American Architecture Series
Frank O. Gehry

Biography of Canadian-American Architect, Founder of Deconstructivism.

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Nationale Nederlanden Building,
Prague (1992-97)

Frank O. Gehry (b.1929)


Gehry's Architecture
Gehry Associates
Deconstructivist Buildings Designed by Frank O Gehry
Other Leading 20th Century Architects

For a short guide to terms
see: Architecture Glossary.

Gehry's Architecture

Among the greatest architects of late 20th century architecture, the Canadian-American Pritzker Prize-winning designer Frank O. Gehry is the leading exponent of Deconstructivism, a postmodernist style of architecture developed in Europe and the USA during the period 1980-2000. His most famous buildings include: the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao (1991-97); the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles (1988-2003); the Weisman Museum, Minneapolis (1990-93); the Nationale Nederlanden Building, Prague (1992-97), popularly known as "Fred and Ginger"; and the Experience Music Project, Seattle (1999-2000). Noted for his pioneering use of computer software for the design and fabrication of his structures - many of which are made from high-tech materials - his architecture is typically characterized by flowing lines, and surfaces that vary from titanium cladding (Bilbao Guggenheim) to metal Blobitectural modular parts (Experience Music Project). Although criticized by numerous art critics as well as fellow American architects, for his design for the proposed Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, among others, Gehry is also acclaimed as one of the most exciting contributors to postmodernist art and the leader of the so-called "Los Angeles School" or "Santa Monica School" of American architecture. His academic credentials are also impressive: he is a Distinguished Professor of Architecture at Columbia University; the Judge Widney Professor of Architecture at the University of Southern California (USC); a former Charlotte Davenport Professor of Architecture at Yale University; and a former holder of the Eliot Noyes Chair at Harvard University. A highly innovative contributor to American art, Gehry is, according to Vanity Fair magazine, "the most important architect of our age".




Born Ephraim Owen Goldberg, into a Polish-Jewish family in Toronto, Ontario, his enthusiasm for building futuristic cities out of scraps of wood was nurtured from a young age by his grandmother, using leftover oddments from her husband's hardware store. In 1947, at the age of 18, he moved with his family to Los Angeles and the family's name was changed from Goldberg to Gehry. He later became a US citizen.

Unsure of what career to choose, Gehry took a job driving a delivery truck, while attending a number of courses at Los Angeles City College. After various false starts he decided to try architecture and - despite some difficulty with his drawing skills - won several scholarships to the University of Southern California, from where, in 1954, he graduated top of his class with a degree in architecture.

After graduating, Gehry joined the prestigious Los Angeles architectural firm of Victor Gruen Associates. At the time, LA was experiencing a post-war housing boom, while innovative individual designs by modern artists like Richard Neutra (1892-1970) and Rudolph M Schindler (1887-1953) added to the excitement of the city's architectural scene. Following a year's interruption for compulsory military service, Gehry moved with his wife and children to Cambridge, to study city planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, but returned (disillusioned) to Los Angeles without completing his masters degree. After a short period, during which time he returned to Victor Gruen Associates, he left LA for a year's stay in Paris, France, where he spent a year working for the French architect Andre Remondet, while studying the work of the pioneer modernist Le Corbusier (1887-1965).

Gehry Associates

Returning to Los Angeles with his family in 1962, he founded his own firm, Gehry Associates, and focused on International Style architecture, initiated by the Bauhaus design school, under director Walter Gropius (1883-1969), and championed by ex-Bauhaus member Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), the hugely influential founder of the Second Chicago School. However, Gehry was increasingly attracted to the avant-garde art scene centered on the beach communities of Venice and Santa Monica. It was here that he met a number of top contemporary artists, including the Ed Kienholz (1927-94) and the Pop artist Ed Ruscha (b.1937), who were (like Marcel Duchamp before them) incorporating 'found' industrial products in their installations, sculptures and paintings, as part of the California "funk" art movement of the 1960s and early 70s.

Apart from a short burst of national media attention when "Easy Edges", a line of furniture which he had made out of corrugated cardboard, was featured in national magazine spreads, his creative output was limited to a small number of innovative designs for residential homes (mostly for friends), and a number of relatively conventional building complexes, like the Rouse Company headquarters in Maryland, and the Santa Monica Place shopping mall.

Interestingly, it was his home in Santa Monica, California, that jump-started his career. Adopting the "junk art" approach of Kienholz and others, Gehry converted his ordinary house into a model for a new style of domestic architecture, with stripped walls and exposed structural elements, using a combination of unusual materials (such as corrugated aluminum, chain link fencing and unfinished plywood). The finished structure received serious critical attention and led him to perform further experiments in which he combined unusual materials and unconventional techniques to create seemingly unstable structures, such as the California Aerospace Museum, the Frances Goldwyn Branch Library in Hollywood, and the Loyola University Law School. This avant-garde style of architecture soon became known as Deconstructivism.

What is Deconstructivism?

During the 1980s and 90s, California witnessed the rise of "Deconstructivism" a style of architecture that resembled a mutant form of Euclidean geometry: one that largely ignored the traditional principles of proportion and created discordant forms that often defied the laws of gravity. The style was first showcased in 1988 at an exhibition entitled "Deconstructive Architecture", organized by Philip Johnson (1906-2005) - the man who, back in 1932, introduced the International Style of architecture to America - which was held at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. As well as Gehry, the leading pioneers of Deconstructivist architecture included: Daniel Libeskind, Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and Bernard Tschumi.

Deconstructivist Buildings Designed by Frank O Gehry

Vitra Design Museum, Well am Rhein (1987-89)
A white stucco and zinc exterior blurs the difference between vertical and horizontal planes, as well as interior and exterior.

Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles (1988-2003)
A key structure in the redesign of central Los Angeles, its exterior is covered with titanium plates, while the interior is dressed in panels of Douglas pine wood.

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao (1991-97)
This building - designed by Gehry with the assistance of world leading architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill - was designed using advanced software supplied by the French aerospace firm Dassault, which allowed Gehry to replace Euclidean right-angles with flowing non-geometric shapes. The juxtaposed concave/convex surfaces, dressed in limestone and titanium plates that change colour according to the angle of the sun, produce a uniquely striking effect.

Nationale Nederlanden Building, Prague (1992-97)
This pair of corner towers, nicknamed "Ginger and Fred" by the citizens of Prague, seemingly defies gravity in an eye-catching pose that has become one of the city's major architectural landmarks.

DG Bank Apartments, Berlin (1995-2001)
The building's curved facade is dressed in pale limestone, similar to the nearby Brandenburg Gate. To the rear of the 40 apartments, a conference room and cafeteria are encased within a tubular glass ceiling. The conference room is located within a metal shell shaped like a gigantic horse's head.

Experience Music Project, Seattle (1999-2000)
Resembling the drapery of classical statues, the facade of this music centre is made up of separate multicoloured sections, created using 3-D computer programs.

Other Leading 20th Century Architects

Here is a short selection of some of the most influential architects of the last century.

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959)
Greatest ever American architect; designed Guggenheim Museum, NYC.
Walter Gropius (1883-1969)
Director of Bauhaus.
Le Corbusier (1887-1965)
Highly influential modernist urban architect.
Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969)
Hugely influential founder of Second Chicago School.
• Louis Kahn (1901-74)
Estonian-born architect, combined modernism with ancient forms.
• Philip Johnson (1906-2005)
Highly influential US architect; champion of the International Style.
• Eero Saarinen (1910-61)
Finnish-born modernist designer in America.
• I.M.Pei (b.1917)
Chinese-born modernist architect noted for Louvre Pyramid.
• Jorn Oberg Utzon (1918-2008)
Danish architect, exponent of "Additive Architecture".
• Sir James Stirling (1926-92)
Champion of artistic rather than functionalist architecture.
Fazlur Khan (1929-82)
Greatest structural engineer and designer of the 20th century.
• Richard Rogers (b.1933)
Champion of constructivist architecture, designed Georges Pompidou Centre.
• Richard Meier (b.1934)
Another of the great postmodernist artists, member of the "New York Five".
• Sir Norman Foster (b.1935)
High-tech modernist architect.
• Renzo Piano (b.1937)
Italian urban architect, co-designed Georges Pompidou Centre.


• For more about postmodernist architecture in America, see: Homepage.

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