The divisive architect behind the sculptured facades is brought to life in a new biography
No architect since Frank Lloyd Wright has produced a more innovative body of work, achieved such widespread fame, and polarised opinion so sharply as Frank Gehry. Both Franks had rollercoaster careers as they struggled for acceptance and solvency, and both were hailed as geniuses and dismissed as impractical dreamers, even charlatans. Uncompromising loners, they invented their own, constantly evolving language of architecture, and created buildings that dazzled or bewildered their contemporaries. The big difference, as Paul Goldberger points out in his accomplished biography, is that ‘Wright was never mistaken for being modest; Gehry often was.’ Self-doubt was unknown to the master but repeatedly tormented his successor.
As architecture critic of The New York Times, Goldberger was drawn to the West-Coast Wunderkind early on, and this book is the product of 40 years of conversations with Gehry, reviews of his buildings and interviews with a wide spectrum of friends and clients. Thoroughly researched, it’s an engaging study of a deeply conflicted man, who masks a fierce ambition to excel and be liked behind a casual, aw-shucks manner. In contrast to the well-tailored products of Ivy League architecture schools, Frank sports baggy jackets and black T-shirts, and he dropped out of the Harvard GSD to audit classes on a wide variety of subjects.
‘His passion for art and classical music fuels his creativity, and at age 86 he is still at the top of his game’
His passion for art and classical music fuels his creativity, and at age 86 he is still at the top of his game, collaborating with talented design partners on projects as varied as the spectacular Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum and a pro-bono youth centre in Watts. He’s building a new house for himself and his Panamanian-born wife, a loose composition of exposed beams and floating roof planes that has affinities to the 2008 Serpentine Pavilion. His architect son, Sam, was put in charge of both projects.
For decades, the LA establishment perceived Gehry as an outsider, even a crazy – for his use of plywood and chain link, his playful ideas and unwillingness to conform to the staid status quo. Passed over for the LA Museum of Contemporary Art commission, he turned a warehouse into the Temporary Contemporary, a space that artists love. It anticipated a wave of factory conversions, from Mass MoCA to Dia:Beacon. He was nearly shut out of the competition for Walt Disney Concert Hall, even though his proposal was vastly superior as a response to site and programme than those of Böhm, Hollein and Stirling. Gehry was awarded the Pritzker soon after and the Bilbao Guggenheim proved that he could complete a building of great complexity on time and within a tight budget. That success jump-started the long-delayed Disney Hall, but his authority was still being challenged on the eve of construction.
Goldberger chronicles these highs and lows in a neutral tone, but his account goes far to explain the antagonism that Gehry attracts. Sheer incomprehension plays a large part. Every innovative structure provokes an initial wave of puzzlement, even hostility, which often mellows into affection within a few years. You can imagine the average Roman as well as elderly senators deploring the cost and novelty of the Pantheon. The Eiffel Tower was pilloried as a monster that would forever destroy the harmony of Paris. The first image of Walt Disney Hall was dismissed as ‘a pile of broken china’, before becoming the city’s new icon.
Gehry made early use of ‘cheapskate’ materials, inspired by the assemblages of Rauschenberg and other artists – for aesthetic reasons and because that was all his budgets would permit. That reputation lingered on, discrediting him with his peers and conventional clients. It was suggested that his love of spontaneous artistic gestures compromised his architectural ability. But, as Goldberger observes, ‘Gehry’s buildings were no more the result of accident than [Pollock’s] drip paintings, and at their best they possessed a similar kind of strange, new, intense and energetic beauty.’
‘You can imagine the average Roman as well as elderly senators deploring the cost and novelty of the Pantheon’
Inspiration came from many other sources: the folds of drapery on sculptures by Bernini and Claus Sluter, the commercial vernacular of LA, and the kinetic properties of a fish. Though Gehry understood that architecture had to accept physical and financial constraints, many people (including artists such as Richard Serra) accused him of straying into alien territory.
Add to those prejudices the usual quotient of professional jealousy, popular resentment of anyone who becomes too successful and celebrated, and the missteps of an architect who is always trying to scale a higher peak, and it becomes clear that every Gehry project will be scrutinised for its faults or dismissed as an unwarranted extravagance. MIT sued the architect for flaws and leaks in the recently completed Stata Center and his critics had a field day. It turned out that all but one minor defect were caused by poor construction and unauthorised changes. Moralists are especially upset that Gehry now works for major developers, plutocrats and detestable regimes. So do most of his peers but somehow he seems a more inviting target. Like them he has put his name on baubles for luxury brands – jewellery for Tiffany’s, a torqued bag for Louis Vuitton – but he walked away from Easy Edges, his first line of cardboard furniture, when its success threatened to overshadow his architectural practice. Over and again, he has quit profitable relationships in order to preserve his integrity and create on his own terms.
His instinct for self-preservation has saved him on many occasions, but he must wish he had questioned the commission to design the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington DC, and remembered the vilification of Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. In the US capital, originality is deeply mistrusted, and Albert Speer would feel entirely at home among most of the postwar buildings. The printed mesh screens Gehry proposed to shut out a mundane office block were likened by Anne Eisenhower, the late president’s granddaughter, to the fences around Nazi concentration camps. No architect deserves that kind of abuse.
Though Goldberger devotes a lot of his space to exploring Gehry’s tangled relationships with his family and a burgeoning flock of friends and associates, he leaves room for sharp assessments of the work. ‘Frank’s house was like the sketches Franz Kline did on pages torn from the telephone directory, where Kline’s bold lines of force played off against the more genteel, ordered background of the printed page,’ he writes. Walt Disney Hall is described as ‘an ode to the joy of architecture and music’. In the Louis Vuitton Foundation, ‘Frank managed to wrap early and middle Gehry inside late Gehry, at once looking back on his career and moving it forward.’
There are a few factual errors and a sprinkling of typos – do publishers no longer employ proof-readers? – and from time to time the details pile up. Party menus and guest lists should be relegated to the social column. One could have wished for more photographs, though the catalogue for last year’s Pompidou retrospective (now being reprised at LACMA) includes an up-to-date selection. Gehry’s many admirers will gain a lot of fresh insights from this biography as the man behind the sculptured facades is brought to life, and even his most determined foes may have a few second thoughts.
Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry
Author: Paul Goldberger
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Lead Image: Courtesy of Gehry Partners