February 28, 1929 • Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Over the years many adjectives have been used to describe Frank Gehry's creations, including edgy, forward-looking, astonishing, and weird. Anything but ordinary, Gehry challenged the mainstream in the 1970s and 1980s when he used everyday materials such as cardboard to make furniture, and chain-link fencing to construct buildings. Collectors sought his whimsical lamps and chairs, and Gehry-designed office buildings and homes were scattered in cities all over the world, but the maverick architect did not achieve real fame until the late 1990s. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, unveiled by Gehry in 1997, made him a celebrity at the age of sixty-eight. Since then, countless urban commissions have come Gehry's way, and he is considered to be one of the most important and innovative architects of the twenty-first century. In October of 2003, the Los Angeles landscape was enhanced by Gehry's latest triumph, the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Frank Gehry was born Ephraim Goldberg on February 28, 1929, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He and his sister, Doreen, were raised in Timmins, a small mining town in eastern Ontario, by the extended Goldberg family. Father Irving was a former boxer who traveled selling pinball and slot machines. Sometimes Gehry would make sales calls with his father, which meant that he made frequent stops at bars at a very young age. In a Smithsonian magazine profile, he was quick to point out, "But my mother took me to concerts and introduced me to art, so there was a balance."
Gehry also considers his grandmother to be an early influence. He fondly remembers building imaginary cities with her using woodshavings scavenged from his grandfather's hardware store. He also remembers the carp that his grandmother let swim around in the family bathtub on Friday nights. The Goldbergs were Jewish and gefilte fish, a seasoned ground fish dish, was a favorite for Sabbath, or Saturday night, dinner. In later years Gehry regularly used fish motifs in many of his designs. "I never intended to build fish," Gehry told Kurt Andersen of Time. "In my mind, I say 'Enough with the fish.' But it has a life of its own."
"I'm only an architect, no matter what anybody says—a humble architect."
By the mid-1940s the family was experiencing hardships on several fronts. Following World War II (1939–45) the Canadian government began cracking down on gambling and Irving Goldberg's business suffered. At the same time the family lost most of their savings as a result of some bad investments. Then, in 1947, Goldberg suffered a heart attack, which was severe enough that his doctor suggested a change of scenery to help him recuperate. As a result, the entire family left Canada for Los Angeles, California. Gehry had just graduated from high school, and the move proved to be an important one. He has lived the rest of his life in California, and critics considered him to be very much a California designer—brash, bold, and unpretentious.
Gehry took a job as a truck driver in order to pay for night-school art classes and eventually enrolled in the school of architecture at the University of Southern California (USC). He was inspired to get a degree in architecture by one of his teachers who invited him to visit a construction site. "I was quite moved by watching the architect walking around, supervising, by the things he was worried about," Gehry recalled to Patrick Rogers of People magazine. In 1952 Gehry married his first wife, a stenographer who helped put him through school. The two were married for sixteen years and had two daughters, Brina and Leslie. According to Gehry his wife encouraged him to change his name. Gehry was taunted and beaten up when he was a boy in Toronto because he was Jewish, and his wife feared the same for their children. He now regrets his decision. "I wouldn't do it today," Gehry told Rogers.
After graduating from USC in 1954, Gehry had a one-year stint in the U.S. Army, Special Services Division. It was during this time that he began experimenting with furniture design since his assignment was to make furniture for the enlisted soldiers. Gehry's designs were so good that his tables and chairs usually ended up in the officers' quarters. He then spent a year studying city planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1957 Gehry returned to California and worked for several years with established architecture firms, before opening his own design firm in 1962.
Gehry's early projects were fairly typical of the times and followed the modernist style. Modernist architecture stressed clean, geometric lines, with no clutter and no decoration. Simplicity was key; functionality was the focus. Gehry the artist, however, was itching to experiment. He was very much caught up in the West Coast art movement and counted many emerging artists as his friends, including Ed Moses (1936–) and Billy Al Bengston (1934–). By the mid-1960s, Gehry started to, as Richard Lacayo of Time put it, "insinuate odd bits of business into his designs." He began using materials such as unpainted plywood, rough concrete, and corrugated metal, all of which are usually hidden after a house is "properly finished." As Gehry told Lacayo, "I was trying to humanize stuff."
In 1972 Gehry had his first flirtation with celebrity, not for his architecture, but for a line of furniture made out of layers of corrugated cardboard. Again, Gehry was experimenting with the traditional functions of materials, since cardboard was not usually considered in furniture design. Called Easy Edges, the chairs and tables were lightweight, inexpensive, and fun. Gehry pulled the plug on the project three months into production, claiming he did not want to be tied down by making mass-produced furniture. In the late 1970s he introduced Experimental Edges, a more upscale version of Easy Edges. According to Gehry, the reason he dabbles in furniture design and other small projects is because he gets a "quick fix." "Architecture takes so long," he told Jennifer Barrett of Newsweek. "That's why you do the small stuff—instant gratification."
Gehry undertook a steady stream of business during this period, designing private homes and small public buildings, mostly in California. It was the renovation of his own home in Santa Monica, however, that brought him back into the spotlight. What started out as a simple 1920s pink bungalow turned into what Kurt Andersen described as an "unfinished looking structure from a new-wave Oz." Gehry left the pink exterior of his home intact, but encased it in a shell made from metal, chain-link fencing, and glass. As he explained to Smithsonian, his intention was to "build a new house around the old and try to maintain a tension between the two, by having the one define the other." The bizarre structure caused quite a tension between Gehry and his neighbors, who threatened to take him to court because they considered it an eyesore.
Gehry's once-quiet street became a mecca for architecture students who came from all over the world to see the elaborate pink concoction. Gehry also received a lot of national attention, although not all of it positive. Many of his corporate clients were turned off by the experimental building, and several pulled their contracts. His large-scale business may have suffered, but private clients who commissioned Gehry to renovate studios and homes were more than happy to work with the innovative architect who coined the term cheapscape to describe his style of working with inexpensive, man-made materials. And museum directors, such as Richard Koshalek, head of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), praised him for his vision. Gehry designed a gallery for the MOCA in 1982 that incorporated a chain-link canopy over the street. The gallery was in an industrial section of Los Angeles, and according to Gehry, as quoted by Smithsonian, it "established a territory, and gave the building substance from the outside." In the same article, Koshalek responded, "Frank understands space; many architects don't.... He uses common materials like an artist, with elegance."
Exhilarated by his newfound freedom, Gehry decided that the edge was where he wanted to be, and he started over from scratch. He reduced his office staff from thirty to three and resolved to take on only work that he truly wanted to do. This led to international commissions including the Fishdance Restaurant (1986) in Kobe, Japan, and the Vitra Design Museum (1987) in Germany, and, of course, to several projects based in his native California, such as the California Aerospace Museum in Los Angeles (1982). The museum houses a collection of planes and exhibits and is composed of several different structural shapes, including a metal polygon and a stucco cube. On the front, poised just over the entrance, Gehry attached a F104 Starfighter jet. The jet serves as an immediate "billboard" advertising the function of the building to passersby.
In 1987 Gehry was honored with a retrospective of his works by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and by the late 1980s critics were recognizing him as more than just an eccentric California architect. As Kurt Andersen wrote, "He 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—and maybe the most successful innovator of them all." In 1989 Gehry's peers agreed and awarded him the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the most prestigious honor that can be given to a living architect.
The late 1980s also saw Gehry turning to technology to solve some of his elaborate design problems. Although he begins by physically creating three-dimensional models, sometimes using crumpled paper and soda bottles for the very early ones, computers are necessary to plot out the complicated design specs. Gehry's computer program was adapted from software used in the manufacture of Boeing jets. A decade later, it proved key in designing what became Gehry's most famous building, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. With its swooping titanium arches and jutting wings, it looks like something poised to take flight. Master architect Philip Johnson (1906–), as quoted by Richard Lacayo, proclaimed it to be the "most important building of our time."
The public was also intrigued by Gehry's modern marvel. The Guggenheim, which opened in 1997, drew more than a million visitors its first year, and suddenly Bilbao, a city that was previously unremarkable, became a tourist haven. As Lacayo noted, Gehry "managed to be both intellectually respectable and popular."
After his Guggenheim triumph, Gehry worked harder than ever, both in the United States and around the world. For example, in 1999 he finished the aluminum-covered office complex known as the Frank O. Gehry buildings, in Dusseldorf, Germany. A year later, he unveiled the Music Experience Project in Seattle, Washington, a $100 million interactive rock and roll museum. Gehry returned to Los Angeles, however, to create what many claim is a masterpiece to rival the Guggenheim, the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
The project had been in the works since 1987 when Lillian Disney (1899–1997), widow of American icon Walt Disney (1901–1966), decided to build a new hall to house the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The following year Gehry won the competition to design the hall, which was surprising at the time since he was still known as the weird architect who used chain-link fencing. When faced with his modern, spiraling designs, the ninety-year-old Disney was perplexed. Gehry won her over by showing her the inspiration for his design—a single white rose floating in a bowl of water.
Work on the hall went in fits and starts, stalled over the years by earthquakes, riots, and a lack of funds. In 1997 Lillian Disney died, and many thought perhaps her dream died with her. That same year, however, the Guggenheim opened and Gehry's instant star status infused new life into the proposal. Funding came through, and fifteen years after he began, Gehry unveiled the finished hall in October of 2003. The structure looks like a cascade of shiny, metal ribbon unfurled against the sky.
For the curving interior Gehry used Douglas fir to create comfortable, cozy surroundings for concert-goers, who are also treated to floral-patterned cushioned seats. The seat design is a tribute to Lillian Disney. In addition, since functionality is so central, Gehry wanted the musicians to be happy. He worked closely with a Japanese acoustics company to ensure that his design would provide a perfect harmonious setting. One day while the orchestra was practicing, Gehry was in the audience. "One of the bass players looked at me," he recounted to Lacayo, "and gave me this big thumbs up. That's when I knew it was all O.K."
With the Disney Hall, Gehry transformed the skyline of Los Angeles, just as he had done in Bilbao, and so changed the face of those cities forever. He also shook up the world of architecture, again. According to Lacayo, "[The Disney Hall] can be counted on to reverberate not just through L.A. but across the U.S., raising the stakes everywhere for what a building can be." Gehry continues to raise those stakes since his design calendar is booked solid for some time. He was seventy-four when the Disney Hall opened, but there are plans in the pipeline for a new theater in Brooklyn, New York, a hospital wing in Scotland, and a museum extension in Toronto. In addition, Gehry still works on the smaller stuff: designing watches for Fossil and a new SuperLight chair made from aluminum that weighs only 6 pounds.
Gehry and his second wife, Berta, who serves as chief financial officer (CFO) of his design firm, live in the same house that the California architect transformed back in the 1970s. And Gehry still runs his studio, which has now grown to over 140 employees. In his spare time, the rumpled, soft-spoken artist enjoys sailing in the Santa Monica Bay and playing ice hockey. He took up the sport at age sixty. Looking ahead, he would like to become involved in urban renewal projects in Los Angeles and New York. "I'm not going to retire," Gehry told People magazine, "I'll just keep going."
Gehry, Frank. Symphony: Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall. New York: Harry Abrams, 2003.
Andersen, Kurt. "Building Beauty the Hard Way: After Years of Risky Experience, Frank Gehry Relaxes." Time (October 13, 1986).
Lacayo, Richard. "The Art of Warp." Time (October 27, 2003): p. 71.
Lacayo, Richard. "The Frank Gehry Experience." Time (June 26, 2000): pp. 64–68.
Rogers, Patrick. "Dream Builder: Architect Frank Gehry Creates Tomorrow's Fanciful Landmarks." People Weekly (July 10, 2000): pp. 114–115.
Webb, Michael. "A Man Who Made Architecture the Art of the Unexpected." Smithsonian (April 1987): p. 48.
"Architect: Frank Gehry." Great Buildings Online. http://www.greatbuildings.com/architects/Frank_Gehry.html (accessed August 1, 2004).
Barrett, Jennifer. "Frank Gehry Has Designed Everything from Cardboard Chairs to Vodka Bottles. His Next Project: Remaking New York City." MSNBC News: Newsweek (April 16, 2004). http://msnbc.msn.com/id/4759758/site/newsweek (accessed August 1, 2004).
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