Frank Gehry’s signature curving metal siding has become ubiquitous around the world. He is known for his design of high profile buildings like the Bilbao Museum in Spain. Come discover some of his most spectacular designs, as well as some of his less well known creations.
I remember the first time I saw a Frank Gehry building it was in Spain at the Bilbao Museum. I was in awe of the otherworldly quality, and the shimmering surface of the building in the sun. I still have a postcard from the moment, and since then have had the opportunity to see other buildings by the famed architect.
Frank Gehry’s Early Life
Gehry was born Frank Goldberg in Toronto, Ontario. Frank Goldberg and his sister, Doreen, were raised not only by their parents but by their grandparents. The young Frank Goldberg spent Saturday mornings at his grandfather’s hardware store, using the wood chippings he found there to build miniature imagined cities with his grandmother. Some critics believe that these activities inspired the architect to go on to use everyday materials such as plywood in his work. It is clear that his childhood had a great impact on his work. During Frank Goldberg’s teenage years, his family experienced financial hardship as a result of poor investments as well as new gambling laws that had an impact on his father’s business. This, along with Irving Goldberg’s ill health, prompted the family to move from Toronto to Los Angeles in 1947 for a fresh start. This was a turning point for Frank Goldberg, who would later become known for his Californian style of design.
Arriving in Los Angeles in his late teens, Gehry initially tried a number of professions including truck driving, radio announcing, and chemical engineering. Struggling to find a course and career that interested him he “remembered art, that I loved going to museums and I loved looking at paintings, loved listening to music. Those things came from my mother, who took me to concerts and museums. I remembered Grandma and the blocks, and just on a hunch, I tried some architecture classes.” Despite finding architectural drafting difficult, Gehry persevered and with encouragement from his teachers and the help of scholarships, he graduated from the University of Southern California with an architecture degree in 1954. By this time, the young architect had married Anita Snyder, a transcriber with whom he had two daughters, Brina and Leslie. Snyder supported Gehry during his years at university and some biographers credit her with the decision to change the family surname, owing to concerns that their children – like Gehry – would be the victims of anti-Semitic abuse. Regardless of when this change occurred, Gehry later said that he regretted changing his name, noting that he “wouldn’t do it today”. Having graduated in the middle of the post-war housing boom in Los Angeles, Gehry began to work full-time for the architectural firm Victor Gruen Associates, where he had apprenticed as a student. In the same year, however, he was drafted into the US army under a new recruitment drive and, whilst serving, became involved in designing furniture for soldiers. It is said that Gehry’s pieces were so well-designed that they continually ended up in the officers’ quarters. He would later bring out a line of cardboard furniture called Easy Edges (1969), inspired by this work, and a further line Bentwood.
Frank Gehry’s Career
Frank Gehry’s career has been long and illustrious. In 1962, Gehry established his own architectural practice in Los Angeles. Whilst his early projects were typical of modernism – characterised by symmetry and clean geometry – Gehry was soon inspired by artists such as Ed Moses and Billy Al Bengstone to pursue a more experimental style that made use of found objects and waste material. He began to expose the usually hidden elements of buildings such as unpainted plywood, rough concrete and corrugated metal, or in the words of journalist Richard Lacayo to “insinuate odd bits of business into his designs” in an attempt to “humanize” them. In 1966 Gehry and his wife divorced and in 1975 he married Berta Isabel Aguilera, with whom he went on to have two sons. It is never entirely clear the effect of personal life on the careers of great designers, but it is part of the tapestry of his life.
One of the best expressions of Gehry’s early experimental style can be found in his own house in Santa Monica (1978), which retained the original 1920s building wrapped in a contemporary design. It was built with the proceeds from the Easy Edges furniture line which attracted national attention and began to popularize Gehry’s aesthetic. The house acted as a showcase for his work and although appalling his neighbours it attracted critical attention that encouraged Gehry to pursue this approach in his commercial designs. The writer and broadcaster Kurt Andersen wrote, in the 1980s, “[Gehry] may no longer be written off as an idiosyncratic California bad boy. He must be regarded as one of the two or three more important members of the late-modernist generation”. In 1989 Gehry was awarded the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize – the panel having been impressed by Gehry’s ambition and experimentation (which they compared to that of Picasso) and the theatrical nature of his work. There are, however, some critics who to this day disagree. They describe his work as all looks no substance, and characterize him as chasing large corporate projects. If this is true, it is true of many other architects of his generation as well.
The Pritzker prize prompted several international commissions for Gehry including the Fishdance Restaurant in Kobe, Japan (1986), the Vitra Design Museum in Germany (1987) and several projects in California such as the Los Angeles Aerospace Museum (1982). In the museum, in particular, Gehry demonstrated his playfulness – placing a futuristic F104 Starfighter jet over the main entrance, angled as though launching from the building. Similarly, his design for the West Coast headquarters of advertising firm Chiat Day featured an entrance that resembled a pair of giant binoculars.
The completion of the Guggenheim in Bilbao (1997), marked another turning point for the architect. The building received critical acclaim both for its appearance and economic impact on the area. It broke definitively with his modernism of earlier decades and, although it attracted some criticism for being “gratuitously eccentric”, established Gehry as a leading international architect. Gehry went on to produce several more landmark buildings including the Walt Disney Concert Hall(2003) in Downtown Los Angeles (“the most effective answer to doubters, naysayers, and grumbling critics an American architect has ever produced” –LA Times), the New World Center (2011) in Miami Beach (“a piece of architecture that dares you to underestimate it or write it off at first glance.” –LA Times) and the Biomuseo (2014), a biodiversity museum in Panama City, Panama. A proposal to connect the Walt Disney Concert Hall to Los Angeles City Hall with a new thoroughfare is currently underway and marks the sweeping impact of Gehry’s vision on the area. He is now aged 93, and continuing to work and design.
5 of Frank Gehry’s Most Famous Buildings
1. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California
Gehry was shortlisted to devise a new home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1988; the project, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, finally opened in 2003. Today critics and the public agree that the iconic building was worth the wait. Reflecting Gehry’s longtime passion for sailing, the structure’s exterior features expanses of stainless steel that billow above Grand Avenue, while inside, similarly shaped panels of Douglas fir line the auditorium. One of the most acoustically sophisticated concert halls in the world, the Walt Disney Concert Hall
From the stainless steel curves of its striking exterior to the state-of-the-art acoustics of the hardwood-paneled main auditorium, the 3.6-acre complex embodies the unique energy and creative spirit of the city of Los Angeles and its orchestra. Walt Disney Concert Hall is home to the LA Phil – one of the world’s preeminent orchestras – and an unrivalled venue for classical music, contemporary music, world music and jazz.
2. Chiat/Day Complex, Venice, California
If you Google “Chiat/Day Building,” you’ll get search results for what is commonly known as the Binoculars Building. One look at this memorable structure, and you know why. But the alarmingly accurate field glasses design is just one part of a three-part complex of buildings. Today, the search engine and internet giant itself—Google Los Angeles—occupies office space in this southern California real estate. For an academic project in Italy, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen had made a small model of “a theater and library in the form of standing pair of binoculars.” The project went unbuilt, and the model ended up in Frank Gehry’s office. “From the beginning of my adult life,” Frank Gehry has told journalist Barbara Isenberg, “I always related more to artists than to architects.” Architect Gehry has been longtime friends with many modern artists, including the late sculptor Coosje van Bruggen and her artist husband Claes Oldenburg, creators of the Binoculars Building.
3. Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany
The Vitra Design Museum is dedicated to the research and presentation of design, past and present, and examines its relationship to architecture, art and everyday culture. The Vitra Design Museum was founded in 1989 by the Vitra company and Rolf Fehlbaum, now Chairman Emeritus. Originally conceived for the purpose of displaying a private furniture collection, the museum initially produced smaller exclusive exhibitions. The first major internationally acclaimed exhibitions were presented in the opening decade, including retrospectives on Charles and Ray Eames, Frank Lloyd Wright and Luis Barragán, along with influential thematic exhibitions on Czech Cubism and the future of mobility. In addition, the museum produces workshops, publications and museum products, as well as maintaining an archive, a restoration and conservation laboratory, and a research library.
4. Gehry House, Santa Monica, California
When Frank Gehry and his wife bought an existing house in Santa Monica, California, the neighbors did not have the slightest idea that the corner residence would soon be transformed into a symbol of deconstructivism. Gehry, however, knew something had to be done to the house before he moved in. His solution was a bold one in the 1970’s that involved the “balance of fragment and whole, raw and refined, new and old” and would strike up controversy. Gehry actually did keep the existing house almost completely in tact, but not in a conventional manner. The Dutch colonnial home was left in tact and the new house was built around it. Holes were made, walls were stripped, torn down and put up, and the old quiet house became a loud shriek of contemporary style among the neighboring mansions–literally. Neighbors hated it, but that did not change the fact that the house was a statement of art entwined with architecture. It appears as if cubes of glass and wood were dropped into a shipping container, yet somehow elegant and beautiful. Gehry’s design wrapped around three sides of the old house on the ground floor, extending the house towards the street and leaving the exterior of the existing home almost untouched. The interior went through a considerable amount of changes on both if its two levels. In some places it was stripped to reveal the framing, exposing the joists and wood studs. It was repaired according to the addition, showing both old and new elements.
5. Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain
The Guggenheim’s satellite in Bilbao, Spain, multiplied the museum’s exhibition space in a mountain of stone, glass, and titanium that follows the contours of the Nervión river. Design and construction of the Guggenheim Bilbao went largely unnoticed in the press, so the building’s 1997 opening produced an explosion of publicity, securing Gehry’s place as a master among architects and jolting the Bilbao economy. Bilbao is a small town on the Basque coasts of Spain, bordering France. With 24,000 m2, of which 9.000 are dedicated to exhibition space, the Museum represents an architectural landmark of audacious configuration and innovating design, providing a seductive backdrop for the art exhibited in it. Altogether, Gehry’s design creates a spectacular sculpture-like structure, perfectly integrated within Bilbao’s urban pattern and its surrounding area. It represents “one of those rare moments when critics, academics, and the general public were all completely united about something”, according to architectural critic Paul Goldberger. The museum was the building most frequently named as one of the most important works completed since 1980 in the 2010 World Architecture Survey among architecture experts.
Frank Genry’s Furniture Design
While he is more well known for his architecture, Gehry is also a prolific designer of furniture. In the 1980s, Gehry returned to furniture design and created his Experimental Edges furniture, again out of corrugated and laminated cardboard. The Experimental Edges series was “art furniture,” in many ways similar to the work of Ron Arad and Tom Dixon, who used materials such as corrugated iron, plaster, industrial girders and wicker. The concept was an indication of Gehry’s affinity for exploring structural strength and form in uncommon materials through mastery of engineering.
The early 1990s brought the development of Gehry’s sculptural and gallery-ready Cross Check series for Knoll International. This collection of bentwood tables and chairs was a radically inventive use of materials: The chairs were made of “woven” strips of maple –taking inspiration from wooden apple crates – and required no additional structural support. Gehry also designed a series of Fish Lamps using ColorCore Formica, which are now in private and museum collections. In early 2004, Gehry completed his year-long collaboration with Emeco to create the Superlight™ Chair, a dynamic new aluminum design that debuted at Milan’s 2004 Salone Internazionale del Mobile. Weighing in at just 6.5 pounds, the Superlight blends strength with fluidity and comfort by gently moving with the sitter. Inspired by Gio Ponti’s Superleggera Chair, the Superlight illustrates Gehry’s architectural fascination with aluminum as both structure and skin and his proficiency in meshing components of engineering and design to create innovative, user-friendly furniture. His furniture uses the same curving lines that characterize the buildings he has created. The use of downscale materials, like cardboard also aligns with his use of materials like corrugated metal for buildings. Gehry’s furniture makes sense with his other design work, yet also presents something new, and interesting that he isn’t able to do in the large scale of architecture.
Frank Gehry has led a long career, and made a massive impact on the field of architecture and design. Most would describe his work as falling into the category of deconstructivism: a movement belonging to contemporary architecture, and was developed to oppose the ordered rationality of modernism. Its non-linear style and defiance in the face of symmetrical shapes propelled the creation of buildings with a unique visual appearance. While he is an often quoted architect of the movement, it is clear he has also created something entirely his own. You can now attend a Masterclass with Gehry himself, where in 17 lessons, Frank teaches his unconventional philosophy on architecture, design, and art!