10 Inspirational Lessons from “The Most Important Architect of Our Age” : Frank Gehry
Born in 1929, Frank Gehry was born Frank Owen Goldberg in Toronto Canada. The Canadian-American Pritzker Prize winning architect based in Los Angeles has been revered as “the most important architect of our age” by Vanity Fair.
Gehry’s architectural fascination began when he was a young child, when he would build little cities from scraps of wood with his grandmother. Together they entertained themselves for hours while they created small, imaginary houses and futuristic cities on the living room floor. The small scraps of wood came from his grandfather’s hardware store where he spent many Saturday mornings. A creative child, he spent much time time drawing with his father. His mother introduced him to the world of art. According to Gehry his father thought him to be a dreamer but it was his mother who pushed him.
In 1947 Frank moved to California where he found a job as a delivery truck driver and enrolled at Los Angeles City College. He would eventually graduate from the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture, but it took a while for him to find his passion. He took a stab at radio announcing and tried chemical engineering, and claims to have been terrible at both. While searching for his interests and passions, he remembered his loved of art, going to museums, looking at paintings and listening to music – all the things that his mother had introduced to him as a child. The days of grandma and the blocks came back to him. This propelled him to try some architecture classes.
In 1952 he married Anita Snyder, and in 1956 he changed his name to Frank O. Gehry. In 1954 Gehry graduated at the top of his class with a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Southern California. 1954. In the fall of 1956, he moved his family to Cambridge, where he studied city planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, but left before completing the program. His forward-thinking ideas regarding socially responsible architecture were under-realized. In 1966 he and Snyder divorced. In 1975 he married Panamanian Berta Isabel Aguilera, to whom is still married. He has two daughters from his first marriage, and two sons from his second marriage.
1. Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness.
The architect’s own home in Santa Monica is often cited as a perfect example of his type of architecture. The house, which was renovated in 1978 seems to be influenced by those Saturday morning trips to his grandfather’s hardware store with his use of unpainted plywood and corrugated steel and other seemingly “utilitarian” materials.
It was the work he did on his own house that brought him recognition throughout the vast architectural community. Gehry states, in a film about himself that “it was comfy and had a little garden and we could afford it. When I bought it, I realized I had to do something to it before we moved in. I loved the idea of leaving the house intact and not messing with it. I came up with the idea of building the new house around it.” Gehry began to rework the architecture, leaving the the original house almost intact and building around it so that it became a house within a house. This house was Gehry’s way of bringing together his love of art and his growing confidence as an architect.
His love of Picasso and of cubism was expressed in the shapes of the windows and chain-link fences that surround his own home much as it would be in the future buildings that would bring him acclaim and world-wide recognition.
2. Let the experience begin!
Founded in 1900 by a group of private citizens as the Art Museum of Toronto, the museum was renamed in 1919 as the Art Gallery of Toronto, and yet again renamed The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in 1966. The current location dates to 1910, when the gallery was willed the estate known as the Grange, a historic Georgian manor built in 1817. In 1920, the museum allowed the Ontario College of Art to put up a building on the campus. The 2004 remodel would include the destruction of the post modern 1992 building.
The AGO reopened in November 2008. Notable elements of the expanded building included a new entrance aligned with the gallery’s historic Walker Court, the Grange, and a new four-story south wing clad in glass and blue titanium that overlooks both the Grange and Grange Park. The most characteristic element of the design is the glass and wood façade. The completed expansion received wide acclaim, notably for the restraint of its design. An editorial in the Globe Mail referred to it as a “restrained masterpiece” and noted that “Mr. Gehry’s genius lies in his deft adaptation to unusual circumstances.”
The Toronto Star called it “the easiest, most effortless and relaxed architectural masterpiece this city has seen.” And the Washington Post claimed that “Gehry’s real accomplishment in Toronto is the reprogramming of a complicated amalgam of old spaces. That’s not sexy, like titanium curves, but it’s essential to the project.” The New York Times sang its praises as well. “Rather than a tumultuous creation, this may be one of Mr. Gehry’s most gentle and self-possessed designs. It is not a perfect building, yet its billowing glass facade, which evokes a crystal ship drifting through the city, is a masterly example of how to breathe life into a staid old structure. Instead of tearing apart the old museum, Mr. Gehry carefully threaded new ramps, walkways and stairs through the original.”
3. Your best work is your expression of yourself. Now, you may not be the greatest at it, but when you do it, you’re the only expert.
Of this edifice, the great architect Philip Johnson, who traveled to Bilbao solely to see the grand piece of architecture, is said to have burst into tears and proclaimed Gehry to be “the greatest architect we have today.” Johnson later declared the structure “the greatest building of our time.” That’s quite a statement by any standard, and a grander one yet coming from one of the world’s leading and most recognized architects. When asked recently by Vanity Fair Magazine, which is the most important building in modern architecture today since 1980, the Geggenheim Museum in Bilbao topped the list.
Like his predecessor, Frank Lloyd Wright, who also built a Guggenheim museum, Gehry is considered to be the most influential architect of his time. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry has also risen to celebrity status. The museum has changed people’s perception of museums, about the connections between art, architecture, and collecting.
4. The message I hope to have sent is just the example of being yourself.
8 Spruce Street is Mr. Gehry’s first skyscraper, the tallest luxury residential tower in the city’s history. The 76 story building houses a new public grammar school and one floor of hospital services which was described by The New York Times as “an odd coupling of private and public interests that was a result of political horse trading rather than any obvious benefit that would be gained from so close a relationship between the two.”
The tower in the skyline, is particularly breathtaking when from the Brooklyn waterfront. Despite the incredibly modern facade, the building has a reassuringly old-fashioned feel. The design of the building, is described by the New York Times “about bringing that same sensibility — the focus on refined textures, the cultivation of a sense that something has been shaped by a human hand — to the digital age.”
The building seems to move, winding, spinning, spiraling, constantly changing, as it rises toward the sky. The exterior was constructed with 10,500 individual steel panels, almost all of entirely different in shape. 8 Spruce Street was created by using the same kind of computer modeling that he used for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain, more than a decade earlier.
5. Liquid architecture. It’s like jazz – you improvise, you work together, you play off each other, you make something, they make something…
The Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, looks anything but old-fashioned. The exuberant facade constructed from brushed stainless steel seems to swoop and burst and pop like fireworks. These panels seem to dance right out of the ground and into the sky, as though they were created by the music, not for the music.
The building, considered to be one of Gehry’s most important, relates well to the city of Los Angeles where it occupies a full block near the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a gilded late-modernist building that used to house both the Philharmonic and the Academy Awards.
6. I know I draw without taking my pen off the page. I just keep going, and that my drawings I think of them as scribbles. I don’t think they mean anything to anybody except to me, and then at the end of the day, the end of the project, they wheel out these little drawings and they’re damn close to what the finished building is and it’s the drawing…
It could be said that Frank Gehry is as much an artist as he is an architect. He loves to sketch, and it is the beginning of his architectural process. These sketches flow and and change and evolve and eventually become models. More refinements are made and then eventually each original sketch becomes a finished building that will be unlike any other in the architectural world. He refers to his sketches as “tentativeness… messiness,” and this ensures that the artist keeps away from formula and repetition.
His sketches inspired the legendary Sydney Pollack to explore them in the PBS American Masters film Sketches of Frank Gehry. The film explores Gehry’s process of turning these evanescent, abstract drawings into tangible, three-dimensional forms: finished buildings of titanium and glass, concrete and steel, wood and stone.
7. I’ve been told I have the biggest ego in the world and that it manifests itself when you come to me and say, ‘I don’t like this’ or ‘I want a change’… and that I relish that because my ego’s so big I think I can solve whatever you throw at me and make it even better. I enjoy the interaction and the challenge.
After many years of refusing to design a building in Las Vegas, Gehry did agree to design the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center. The architect formed a bond with the founder, a liquor distributor, who felt compelled to open a neurological research facility after watching his father struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease.
It would turn out that Gehry had his own personal interest in research on brain disorders. A longtime friend and analyst, the late Milton Wexler, watched Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases take the lives of his wife and three sisters-in-law. Gehry agreed to design the building only if Huntington’s was added to the list of diseases that the new center would treat and study.
The complex comprises two wings connected by an open courtyard: a dedicated research center, located at the northern end of the building, and a ‘for-hire’ event space, dubbed the life activity center, located at the southern end. The four story clinic to the north, contains the medical offices, patient rooms and research space is described as a relatively straightforward structure consisting of a collection of stacked boxes in white stucco and glass.
The office wing, resembles a jumbled, unsettled collection of boxy forms. The life activity center is a soaring sculptural volume tucked beneath a signature Gehry stainless steel roof that was designed as an event space. It can be rented out for parties, weddings and special occasions with the proceeds going directly to the center’s research.
8. Creativity is about play and a kind of willingness to go with your intuition. It’s crucial to an artist. If you know where you are going and what you are going to do, why do it?
The dancing house in Prague was a collaborative project with Croatian-Czech architect Vlado Milunic. The building, which actually resembles a couple of buildings, was constructed on a vacant lot by the river. The architecture which is very non-traditional was quite controversial at the time. This modern whimsy stands out and sets itself apart from the traditional architecture styles in the landscape; Baroque, Gothic and Art Nouveau. Gehry originally named the house Fred and Ginger as the house strongly resembles two dancing arm in arm, but then shied away from calling it such, not wanting to bring “Hollywood kitsch” to Prague.
The dancing house was built in the style known as deconstructivist, or sometimes called “new baroque.” It’s unusual shape is supported by 99 concrete panels, each one a different shape and dimension. On the top of the building stands a large twisted structure of metal nicknamed Medusa.
9. Take what comes your way. Do the best with it. Be responsible as you can and something good will happen…
Barcelona’s golden fish sculpture, known as Peix, is one of many pieces of public art found in and around the city. The piece sits in the Port Olympic at the base of a large skyscraper, the Hotel Arts, one of the tallest buildings in the city. Gehry was commissioned to build the piece for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. The large copper-colored fish, made from steel, stone and glass faces the sea. The copper dances in the sun much like the scales of a fish do as it nears the water’s surface.
Gehry has built large, freestanding fish sculptures for the Minneapolis Scultpure Garden as well as the Fishdance Restaurant in Kobe, Japan. Very much inspired by fish, Gehry has created a line of jewelry, lamps, and sculptures based on this subject matter. “It was by accident I got into the fish image”, Gehry told PBS. His interest was sparked when his colleagues were recreating Greek temples. “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.”
10. I like the idea of collaboration – it pushes you. It’s a richer experience.
In 2003 Gehry entered into a partnership with Tiffany & Co. to create an exclusive jewelry collection that launched in 2006. Rooted in an exquisite understanding of materials and structure, the collection explores the expressive potential of precious metals, wood and stone. Like his buildings, Mr. Gehry’s jewelry and home collection exude vitality, with Tiffany skillfully realizing the spontaneous twists and turns of the architect’s inventive style. Many of Gehry’s trademark architectural styles would translate beautifully into bangles, vases, bowls, bracelets and candlesticks. A pair of cuff-links immediately remind one of Peix and his other fish structures.
There is good reason that Frank Gehry is considered to be the most important architect of our day. He is talented and multi-faceted. His art, architecture and design reflect our modern era, often linking it both to the past and to the future. Do you have a favorite Gehry building? I’d have to say the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is definitely mine, but there is something endearing and charming about “Fred and Ginger” in Prague!