Frank Gehry

The Most Important Architect of Our Age

Before Frank Gehry, the only architect that could claim to be an American household name was Frank Lloyd Wright. With a career now spanning well over 50 years and with a Pritzker Prize (1989) and as of 2016 a Presidential Medal of Freedom under his belt, Gehry has become one of the most recognizable and lauded faces of contemporary architecture.

Ranging from jarring designs using cheap, everyday materials to organic sculptural buildings of idiosyncratic artistry and audacity, the approach of this Canadian-born, Modernist-trained and L.A.-living architect goes beyond categorization. His work continues to challenge the traditions that Gehry himself has helped solidify. Today’s episode will attempt to encapsulate the ever-changing, anti-star “starchitect” that is Frank Gehry.

Frank Gehry. Photo by Chad Slattery.

Gehry Residence, 1978 (further refined in 1991). Santa Monica, California.

Despite his unclassifiable methods, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Paul Goldberger famously described Gehry’s style as “powerful essays in primal geometric form and industrial materials”, a description that perhaps best fits the renovation of his own home that brought him national acclaim in 1978. A palimpsest of corrugated metal, concrete, chain-links, plywood, and other found elements encase a two-story Dutch colonial bungalow in what some may call a Postmodern manner. Indeed, Gehry’s use of bricolage and assemblage has a disruptive effect on the viewer as the pink roof anachronistically peeks through the fencing, working almost as a parody of historicization and convention.

Olympic Fish Pavillion, 1992. Barcelona, Spain.

Dancing House, 1996. Prague, Czech Republic.

Nevertheless, Gehry resisted the “Postmodernist” label, reacting against such playful referencing, kitsch, and insistence on pastiche by turning towards the complexity of curvature and motion. This shift is most evident in Olympic Fish Pavilion (1992), which can be read as a direct response to the postmodern aesthetic—as Gehry ironically notes, “If you have to go backward, why not go back 300 million years before man, to fish?” The minimalist steel meshing glistens a brilliant gold along the gravity-defying exterior, providing a clever experimentation with natural lighting and biomorphism. In classic Gehry fashion, the metal armature peeks through to reveal the frame and supports underneath. Olympic Fish Pavilion was also a technological revolution, utilizing 3D aeronautical-design software to broaden the scope of Gehry’s unconventional projects in the future.

Aerial view of the Museum of Pop Culture, 2000. Seattle, USA.

Gehry achieved (to his resentment) starchitect status with the daring, awe-inspiring, and evocative Guggenheim Bilbao completed in 1997. The manipulated surface of glass and titanium, as well as its asymmetricality and explosive unpredictability, have led critics and historians to label it as the quintessential accomplishment of Deconstructivism, an offshoot of postmodern architecture.

The overall structure, however, is more than a restrained chaos of material and shape: depending on the viewer’s angle, it can appear as a living organism or a giant ship, speaking to Gehry’s attention to finesse and execution alongside boldness and instability. The building’s excessive press and boost on Bilbao’s economy had such a massive impact that similar architectural phenomenons following its construction have been called “The Bilbao Effect”.

Guggenheim Museum, 1993-1997. Bilbao, Spain.

Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, 2010. Las Vegas, USA.

Gehry is still innovating to this day, and his most recent work continues to utilize curvaceous twists and turns, sleek yet discordant exteriors, and a theoretical incorporation of diverse art forms such as sculpture, visual media, and even music. His designs exceed definition, though Gehry’s self-proclaimed description of his style as “liquid architecture” is particularly apt.


“When I was a kid, my father didn't really have much hope for me. He thought I was a dreamer; he didn't think I would amount to anything. My mother also.” – Frank Gehry

“Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness.” – Frank Gehry

“There are a lot of questions about whether architecture is art. The people who ask that think pretty tract houses are architecture. But that doesn't hold up.” – Frank Gehry

“The best advice I've received is to be yourself. The best artists do that.” – Frank Gehry

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