Frank Gehry, the champion of dancing buildings and crunched forms

Reputed for giving the world some of the most astonishing pieces of architecture in fearless, gravity-defying forms, the Pritzker winning American architect turns 91 today.

by Zohra Khan Published on : Feb 28, 2020

Anyone who has watched the iconic 80s animated sitcom, The Simpsons, may remember this scene: a paper crumpled and tossed on the ground becomes a moment of inspiration for the design of an iconic concert hall for Springfield. The man portrayed in this much-loved sequence was none other than the celebrated architect, Frank Gehry, the champion of crunched forms, dancing buildings, and curving compounds.

Over the last 50 years of his practice, Gehry has demystified the organised trajectory of modernism - and its associated ideal of form following function - with works that highlight a post structuralist aesthetic. Reputed for giving the world some of the most astonishing pieces of architecture, the architect remains humble and child-like even as he turns 91 today.

Gehry's works highlight a post structuralist aesthetic | STIRworld
Gehry's works highlight a post structuralist aestheticImage Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Some of his recent projects include the South Korean flagship store for Louis Vuitton, designed with sweeping glass sails atop a cube of white stone; the headquarters for Warner Bros Entertainment in Los Angeles that are designed to resemble floating icebergs, and sculpted spaces for Philadelphia’s Museum of Art.

Cardboard furniture by Frank Gehry  | Frank Gehry | STIRworld
Cardboard furniture by Frank Gehry Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“You have got to bumble forward into the unknown.”

Born Frank Owen Goldberg in Toronto, Canada in 1929, Gehry was exposed to a creative environment all through his childhood. His grandmother introduced him to the world of architecture, and together they would make imaginary buildings and towns out of scraps of wood.

Over the years his curiosity grew, and he joined the University of Southern California to study architecture. The first project that brought him national recognition was the Easy Edges furniture line in 1970, where he crafted chairs using corrugated cardboard and fibre-board.

Gehry-designed first house in Santa Monica | Frank Gehry | STIRworld
Gehry-designed first house in Santa Monica Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It was however, for the rebuilding of his own house in Santa Monica in 1978, that Gehry received international recognition. In his design, he was able to create fascinating spaces and intriguing compositions using materials such as corrugated aluminum, unfinished plywood and a chain-like fence. The project brought him the stature of an experimental, avant-garde architect and opened opportunities abound.

Over the years, he designed many powerful buildings such as the titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown Los Angeles, Dancing House in Prague and Stata Centre in Massachusetts. What remains constant in each of these works is an attitude that lacks predetermined outcomes and a vision to seek new methods and explore new ideas.

  • Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles | Frank Gehry | STIRworld
    Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
  • A closer look at the facade of Walt Disney Concert Hall | Frank Gehry | STIRworld
    A closer look at the facade of Walt Disney Concert Hall Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“I approach each project with a new insecurity.”

Gehry received the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1989 where he was cited by the jury as someone who is always ‘open to experimentation’.

His approach to architecture over the years has been rather simple. He has confessed to starting each project with the same trepidation and insecurity as the first project of his life, and then he lets unpredictability takes over. Materials, techniques, processes and products are only the medium to express this unpredictability.

The Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health of the Cleveland Clinic in Las Vegas, Nevada  | Frank Gehry | STIRworld
The Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health of the Cleveland Clinic in Las Vegas, Nevada Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Such was the case of arriving at the iconic façade of Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. The architect first decided on steel, but due to its reflective nature in the sun, the choice was dropped. It was rather unpredictable that Gehry sought the elusive titanium for the sheer reason that it exudes a magical golden glow when sun light falls on its surface. The result, as the world knows it, brought a tremendous recognition and glory to the Spanish city of Bilbao.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain | Frank Gehry | STIRworld
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“I don’t know why people hire architects and tell them what to do.”

Gehry leaves the journey of a building open-ended. While working on a project, he likes to keep the design development in a ‘liquid state’ in which he extensively experiments with models, unpacks the client’s brief and invites consultations and views to arrive at the final product. Often, when he reveals his vision to clients, they get nervous seeing the ambitions of the architect, but slowly they come to trust his trajectory.

A design contrarian who is exacting, precise, spontaneous and unpredictable all at once, Gehry is perhaps the most powerful paradox in the world of architecture.

STIR wishes him a happy 91st!

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About Author

Zohra Khan

Zohra Khan

A formal education in architecture combined with an avid interest in architecture journalism and design criticism led Khan to professionally venture into writing and research. She has worked in design communication for more than three years, generating content for mondo*arc india journal. When not writing, she kicks back by dabbling on social media for STIR.

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