Architect Spotlight: Frank Gehry

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Frank Gehry is one of the most iconic American architechts of all time.  His works of art are known world-wide, from the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain to the Cinémathèque française in Paris, Gehry has spent his life redefining the formal structure.

Known specifically as “Deconstructivism”, this style is characterized by ideas of fragmentation, an interest in manipulating ideas of a structure’s surface or skin, non-rectilinear shapes which serve to distort and dislocate some of the elements of architecture, and an appearance characterized by stimulating unpredictability and controlled chaos.

Gehry’s own Santa Monica residence is a commonly cited example of deconstructivist architecture, as it was so drastically divorced from its original context, and in such a manner as to subvert its original spatial intention.

Gehry was born Frank Owen Goldberg on February 28, 1929, in Toronto, Ontario to parents, Irwin and Thelma (née Thelma Caplan) Goldberg. His parents were Polish Jews. A creative child, he was encouraged by his grandmother, Mrs. Caplan, with whom he would build little cities out of scraps of wood. With these scraps from her husband’s hardware store, she entertained him for hours, building imaginary houses and futuristic cities on the living room floor. His use of corrugated steel, chain link fencing, unpainted plywood and other utilitarian or “everyday” materials was partly inspired by spending Saturday mornings at his grandfather’s hardware store. He would spend time drawing with his father and his mother introduced him to the world of art. “So the creative genes were there,” Gehry says. “But my father thought I was a dreamer, I wasn’t gonna amount to anything. It was my mother who thought I was just reticent to do things. She would push me.”

In 1947 Gehry moved to California, got a job driving a delivery truck, and studied at Los Angeles City College, eventually to graduate from the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture. According to Gehry: “I was a truck driver in L.A., going to City College, and I tried radio announcing, which I wasn’t very good at. I tried chemical engineering, which I wasn’t very good at and didn’t like, and then I remembered. You know, somehow I just started racking my brain about, “What do I like?” Where was I? What made me excited? And I 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.”

Gehry is sometimes associated with what is known as the “Los Angeles School,” or the “Santa Monica School” of architecture. The appropriateness of this designation and the existence of such a school, however, remains controversial due to the lack of a unifying philosophy or theory. This designation stems from the Los Angeles area’s producing a group of the most influential postmodern architects, including such notable Gehry contemporaries as Eric Owen Moss and Pritzker Prize-winner Thom Mayne of Morphosis, as well as the famous schools of architecture at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (co-founded by Mayne), UCLA, and USC where Gehry is a member of the Board of Directors. Gehry’s style at times seems unfinished or even crude, but his work is consistent with the California ‘funk’ art movement in the 1960s and early 1970s, which featured the use of inexpensive found objects and non-traditional media such as clay to make serious art. Gehry has been called “the apostle of chain-link fencing and corrugated metal siding”. However, a retrospective exhibit at New York’s Whitney Museum in 1988 revealed that he is also a sophisticated classical artist, who knows European art history and contemporary sculpture and painting.

Gehry was elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1974, and he has received many national, regional, and local AIA awards, including AIA Los Angeles Chapter Gold Medal. He presently serves on the steering committee of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Gehry was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize at the Tōdai-ji Buddhist Temple in 1989. The Pritzker Prize serves to honor a living architect whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision, and commitment, which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture. In 1999, he was awarded the AIA Gold Medal “in recognition of a significant body of work of lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture.” He accepted the 2007 The Henry C. Turner Prize for Innovation in Construction Technology from the National Building Museum on behalf of Gehry Partners and Gehry Technologies.

Gehry is a Distinguished Professor of Architecture at Columbia University and teaches advanced design studios at the Yale School of Architecture. He has received honorary doctoral degrees from Occidental College, Whittier College, the Southern California Institute of Architecture, the University of Toronto, the California College of Arts and Crafts, the Technical University of Nova Scotia, the Rhode Island School of Design, the California Institute of the Arts, and the Otis Art Institute at the Parsons School of Design. In 1982 and 1989, he held the Charlotte Davenport Professorship in Architecture at Yale University. In 1984, he held the Eliot Noyes Chair at Harvard University. In January 2011, he joined the University of Southern California (USC) faculty, as the Judge Widney Professor of Architecture.

Gehry is considered a modern architectural icon and celebrity, a major “Starchitect” — a neologism describing the phenomenon of architects attaining a sort of celebrity status. Although Gehry has been a vocal opponent of the term, it usually refers to architects known for dramatic, influential designs that often achieve fame and notoriety through their spectacular effect. Other notable celebrity architects include Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, Thom Mayne, Steven Holl, Rem Koolhaas, and Norman Foster. Gehry came to the attention of the public in 1972 with his “Easy Edges” cardboard furniture. He has appeared in Apple’s black and white “Think Different” pictorial ad campaign that associates offbeat but revered figures with Apple’s design philosophy. He even once appeared as himself in The Simpsons in the episode “The Seven-Beer Snitch”, where he parodied himself by intimating that his ideas are derived by looking at a crumpled paper ball. He also voiced himself on the TV show Arthur, where he helped Arthur and his friends design a new treehouse. Steve Sample, President of the University of Southern California, told Gehry that “…After George Lucas, you are our most prominent graduate.” In 2009, Gehry designed a hat for pop star Lady Gaga, reportedly by using his iPhone.

Gehry is very much inspired by fish. Not only do they appear in his buildings, he created a line of jewelry, household items, and sculptures based on this motif. “It was by accident I got into the fish image”, claimed Gehry. One thing that sparked his interest in fish was the fact that his colleagues are recreating Greek temples. He said, “Three hundred million years before man was fish….if you gotta go back, and you’re insecure about going forward…go back three hundred million years ago. Why are you stopping at the Greeks? So I started drawing fish in my sketchbook, and then I started to realize that there was something in it.” Standing Glass Fish is just one of many works featuring fish which Gehry has created. The gigantic fish is made of glass plates and silicone, with the internal supporting structure of wood and steel clearly visible. It soars above a reflecting pool in a glass building built especially for it, in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Another huge Gehry fish sculpture, built in 1992, is located in front of the Port Olímpic, in Barcelona, and another one dominates a public garden in front of the Fishdance Restaurant in Kobe, Japan.

In addition to architecture, Gehry has made a line of furniture, jewelry for Tiffany & Co., various household items, sculptures, and even a glass bottle for Wyborowa Vodka. His first line of furniture, produced from 1969–1973, was called “Easy Edges”, constructed out of cardboard. Another line of furniture released in the spring of 1992 is “Bentwood Furniture”. Each piece is named after a different hockey term. He was first introduced to making furniture in 1954 while serving in the U.S. Army, where he designed furniture for the enlisted soldiers. Gehry claims that making furniture is his “quick fix”.