Frank Gehry was born Ephraim Owen Goldberg in Toronto, Canada. He moved with his family to Los Angeles as a teenager in 1947 and later became a naturalized U.S. citizen. His father changed the family’s name to Gehry when the family immigrated. Ephraim adopted the first name Frank in his 20s; since then he has signed his name Frank O. Gehry.
Uncertain of his career direction, the teenage Gehry drove a delivery truck to support himself while taking a variety of courses at Los Angeles City College. He took his first architecture courses on a hunch, and became enthralled with the possibilities of the art, although at first he found himself hampered by his relative lack of skill as a draftsman. Sympathetic teachers and an early encounter with modernist architect Raphael Soriano confirmed his career choice. He won scholarships to the University of Southern California and graduated in 1954 with a degree in architecture.
Los Angeles was in the middle of a post-war housing boom, and the work of pioneering modernists like Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler were an exciting part of the city’s architectural scene. Gehry went to work full-time for the notable Los Angeles firm of Victor Gruen Associates, where he had apprenticed as a student, but his work at Gruen was soon interrupted by compulsory military service. After serving for a year in the United States Army, Gehry entered the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he studied city planning, but he returned to Los Angeles without completing a graduate degree. He briefly joined the firm of Pereira and Luckman before returning to Victor Gruen. Gruen Associates were highly successful practitioners of the severe utilitarian style of the period, but Gehry was restless. He took his wife and two children to Paris, where he spent a year working in the office of the French architect Andre Remondet and studied firsthand the work of the pioneer modernist Le Corbusier.
Gehry and his family returned to Los Angeles in 1962, and he established his own firm, Gehry Associates, now known as Gehry Partners, LLP. For a number of years, he continued to work in the established International Style, initiated by Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus, but he was increasingly drawn to the avant-garde arts scene growing up around the beach communities of Venice and Santa Monica. He spent more of his time in the company of sculptors and painters like Ed Kienholz, Bob Irwin, Ed Moses and Ed Ruscha, who were finding new uses for the overlooked by-products of industrial civilization. Frank Gehry began to look for an opportunity to express a more personal vision in his own work.
He had his first brush with national attention when some furniture he had built from industrial corrugated cardboard experienced a sudden popularity. The line of furniture, called Easy Edges, was featured in national magazine spreads, and the Los Angeles architect experienced an unexpected notoriety. Although Gehry built imaginative houses for a number of artist friends, including Ruscha, in the 1970s, for most of the decade his larger works were distinguished but relatively conventional buildings such as the Rouse Company headquarters in Columbia, Maryland, and the Santa Monica Place shopping mall.
Gehry found a creative outlet in rebuilding his own home, converting what he called “a dumb little house with charm” into a showplace for a radically new style of domestic building. He took common, unlovely elements of American homebuilding, such as chain link fencing, corrugated aluminum and unfinished plywood, and used them as flamboyant expressive elements, while stripping the interior walls of the house to reveal the structural elements. His Santa Monica neighbors were scandalized, but Gehry’s house attracted serious critical attention, and he began to employ more imaginative elements in his commercial work. A series of public structures in and around Los Angeles marked his evolution away from orthodox modernist practice, including the Frances Goldwyn Branch Library in Hollywood, the California Aerospace Museum and the Loyola University Law School. A number of his works in this period featured the unusual decorative motif of a Formica fish, and he designed a number of lamps and other objects in the form of snakes and fishes.
By the mid-’80s, his work had attracted international attention, and he was commissioned to build the Vitra furniture factory in Basel, Switzerland, as well as the Vitra Design Museum in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany. These projects established him as a major presence on the international architecture scene. His buildings displayed a penchant for whimsy and playfulness previously unknown in serious architecture. Most distinctive of all was his ability to explode familiar geometric volumes and reassemble them in original new forms of unprecedented complexity, a practice the critics dubbed “deconstructivism.” His international reputation was confirmed when he received the 1989 Pritzker Prize, the world’s most prestigious architecture award.
Although he originally completed his design for the proposed Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles in 1989, funding shortages and political infighting delayed construction of the project for many years. The Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, completed in 1990, was to be Gehry’s first monumental work in his own country, a billowing fantasy in brick and stainless steel. Meanwhile, his interest in collaboration with other artists was expressed in the fanciful design for the West Coast headquarters of the advertising firm Chiat Day, in Venice, California. The entrance to the building took the form of a pair of giant binoculars, created by the sculptors Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.
Although his main project for Los Angeles went unbuilt through the ’90s, he completed major projects in a number of other countries. His playful side reappeared in the “Dancing House” in the Czech capital, Prague. Comprising two undulating cylinders on a corner facing the river Vltava, the Czechs nicknamed the building “Fred and Ginger.” His proposal for a museum in Seoul, South Korea, which he discusses in his 1995 interview with the Academy of Achievement, was ultimately rejected, but an even more ambitious undertaking lay just ahead.
Gehry’s most spectacular design of the 1990s was that of the new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, completed in 1997. Gehry first envisioned its form, like all his works, through a simple freestyle hand sketch, but breakthroughs in computer software had enabled him to build in increasingly eccentric shapes, sweeping irregular curves that were the antithesis of the severely rectilinear International Style. Traditional modernists criticized the work as arbitrary, or gratuitously eccentric, but distinguished former exponents of the International Style, such as the late Philip Johnson, championed his work, and Gehry became the most visible of an elite cohort of highly publicized “starchitects.” He drew fire again with his design for the Experience Music Project Museum in Seattle, but in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles, a long-delayed project was reaching fruition.
The year 2004 saw the long-awaited completion of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. The building opened to great public celebration and immediately became the sprawling city’s landmark building. Although built after his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the design actually predated it and featured a similar panoply of exploding titanium. The splayed pipes of the hall’s massive pipe organ were likened by more than one writer to a packet of French fries, but the public response was ecstatic. Gehry’s earlier experience building and renovating concert halls and amphitheaters had paid off in a facility that not only attracted international attention with its striking appearance, but thrilled musicians and listeners with its acoustically brilliant interior.
Over the years, Gehry has lent his imaginative designs to a number of products outside the field of architecture, including the Wyborovka Vodka bottle, a wristwatch for Fossil, jewelry for Tiffany & Co. and the World Cup of Hockey trophy. In 2006, the architect and his work were the subject of a feature-length documentary film, Sketches of Frank Gehry, by director Sydney Pollack.
In the following years, Gehry immersed himself in a number of projects, including the Barclays Center sports arena in Brooklyn, New York, a concert hall for the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, and another branch of the Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi. Most ambitious of all is the massive Grand Street project, a plan to entirely remake the thoroughfare leading from Los Angeles City Hall to Disney Hall. When it is completed, a wide swath of downtown Los Angeles will bear the indelible stamp of its adopted son, Frank Gehry, and his restless imagination. In 2010, Vanity Fair magazine polled 52 of the world’s best-known architects and architectural critics, asking them to name the most significant works of architecture of the last 30 years. By an overwhelming margin they placed Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao at the top of the list.
In 2014, the architect, age 85, completed one of his most dramatic structures yet: the billowing glass and steel Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, France. The project was built as a center for contemporary art and culture, and to house the rapidly growing art collection of the charitable arm of the French luxury-goods company LVMH Moët Hennessy-Louis Vuitton. The 126,000-square-foot, 2.5-story building is sunk slightly below ground level to comply with the height limits of Paris’s main park, the Bois de Boulogne. The building’s glass and steel exterior framework, which Gehry calls the Verrière, was inspired in part by photographs of a greenhouse that had formerly stood on the site. The interior, which Gehry terms “the iceberg,” is formed by an array of white concrete cubes, supplying ample neutral space for the exhibition of art. The interior employs water in the form of a moat and a waterfall to reflect the ample light that floods all connecting areas of the structure. Located among the fields and trees of the Jardin d’Acclimatation, the historic children’s playground of the Bois de Boulogne, the Fondation Louis Vuitton may soon become the newest beloved landmark of the City of Light.
In 2016, Frank Gehry’s accomplishments were honored by President Barack Obama with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The presidential awards citation, read in part, “never limited by conventional materials, styles, or processes, Frank Gehry’s bold and thoughtful structures demonstrate architecture’s power to induce wonder and revitalize communities. From his pioneering use of technology to the dozens of awe-inspiring sights that bear his signature style, to his public service as a citizen artist through his work with Turnaround Arts, Frank Gehry has proven himself an exemplar of American innovation.”
When the other products of a culture have faded from human memory, it is the works of architecture that remain to define an era for successive generations. As the 20th century gave way to the 21st, it was hard to dispute that the definitive architect of the age was Frank Gehry, Canadian by birth, a resident of Los Angeles by choice.
He first drew notice in his adopted city with works deploying commonplace industrial materials in unexpected ways, but he came to international prominence with works which exploded the geometry of traditional architecture to create a dramatic new form of expression. He deployed cutting-edge computer technology to realize shapes and forms of hitherto unimaginable complexity, such as the startling irregularities of his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, or the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. In these monumental buildings, the uninhibited whimsy of his pencil sketches took shape in powerful structures of gleaming titanium.
From Switzerland to Japan, from Santa Monica to Prague, his buildings have transformed human expectations of the designed space. Once mocked for their astonishing originality, his buildings have become the signature structures of the challenging times we live in.
What first made you think of being an architect? What attracted you to this field?
Frank Gehry: My grandmother played with me on the floor with blocks when I was eight years old in Canada, and she got cuttings for her wood stove from the shop. They were like bandsaw and jigsaw cuttings, and they were odd shapes, and we used to play, make fantasy cities. Grandmother! So it was like a license from an adult to play, creative play. Anyway, I didn’t remember that until I was struggling and struggling with what I wanted to be when I grew up. 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 then what happened?
Frank Gehry: Just on a hunch, I tried some architecture classes. At first I didn’t do great. In fact, I flunked the first class in perspective drawing, and it really got me angry. So I went back the next semester and took it and got an A, and then I had an architecture drafting class, which the teacher and I got along real well. He was an architect. At the same time, I was taking classes at USC, summer classes in ceramics and art, drawing, art design, and the ceramics teacher — Glen Lukens at the time — was having a house designed by Raphael Soriano, and Glen somehow looked at me and said, “I just have another hunch.” He said, “I would like you to meet Soriano,” and I did, and I watched how Soriano — a guy with a black suit and a black tie and a beret, you know — I mean, he was a really funny guy. But there was something about it that excited me, maybe the drama of it, maybe the theater of it, and he knew what he was doing. He was very Miesian. He did very stark things, and that all excited me. Based on Glen’s recommendation, I took a class at night in architectural design, and I did really well. I was skipped into second year.
What school was this?
Frank Gehry: USC. That was the only architecture school at that time.
I couldn’t afford it, and they didn’t have scholarships for architects, but somehow I worked and got through. Then once I got in it, I was off to the races, except the first half of the second year, my teacher came in and called me in and said, “This isn’t for you. You’re not going to make it,” and somehow I worked through that. And that guy works at the airport. I see him every once in a while, the teacher. I mean, he acknowledges his mistake, of course, but it’s — I mean, I just sort of kept going. It was dogged persistence once I got into it.
What was the turn-on for you? How would you describe it to somebody who doesn’t know that much about architecture? What makes it exciting for you?
Frank Gehry: What got me excited in the beginning were the social issues. I come from a very lefty liberal family in Canada, and architecture looked like it was the panacea. You could make housing for the poor and make wonderful cities, city planning in the future and so on. That was the initial turn-on. That lasted me all the way through school, actually.
When I got out of school I hit the brick wall. You can’t do any of that. It doesn’t exist. You can’t do it. There are no clients for social housing in America. There is no program, no nothing. City planning? Forget it. It’s a kind of bureaucratic nonsense. It has nothing to do with ideas. It only has to do with real estate and politics.
I used to say, “I don’t want to do houses for rich people.” I always said that through school. “I’m just not going to do that.” But I started to find some excitement in the forms, the spaces, being able to conceive of something and then see it built. The process of building, the working with the craftsmen — or lack of craftsmen is more likely — but trying to. It is an energy, and it is a mind game too, trying to get these people motivated. I guess it’s like directing a movie. It’s similar, except there’s legal implications times jillions. But it’s really exciting when you get to the level I am at now, where I have a lot of freedom. I don’t get a lot of projects, but I get enough, and when I do get them, usually people want what I am doing and egg me on to explore things, and that’s exciting.
To make a difference in the world?
Frank Gehry: Make a difference in a microcosm, but in the world, we don’t know yet.
You say you hit a brick wall when you got out of school. When did that change? What was the turning point?
Frank Gehry: I guess when I did my house.
Up until the point where I did my house, which was in the late ’70s, most of the work — up until that point I think, I thought of myself as an architect, as a service business. I was working on Santa Monica Place. But I hadn’t had much freedom to really do things, and for the first time — even though it wasn’t a lot of money, we only had a budget of like forty, fifty thousand dollars — I was able to do what I wanted, exactly what I wanted, and explore and play and do things, and I realized that I couldn’t go back after that. My office changed at that point. The clients that we were working with all left. The house, I finished it. One of the major clients said to me — the first Santa Monica Place — said, “If you like this…” He was sitting in my living room. He said, “If you like this, then you don’t like that.” He was pointing to Santa Monica Place, and I said, “Yeah, you’re right,” and we shook hands and decided not to work together anymore, and we never have. That was the Rouse Company in Maryland. I liked them too, but it wasn’t going anywhere.