Continuing our series reconsidering Deconstructivist architecture, we profile Frank Gehry, the Canadian architect who brought global attention to the style with his groundbreaking Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.
Opened in 1997, this flamboyant installation of titanium-clad ship-like forms – described by the New York Times as a “miracle” – transformed the economic fortunes of the previously unremarkable Basque coastal town, propelling Gehry and his distinctive style global. Fame.
Soon, cities around the world were laying claim to their magnificent architectural icons, pursuing a phenomenon that became known as the “Bilbao Effect.”
He is often credited with birthing the era of the star architect and a slew of cultural buildings that will forever be associated with Deconstructivism, which is often criticized for prioritizing computer-generated form over function.
This phenomenon has led to Gehry becoming as close to a household name as architects can get. In 2005, he made a guest appearance on an episode of The Simpsons, writing a letter inviting him to design a new concert hall in Springfield, and was suddenly struck by inspiration to create one of his signature “curly” shapes.
While Gehry himself maintained a somewhat indifferent attitude towards this Bilbao-induced stardom, frequent criticisms of his architecture as mere spectacle and appearance have followed much of his work ever since.
At a press conference in 2014, he responded to these criticisms by raising his middle finger, saying that 98% of what is being built today is “complete nonsense” with “zero sense of design.”
Gehry’s divisive aesthetic, which has been described as everything from “disturbed” and “chaotic” to “unfinished,” is one frequently associated with deconstruction. He was one of seven architects featured in the exhibition Deconstructive Architecture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1988.
But rather than being tied to philosophy or theory like the work of many proponents of this approach, it was an approach specifically informed by the context of Los Angeles, where his family had immigrated from Canada in 1947.
After studying at Los Angeles City College and the University of Southern California School of Architecture, Gehry briefly moved to Cambridge to study urban design at Harvard, but left to return to Los Angeles and join the office of Victor Gruen Associates, where he would work on his first designs including David Cabin in Idyllwild.
In 1967, he founded his own practice, Frank Gehry & Company (now Gehry Partners), during the height of the California art funk movement. This style, based on the found object art of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, often incorporates everyday objects into paintings and sculptures.
Gehry, who sometimes described his building as akin to jazz, was drawn to this mentality, which in his early buildings informed the use of cheap, often unrefined and ubiquitous materials, such as metal mesh fencing, corrugated boards and timber.
Nowhere was this more evident than in a building that represents the exact opposite of the glitzy cultural paradises of the 1990s – the Gehry Residence, which he designed for himself and his wife Berta in Santa Monica in 1978.
This project, which had a budget of just $50,000, was an extension of the family’s Dutch colonial home in the Los Angeles suburbs where they live to this day.
Gehry used “junk” materials to contrast the existing house, enlarging and enlarging its spaces with corrugated metal forms and wooden, glass and mesh awnings that seem to crash and collide through their form.
The house captured the imagination of the architectural world, but Gehry’s neighbors were less than upset about the plan, he recalls.
“There was a lawyer two doors south of me. She complained to the city and filed a lawsuit,” he said in an interview with PIN-UP magazine.
Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley will include the project in the 1988 Deconstructive Architecture exhibition.
It was perhaps the example most consistent with Wigley’s description of the visual aesthetic of Deconstruction, which he explained as “as if some kind of parasite had infected the form and distorted it from within.”
He went on to describe the new additions to the Gehry Residence as having “emerged from within the house…as if the house had always harbored these twisted forms within it.”
The MoMA exhibition also includes unbuilt designs for the Familian House, also dating from 1978, which features solid cubic forms intersected and interrupted by twisting frames. “Pure form is interrogated in a way that reveals its twisted and fragmented structure,” Wigley wrote.
The Santa Monica House also caught the attention of philosopher Frederic Jameson, who in his 1991 essay “Spatial Equations in the World System” presented an analysis of the building as “containing some powerful claims about revolutionary spatiality.”
While the house was hailed as an important work in intellectual circles, its cheap materials reflected the hard realities of this fledgling practice, which was steadily building a reputation through local commercial ventures such as the Santa Monica Place shopping center, the Edgar’s retail complex, and private home commissions.
During the 1980s, the firm’s forays into cultural architecture began to accelerate with several high-profile schemes in California including the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium and the California Space Museum.
Budgets may have increased but Gehry’s formal, material concerns and “collage” aesthetic remained evident, with the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium featuring wire mesh canopies and the Space Museum appearing as a stack of contrasting block-like shapes.
A 1989 project for the Production Hall at the Vitra Design Museum was transformative, as Gehry used white plaster and titanium and zinc alloys to create one of the earliest examples of the sculptural style that would define his career.
This series of projects culminated in Gehry receiving the Prizker Architecture Prize in 1989, for what the jury described as “a sophisticated and adventurous aesthetic that emphasizes the art of architecture.”
It was this win that in 1991 put Gehry in good stead to beat off competition from Arata Isozaki and Cobb Hemelb(l) and be selected to design the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the construction of which was completed in 1997.
The curved forms seen in the Vitra Design Museum project were developed and expanded here, completely covered by tens of thousands of titanium panels and made possible through the early use of computer-aided design.
For all the subsequent talk of spectacle over function, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao was a very thoughtful design, creating a dramatic new relationship with the city’s waterfront and challenging the idea that gallery spaces all need to be white cubes with a series of dynamic, angular interiors.
“People always tell me how it changed the city,” he said of the project in a 2021 interview with Dezeen. “I didn’t mean to change the city, I just meant to be part of the city.”
But it will transform many cities, with large-scale cultural, commercial and housing projects soon springing up all over the world.
Initially, many were visually similar to the Guggenheim Bilbao, none more so than the Walt Disney Concert Hall (commissioned before Bilbao but completed after 2003). The same year’s Richard P. Fisher Center and the 2006 Marques de Riscal Hotel in Spain also feature sweeping curves clad in metal.
Gehry’s first forays into the UK came with the more pared-down Maggie’s Dundee design in 2003. In 2008, he was chosen to design the Serpentine Pavilion in London, which seemed like a return to his roots with a fractured form of wood and glass that alluded to his early domestic projects.
In 2011, Gehry completed his first New York skyscraper on Eight Spruce Street, with a crumpled, wave-like facade typical of other housing schemes such as Opus Hong Kong 2011, which has been seen more recently, albeit in a more tonal manner. In a project alongside Battersea Power Station due to open in September 2022.
Despite frequent criticism of repetition, Gehry’s work is characterized by some startling deviations. 2000’s Museum of Popular Culture in Seattle is a minimalist experiment in the short-lived “blobitechture” style, while 2014’s angular Biomuseo in Panama City swaps shiny silver curves for primary-colored angles.
More recently, the 2014 Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris took the form of a series of giant glass shells, and the tower of the Loma Arles Arts Center is a brilliant mix of crumbled and unmistakably – and controversially – limestone.
Although Gehry has made attempts to characterize these projects as relevant to their times and places—an argument he continues to make for his schemes—criticisms of them as flashy vanity projects often emerge once they are opened.
“I always want to hide under the covers when my buildings open… I’m terrified about what people will think,” Gehry admitted in the 2006 documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry.
Peter Buchanan wrote in his book Architectural Review how many of Gehry’s buildings “blatantly ignore their settings, reducing architecture to a mere superfluous spectacle”, criticisms that began to extend to many Deconstructivist works.
But except for the occasional press conference outburst, Gehry and his stunning figures remain unafraid of such criticism. Now 93, and working in an era when the influence of Bilbao and its famous buildings are viewed with more suspicion, Gehry’s career has taken him full circle while working at the Guggenheim Museum Abu Dhabi.
The new landmark – which will jostle on Saadiyat Island with Jean Nouvel’s Louvre Abu Dhabi – features a distinctive collection of block-like forms, curved metal sheets and jagged canopies, forming a lineage that harkens back to the Santa Monica house where it all began.
Deconstructivism is considered one of the most influential architectural movements of the 20th century. Our series profiles the buildings and the works of their key proponents – Eisenman, Gehry, Hadid, Koolhaas, Libeskind, Tschumi, and Brix.
Read our deconstruction series ›
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