where the eventual Gehry palette became a new vernacular for edge city mini-marts and coffee-shop plazas all over; a world of exposed galvanised steelwork and ubiquitous sticky-out bits. And this Gehry gift just kept on giving; stupefied Bilbao visitors apparently contributing 100m Euros extra per year to the regional coffers in the first three years after opening with Gehry becoming the doyen of Business Insider.

But grasping Funky Frank can feel like catching the debris of some interminable therapy session (‘I might do Mies next’, he said recently); the stripping of wall back to frame, the dissing of architect’s rendering in favour of structural engineer’s drawing, picket fence to chicken wire, furniture to cardboard, then recombination via appliqué and assemblage toward the pioneering expression of fire escapes, then the imposition of such odd things as giant binoculars and fighter planes, until, with the adoption of CATIA computing, he moved from drawing to dancing with military software that became folds or sails of bent titanium; all the time getting to the essence of something; that something being him. 

Gehry las vegas

Gehry las vegas

Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas (2010). Photograph courtesy of Monster4711/Wikimedia

Frankgehry foundationluma architectural review

Frankgehry foundationluma architectural review

Fondation Luma, Arles, France, 2018. Photograph courtesy of Foundation Luma

In the world of political economy, amateur Marxists might define it more a case of in the beginning what you see is what you get (it’s cheerful and cheap and, if you like, an expression of use value). Then the wall section pumps up and finally explodes into pure spectacle; becoming ineffable and expensive and (if you like) suddenly and absolutely in the world of exchange. Moving from art to handbags (and incumbent moral turpitude), Gehry has finally managed to demonstrate that all that’s solid really does melt into air.

Meanwhile, this is also a man who rejected, to his cost, a funding package for his Easy Edges furniture range from the man who made Vidal Sassoon a household name. This bendy furniture, now largely forgotten, might provide some indication of consistency, but if there is one thing about Gehry’s creativity, it’s restless, and therefore ill-disposed to consistency. He does, after all, think most of what we have done postwar is dull. He jumps up and down on one of those Easy Edges desks to demonstrate, ostensibly, its strength, but inherently (still waving his briefcase) a more fundamental frustration at the world in general. 

Frankgehry 1972 easyedges ralphmorse architectural review

Frankgehry 1972 easyedges ralphmorse architectural review

Gehry jumping up and down on a desk that formed part of his 1972 Easy Edges line of cardboard furniture. Image courtesy of Ralph Morse / The Life Picture Collection / Getty Images

But Gehry has always been smart. Whatever his buildings may look like, he has never ditched the basic architectural vocabulary, never utters a word of pretentious theory and always plays the architect straight. To parody Dave Hickey on Robert Mitchum; Frank Gehry is believable as a result of a particular method; ‘Touch the world. Set the pace. Fuck the text.’

And while studied critics try to defeat the cult of personality, with Frank there’s absolutely no point. Of course he’s been built as much as he has built. A design tactic that delivers hats to Lady Gaga is not an accident, even if the result looks it. The late Gehrys are just architecture’s selfies. 

‘If there is one thing about Gehry’s creativity, it’s restless, and therefore ill-disposed to consistency’

And all this brings on the critical sneer. He’s only a genius to numbskulls. But Gehry ‘doesn’t do criticism’, in the same the way that Peter Eisenman ‘doesn’t do function’. And all the time nobody has been more disarmingly frank about Frank than Frank himself.

So you shouldn’t get too het up about it; don’t even look at the Biomuseo in Panama or the Experience Music Project in Seattle or the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas if you are of a sentimental disposition or bereft of a sufficiently macabre sense of humour. Just because the vogue is to say he lost it years ago, it doesn’t make him less important and representative.

Frankgehry gesture jlcereijido architectural review

Frankgehry gesture jlcereijido architectural review

Image courtesy of J.L.Cereijido / EPA / REX / Shutterstock

By appearing to scrub out firmness and commodity (Gehry would absolutely blow-up here – only idiots would believe such a thing) and focusing strictly on the transitory pleasures of delight via line (was that a passion for ice hockey?), his second half (going on third period) set about contradicting some very conventional maxims; suddenly art and architecture might be the same, architecture could be like jazz, and so on. All of this might appear tosh. But then he dismissed a further basic convention; that the three-dimensional piece of architecture was developed via two-dimensional means; plans, sections and elevations. Those of us in architectural education stared at the apocalypse; any kid can screw up a piece of paper. Materials were, of course, as always, just ‘really great’ or ‘too expensive’; responsibility to the client remained sacred, with no tiresome evocations of ‘truth’ or even sensibility. Then, he literally flipped us the finger. And we should be so surprised?

For historical comparison, and if you reject ideology, Bernini represents lineage: art, architecture, sculpture all as one, with none to match, but the comparison is rather flimsy. Superficial folding is one thing, but Gehry’s enduring career spotlights a world that has long lain waste to the spatial conceptions and obligations of the Renaissance. And sure, the Bilbao Guggenheim didn’t do anything for the local artists either, being a repository for international superstars. It’s the Pompidou effect; the more vivid the architecture, the murkier the wider good. In the end, the Gehry phenomenon mirrors our culture at large; it’s in your face evidence, and while this may raise many qualms, perhaps we should be more grateful for the lesson he’s had the balls to give.

This piece is featured in the AR’s May 2018 issue on Intensity – click here to purchase a copy.