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 to date 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 home town 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.
As of this writing, Gehry is deeply immersed in a number of projects, including the new Barclays Center sports arena in Brooklyn, New York, a concert hall for the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, and a new 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.
Click here to listen to his interview at Academy of AchievementStart Slide Show with PicLens Lite