Tuesday, Oct 5, 1999 4:00 PM UTC

Frank Gehry

His titanium masterpiece in Bilbao, Spain, has put "the other Frank," architect of "the other Guggenheim" museum, on the map.

Frank Gehry

“When everybody else is ready for the ending, I’m just ready to begin,” Frank Gehry once wrote. “It’s been the story of my life.” And so it would seem.

The Pritzker Prize — commonly referred to as “the Nobel of architecture” — is the industry’s loftiest recognition. It’s a lifetime achievement award, granted to a living architect whose body of work represents a superlative contribution to the field. Gehry received it in 1989, two years before the release of the frenzy-inducing Gehry Collection, an innovative line of furniture, and nearly a decade before the unveiling of his titanium masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Basque capital of Spain.

There’s really only one architect — Frank Lloyd Wright — who qualifies for household-name status in America, but with the onslaught of attention following Bilbao, Gehry may yet get there. For now, he is “the other Frank” with “the other Guggenheim,” and his Spanish Guggenheim is nearly as controversial as was Wright’s Manhattan original. The press coverage of Bilbao has been legion. Art and architecture critics have described it as everything from “an architectural epiphany” to “a lunar lander in search of its moon.” Pop culture is equally split on the issue: The TV character Frasier has expressed his distaste for the design while Mariah Carey is dancing around on its lawn in her latest video. But the tourists and architecture buffs of the world have fallen under its spell.

The Basque Country Administration commissioned Gehry to design a building for its new museum that would attract visitors from around the globe, and that’s exactly what it has done. Despite the city’s seedy reputation, staggering murder rate and perpetual bad weather, some 2 million people have visited since the museum’s opening in late 1997. One of the museum guards was killed at the opening by Basque separatists trying to blow up a Jeff Koons sculpture on the grounds, but still they come. Such is the draw of Gehry’s glistening abstraction of a building.

In describing Gehry’s “buildings” there’s a tendency to employ art terms — sculpture, collage, installation, assemblage — because “building” just doesn’t cover it. Gehry’s love of architecture is about the process: the conceptualizing and mark-making and model-building, and that’s what comes across in the final results. It’s a rare story about Gehry’s work that isn’t accompanied by his wildly gestural sketches in place of the usual rigid, mathematical plans. The sketches are beguiling in their seeming lack of representation of anything other than the mysteries of Gehry’s own imagination. Without the corresponding photos of the finished product, many would be indiscernible as buildings. But a story about Gehry is incomplete without them.

With his shock of white hair and non-angular build, Gehry looks like the manifestation of one of his own sketches. He was born Frank Goldberg in Toronto in 1929 and spent his childhood making “little cities” out of wood scrap with his grandmother. In 1947, the family changed its name and moved to Los Angeles. He took night classes at City College and went on to get his architecture degree from the University of Southern California in 1954. Then came several years of flux — working, serving a stint in the Army and studying urban planning for a year at Harvard before dropping out.

In 1961, he moved his then-wife and two small daughters to Paris, where he worked for architects Pereira and Lickman and spent his weekends traveling to various architectural meccas, including the cathedral at Chartres and his idol Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamps. Upon returning to America in 1962, he set up a practice with another young architect, and then in 1967 founded his current firm, Frank O. Gehry and Associates.

Snubbed by his peers in the early years, Gehry found both approval and companionship among artists. He befriended Kenny Price, Ed Moses and Ron Davis (for whom Gehry built a studio/house) and later collaborated with sculptors Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen as well as Richard Serra. Gehry could relate to artists. He told Architectural Record (in an uncharacteristically long interview earlier this year) that he was “intellectually intrigued with their process, their language, their attitudes, their ability to make things with their own hands,” whereas with fellow architects, he felt like “an outsider.”

Notoriety first found Gehry in the early ’70s, when his Easy Edges furniture hit the market. The fully functional chairs, stools, tables and one ottoman were life-size squiggles rendered in laminated cardboard and were an instant hit, though for Gehry they were not entirely successful. He wrote in ’92 that with the cardboard collection he had set out to create “the Volkswagen of furniture” — unique, engaging design that would also be economically accessible. But their commercial success made Gehry “a name” and his investor wanted to trade on that name for a higher dollar, including using Gehry himself to advertise the furniture. Gehry, a modest man, was uncomfortable with the P.R. campaign. He told I.D. Magazine that he “was freaked about going on the road and being marketed like Yves Saint Laurent.”

Following Easy Edges came Rough Edges. Rugged and more abstract than the original cardboard collection, the Rough Edges pieces were produced in smaller quantities and sold at even higher prices through exclusive galleries.

In 1978, after more than 20 years in the business, Gehry finally got national attention for one of his buildings, ironically, an inexpensive renovation of his own home. Gehry and his current wife, Berta (who is also CFO of Gehry’s company), had bought a pink, two-story bungalow in Santa Monica, Calif., and Gehry set out to personalize it using modest, industrial materials. He enclosed the first floor in a corrugated metal sheath that looks from the street like a jagged privacy fence, then expanded the ground floor space out to meet it. He punched miscellaneous windows out of the new wall, and giant shards of glass appear to have collided into the building to form window/skylights with the tilted wood-frame supports left exposed. Concrete blocks retain a small, terraced yard. Concrete steps, a plywood stoop and spare patches of chain-link and white picket fencing all provide accents. Meanwhile, the demure pink second floor with its pristine white trim, brick chimney and black tar paper gambrel roof peeks out above the whole assemblage.

The house (which was further refined in 1991) is still widely influential, as evidenced by the proliferation of corrugated-metal-and-plywood homes, interiors and restaurants over the past few years, although the progeny tend not to have the charisma of Gehry’s wrapped, and rapt, pink bungalow. Gehry’s house might appear hackneyed to anyone who didn’t know how far his predates the most recent crop. Part of the ’91 re-renovation was to provide more privacy for the family from the vanloads of architecture students who still parade past on a regular basis.

The relative fame from his house led to countless commissions, a record-setting number of prizes and eventually another prominent line of furniture: the Gehry Collection by KnollStudio. Gehry detailed the painful process in his 1992 Design Quarterly essay, aptly titled “Up Everest in a Volkswagen.” The designs — several chairs, a table and an ottoman — evolved out of an invitation a decade earlier from Rolf Fehlbaum, the director of the renowned German furniture company Vitra, to design a chair. Gehry wrote that designing a new chair was like being asked “to find the meaning of life while standing on one foot. It’s like a Talmudic question.”

Fehlbaum wanted a simple but innovative chair in wood — a reaction to all the high-tech and ball joints of the ’70s — that could be used as a basic side chair or in cafe settings. Gehry didn’t want to just “hang another coat on four legs and a seat.” He reflected for a while on wicker furniture and bushel baskets and did some experimenting but quickly gave up on the project. When Knoll approached him in ’89, he told them what he’d been through with Vitra. The only way he could see it working was if Knoll would set him up in a workshop similar to that of the mythic husband-wife architect/design team of Charles and Ray Eames, which he fondly recalls visiting in his youth. Knoll took him up on it, and he accomplished everything he’d hoped in reinventing the form.

Named for ice hockey terms (the Cross Check chair, the Hat Trick chair, the Power Play chair), the pieces in the Gehry Collection are made from wafer-thin strips of laminated maple, bent, woven and curled into fluid, featherweight yet sturdy forms. The chairs are variously composed of the strips woven bushel basket-style into a seat with the remaining length of each strip tilted upward to form a seat back or curled back on themselves to form arms or folded down and around to form legs and bases. The table is a round glass-top supported by a conglomeration of bent and curved strips. For the ottoman, Gehry wove the strips into a pillow shape.

Photos (and sketches, of course) of the prototypes quickly found their way into the pages of every design magazine. The Museum of Modern Art popped early production samples into a window display (three months before they were scheduled to debut at the American Craft Museum across the street), instantly elevating them to objet status. They were an instant sensation, and Gehry found himself, once again, pleased with his solution yet disappointed with the price.

But if the idea of reinventing the chair seemed daunting to Gehry, he apparently never felt the same trepidation about the house, the office building or the museum. Gehry’s buildings defy classification — he’s a deconstructivist, a modernist, a postmodernist. His early work doesn’t prepare you for his mid-career work, which doesn’t prepare you for his current work. The sheer number of buildings he has produced is stunning, especially in light of the fact that, even with a staff of 120, he designs each building himself. And his firm is breaking virtual ground as well, pioneering the use of advanced software that allows the engineers to give the contractors more precise mathematical descriptions of whatever amorphic forms Gehry has dreamed up, closing the previously windy gap between design and construction.

We all know a building when we see one, and there’s generally no mystery
about the developmental stages. The sketches and plans are drawings of
buildings. The models are miniature buildings. And the buildings are
buildings. But with Gehry’s work, the sketches, models and even the final
edifices look less like buildings and more like the curious
rumblings of a creative mind that tend to be classified as art. In fact,
most successful are the buildings that look like gigantic public
sculpture that somebody had the forethought to hollow out
to make use of the interior spaces.

The 1991 Chiat/Day building in Venice, Calif., is a sculpture within a
sculpture. Gehry essentially devised two buildings: a three-story white
metal curve that evokes a ship’s prow, and a copper-plated abstract forest.
Meeting the two in the middle is a pair of three-story binoculars
originally conceived by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van
Bruggen for another building the three were collaborating on. The
binoculars stand on their lenses, the space in between serves as the
entrance to the underground garage and each ocular lens is a skylight into
the conference rooms the sculpture houses.

One of Gehry’s more whimsical projects is the ’96
Nationale-Nederlanden building in the Czech Republic, colloquially referred
to as “the Fred and Ginger building.” The building forms one corner among
several blocks of ancient, decorative five- and six-story structures in
central Prague. Gehry’s building is similar in surface and color to the
surrounding buildings. The ground floor is glass and the remaining floors
are stacked on top, covered with undulating rows of windows.
At the corner the structure erupts into two vertical cylindrical forms
slightly taller than the rest of the building. One cylinder (“Fred”)
matches the rest of the building, sits atop a post, is slightly flared at
top and bottom and is topped with a tangled ball of copper. The second
cylinder (“Ginger”) is a sheer column of glass, pinched in at the “waist,”
flaring more drastically at the second floor into a “skirt” and perched
atop several gracefully curved posts. At the fifth floor, a small canopy
juts out from Ginger’s waist toward Fred in an equally abstract reference
to the arms of the dancing couple.

The natives of Bilbao have taken to referring to the Guggenheim as “the
artichoke,” which is the best description on record of the abstract titanium
volumes that form the central focal point of the building. The artichoke
is complemented by nearly rectangular volumes of limestone and large,
slanted expanses of gridded glass. A long, low volume extends out from the
central mass, along the river and under a freeway bridge, sprouting up
again on the other side.

Like so many of Gehry’s buildings, it seems to
embrace everything around it, while also sitting in stark contrast to it
all. The interior spaces have also been heralded. Gehry is,
himself, among the few critics who feel the interior flaw is in the scale
of the massive main gallery. There is some concern about the dearth of art
in the world that would not be dwarfed by the space. Gehry would like to
install a few extra walls, but the museum administrators don’t have any plans to modify it. In the words of Cal-Poly
architecture professor Tom Fowler, “The museum has a godly scale to it, but is also very intimate regarding nooks and crannies to explore and hide in. It’s like
inhabiting a cubist painting.”

But 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. And it has
companies and organizations all over the globe thinking of architects as
brand names and wanting to wear one for themselves. So while it
has garnered a great deal of fame for Gehry, it has also done much to renew
interest in architecture and enliven the ongoing debate about
architecture’s role in our society.

Despite all his success, Gehry continues to feel misunderstood. He makes a
lot of seemingly random comments these days about how his buildings don’t
leak, a reaction, no doubt, to the
news that part of his 1989 Rocklin, Calif., manufacturing complex for Herman Miller (age-old rival of Knoll) is being demolished and replaced by a design from another firm. Apparently the centerpiece of the complex — a 70-foot steel trellis wrapped in copper — is leaking and staining the company cafeteria, which it straddles. Gehry insists the flaw was in the execution and not in his design.

But it goes beyond that incident. After nearly four decades of being odd man out
among his peers, Gehry has developed a tinge of defensiveness. He wants to
make it clear to everyone that he’s not “just making shapes,” that he
designs from the inside out and often doesn’t even make a sketch until
after a period of scale experimentation with the internal space
requirements of a project. He’s upset that the roofers at Bilbao allowed
polyurethane to drip down the titanium and — despite his pleading –
didn’t clean it off until it was too late, which has led some to comment
that he didn’t know what he was doing with the titanium.

And his newest
fear is that another of his projects, the proposed Disney Concert Hall in
Los Angeles, will be perceived as “son of Bilbao,”
even though it was designed a decade ago. After seeing Bilbao and before
finally agreeing to proceed with the project, Disney asked that the
exterior of the building (a cross between Bilbao and the Sydney Opera
House) be switched from limestone to metal.

Still, while Gehry’s defensiveness may be understandable, it’s hardly
necessary anymore. In 1998, Gehry finally got what had been alluding him all these years: the recognition of his peers. The American
Institute of Architects awarded him the Gold Medal, which Gehry described to Architectural Record as “a wonderful honor … It’s like in your family: you know they don’t think very much of you and then, all of a sudden, you find out they love you. That’s how it feels.”

This year saw the publication of the 596-page “Frank O. Gehry: The Complete Works,” which is as premature as was his lifetime achievement award from the Pritzker people. Gehry & Associates has a mile-long list of projects in the hopper. Among them, the
Disney Concert Hall, scheduled to open in 2002; a new aluminum stacking chair for Knoll; a new wing for the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, which he said at a press conference “looks like a bunch of colored pieces of paper”; a new bulding for the SoHo branch of the Guggenheim; and an extensive plan to do even more for Panama than he’s done for Bilbao. There’s no reason to believe that, when all is said and done, his Guggenheim will stand out as his masterwork. After all, this is Frank Gehry. Chances are he’s just getting started.