The free scribbles that gave rise to Frank Gehry’s buildings

The free scribbles that gave rise to Frank Gehry’s buildings

Frank Gehry, project sketch for the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California (1991) (Frank Gehry Collection, Los Angeles © 2015 Gehry Partners, LLP, image courtesy of Gehry Partners, LLP)

Frank Gehry, project sketch for the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California (1991) (All images from the Frank Gehry Collection, Los Angeles © 2016 Gehry Partners, LLP and Courtesy Gehry Partners, LLP)

In an episode of the animated TV series Arthur, Frank Gehry makes a surprise appearance, announcing that he has been hired to design a new art gallery in the fictitious city of Elwood. He holds up a drawing for all to see – a strange doodle, made up of frantic scribbles.

“Will this be a building?” Pinky Barnes asks skeptically.

“Well, it’s just a rough sketch,” Jerry replies with a smile. “But sure, why not? Who says a building has to look like a box?”

The scene captures the spirit of Gehry’s design process, and is the centerpiece of a sprawling retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), simply titled Frank Gehry. While their physical results receive most of our attention (and awards), his designs on paper—of realized and unrealized visions—are not only vital to understanding the architect’s practice but are also works of art in their own right. The exhibition follows Gehry from the early 1960s – after he opened his practice in 1962 – to the present, featuring more than 200 of his drawings, many of which have never before been shown to the public, as well as 65 3D models.

Frank Gehry, 8 Spruce Street Design, Drawing and Scale Study, New York, NY (2007) (Frank Gehry Collection, Los Angeles © 2015 Gehry Partners, LLP, image courtesy of Gehry Partners)

Frank Gehry, 8 Spruce Street Design, Drawing and Scale Study, New York, NY (2007) (© 2016 Gehry Partners, LLP, courtesy of Gehry Partners, LLP) (click to enlarge)

Perhaps the most fascinating of these works are Gehry’s preliminary drawings, which are similar to the vague ones that appear in “Arthur”, and consist mostly of fluid scribbles drawn in bank ink on Bristol board. Gestural and free, his lines move away from the precise drawings relying on straight edges that one typically sees in an architect’s portfolio. One can imagine Gehry waving his pen across a surface to create the hard beginnings of what would become the smooth walls of a skyscraper; Or rotate the tooth to create Cy Twombly-like scribbles that may appear as overlapping structures. As curator Lauren Bergman describes, Gehry’s disregard for specificity early in his design process is fundamental to his final visions—the energetic, abstract creations for which he is known.

“The sketches allow him to have the freedom not to be specific about every architectural detail, but to capture the energy and spirit of the building,” Bergman told Hyperallergic. “I think that sometimes architecture shows are very difficult for an audience because the audience doesn’t always know how to read a floor plan or understand height — and obviously you can’t hold the physical object in the room. How do you help them understand that? What’s unique about Gehry is The drawings and models are so dynamic and so explosive and so expressive, in fact, more than anything else. They’re so energetic that I think it’s something that viewers feel connected to in a really different way than other architects.

Gehry began working consistently with these black-and-white sketches in the 1980s, although the plans from the early 1960s were also abstract and visually far removed from their traditional models. Some appear as parts of the spaces while others are created by playing with the blocks, twisting and drawing the shape. Gesture drawings are particularly challenging to read, Bergman said, because the curvy lines make it difficult to negotiate negative and positive space and differentiate between structural elements like walls and windows. But within the mix lies clear language.

“The more you look at it, the more you understand that there is a lexicon — and you can start reading it, and kind of knowing what it refers to,” Bergman said. “But regardless of whether you read that vocabulary or not, there is a spirit in it that you can understand the way the building is going to be expressed.”

Examining the successive plans of the buildings within each project, one notices changes that appear as simple scribbles but indicate shifts in the development of Gehry’s thinking. General outlines begin to emerge that show what aspects of the building he focuses on or how he thinks about the form over time. What initially appears as a layer of lettuce (Walt Disney Concert Hall), a slice of sticky lasagna (National Art Museum of China), or an iceberg cutting skyward from the ocean (Louis Vuitton Foundation) eventually evolves into explosive installations with undulating walls. And wavy surfaces. Other architectural elements appear to be in a constant state of flux.

“I think what makes Gehry unique in the broader sense as a contemporary architect from other architects is the feeling that a building should be expressive, that it should evoke emotion, that it should say something,” Bergman said. “I think what the drawings do is they show you the primacy of that practice – it is really, at its core, human.”

Frank Gehry, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, design drawing for the riverfront elevation, Bilbao, Spain (c. 1991) (Frank Gehry Collection, Los Angeles © 2015 Gehry Partners, LLP, image courtesy of Gehry Partners, LLP)

Frank Gehry, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, design drawing for the riverfront elevation, Bilbao, Spain (c. 1991) (© 2016 Gehry Partners, LLP, courtesy of Gehry Partners, LLP)

Frank Gehry, Ray and Maria Stata Center for Computer Information and Intelligence Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, design sketch and volumetric study (1999) (Frank Gehry Collection, Los Angeles © 2015 Gehry Partners, LLP, image courtesy of Gehry Partners, LLP with me)

Frank Gehry, Ray and Maria Stata Center for Computer Information and Intelligence Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Design Sketch and Volumetric Study (1999) (© 2016 Gehry Partners, LLP, with permission from Gehry Partners, LLP)

frank Gehry, "Walt Disney Concert Hall, design drawing, scale study, 1989-2003 (1988 competition), Los Angeles, California, 9 x 12 inches, Frank Gehry Collection, Los Angeles

Frank Gehry, Design Drawing and Scale Study for the Walt Disney Concert Hall (1991) (© 2016 Gehry Partners, LLP, courtesy of Gehry Partners, LLP)

Draw sketches

Frank Gehry, Design Sketch and Volumetric Study for the Louis Vuitton Foundation (2006) (© 2016 Gehry Partners, LLP, courtesy of Gehry Partners, LLP)

Frank Gehry, Design Drawing and Scale Study for Quanzhou Museum of Contemporary Art (2012)

Frank Gehry, Design Sketch and Scale Study for Quanzhou Museum of Contemporary Art (2012) (© 2016 Gehry Partners, LLP, courtesy Gehry Partners, LLP)

Frank Gehry Continues at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA) RUntil March 20.

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