Frank Gehry was born Frank Owen Goldberg on 28 February 1929 in Toronto, Canada to Jewish parents of Polish origin. During his early years, it was both his parents and grandparents that helped spark his creative streak. As a child, he would draw with his father and with his grandmother’s help, he would build miniature cities out of scrap materials from his grandfather’s hardware store.
In 1947, Gehry and his family emigrated to Los Angeles, California and in 1949, he enrolled at the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture. He later studied urban planning at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, before dropping out after becoming disenchanted by the programm’s rigid theoretical style.
After a few years working for architectural firms, including a stint in Paris, Gehry returned to Los Angeles where he set up his own practice, Frank O. Gehry & Associates, in 1962. The firm completed a number of residential and commercial projects, including the Ronald Davis Studio and Home in Malibu, California and the former Rouse Company headquarters in Columbia, Maryland, but it was Gehry’s own home – a renovation of a small Santa Monica bungalow originally built in 1925 – that really triggered his career and cemented his unique style. Using his signature industrial materials, Gehry transformed the property with chain link fencing, corrugated metal and huge glass skylights supported by jutting wooden frames – a small-scale version of buildings to come, which has since become a popular attraction for architecture students and tourists alike.
Gehry said of his Santa Monica renovation, ‘I bought an old house, and I put a new house around it. I got interested in the dialogue between the old and the new and trying to sculpturally create a new entity, but that retained the qualities of the new as independent of the old. I set myself goals like that when I started. I kind of pulled it off. I also wanted it to be seamless, that you couldn’t tell where it began and where it stopped, and that was very successful, and that was the power of it. In fact, critics would come in and would look at a rain spot on the plaster and say, Is that on purpose or not? They thought they were maligning me, and I thought that was just wonderful. That was exactly what I wanted them to worry about.’
Gehry’s trademark design features – the seamless continuity, the flow and movement of material and form, and the merging of new and old existing structures – began here and followed in his later creations. In 1996, construction was completed on the Gehry designed Nationale-Nederlanden building in Prague, Czech Republic. The structure, which is informally referred to as the ‘Fred and Ginger building’ due to its façade’s similarity to two dancing figures, is built out of glass and steel with double towers – one sturdy and cylindrical, the other narrowing and curving glass – while precast concrete panels similar to that used in Prague’s existing historical buildings establish cohesion between new and old.
Perhaps Gehry’s most significant and well-known work to date is the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain. Built from glass, limestone and titanium, the museum was constructed between 1993 and 1997 and its undulating surfaces and stark beauty led The New York Times’ then-architecture critic Herbert Muschamp to describe it as ‘the miracle in Bilbao’. But the Guggenheim Bilbao did more than test architectural boundaries. It was the effect Gehry’s design had on people, whether architecture mavens or passers-by, that was truly ground-breaking. As Salon’s Karen Templer said, ‘the Bilbao Guggenheim is not only an impressive piece of functional sculpture, it has also changed the way people think about the field of architecture. Gehry has proven that people will travel halfway around the world to look at a building as well as its contents. It stands as evidence that a building can put a town on the map.’
Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, completed in 2003, had a similar effect, becoming a classic cultural symbol of the city. The building, which is part of the Los Angeles Music Centre and home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, consists of a sleek, curved stainless steel exterior and represents not only creative architectural vision, but a leap in concert hall design. The project was not without obstacles, however. From the original project launch in 1987, the hall took 16 years to reach completion and following its opening, redesigns were required to combat the structure’s reflected glare and heat which were causing problems for passing drivers and neighbouring buildings.
In 2011, aged 81, Gehry completed work on his very first skyscraper. Named New York by Frank Gehry, the 76-storey residential building formerly known as Beekman Tower sits on Spruce Street within Manhattan’s Lower East Side and is described by its managers as a reinterpretation of ‘the design language of the classic Manhattan high-rise with undulating waves of stainless steel that reflect the changing light, transforming the appearance of the building throughout the day.’
A towering 870-feet-tall, the skyscraper is among the world’s tallest residential buildings. And, as with other Gehry works, the design received both acclaim and criticism. Paul Goldberger, architecture critic at The New Yorker, said of the design, ‘Gehry has crafted one of the most beautiful towers downtown, and the first big apartment house worth talking about in more than a generation,’ and the building was awarded the 2011 Emporis Skyscraper Award which acknowledges excellence in functional and aesthetic design. Conversely, fellow critic James Gardener, writing for real estate publication Real Deal, labelled the structure as ‘unimpressive’ and ‘absurd’.
Though typically Gehry, as with his original renovated bungalow back in 1978, labels such reactions as short-sighted and unimaginative. As he said in an interview with David Sheff, ‘We live and work in boxes. People don’t even notice that. Most of what’s around us is banal. We live with it. We accept it as inevitable. People say, ‘This is the world the way it is and don’t bother me.’ Then when somebody does something different, real architecture, the push back is amazing. People resist it.’
At 85, Gehry shows no sign of slowing down or pandering to criticism and with future works in progress including the new Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California, it seems his unconventional, provocative designs will continue to both enthrall and enrage.