Unlike sculptors and painters, architects usually work in relative anonymity, and very few them reach superstar status. Frank Gehry is one of the few, an architect whose buildings are so unique, visible and sometimes controversial that his name is well known outside architectural circles.
Gehry was born in Toronto in 1929 and moved to Los Angeles in 1947. He didn’t aspire to be a famous architect when he first emigrated to America; instead he spent his time driving a truck, working as a radio announcer and attending Los Angeles City College. Eventually, though, he was inspired by his love of art to enroll in the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture.
After graduation, he still wasn’t sure where his life was headed. He married and changed his surname from Goldberg to Gehry in order to dodge the anti-semitism he’d experienced through his life. He also moved to Massachusetts to study city planning at Harvard, but he dropped out because of his frustration at the conservatism at the Ivy League school.
By the end of the 1970s, Gehry had established himself as one of the most prominent architects in the field. Ironically, his success led him back to the Ivy Leagure, where he taught at both Yale and Columbia University and held the Eliot Noyes Chair at Harvard.
Gehry’s style is firmly rooted in Deconstructivism, an architectural movement that gained popularity in the 1980s as a reaction to Postmodernism. The movement drew its inspiration from literary theory pioneered by the philosopher Jacques Derida and early-20th-century art movements such as Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism.
The philosophy behind Deconstructivism is complex, but it essentially runs counter to the ideas of Postmodernism, which felt that architecture should remain simple and that the form of the building should be an obvious reflection of its function. Deconstructivist architecture, in contrast, embraces structural complexity, and the form of deconstructivist buildings results from a fragmentation and re-assembly of its structure. In many ways, Deconstructivism echoes Cubism in that it reduces a building to simple elements and then rearranges them, resulting in an energetic and dynamic abstraction of the original form.
In addition to Gehry, practitioners of Deconstructivism include Daniel Libeskind, Peter Eisenman and Bernard Tschumi.
Gehry’s grandfather owned a hardware store, and Gehry attributes his fondness for tactile, textural building materials to the Saturday mornings he spent at the store as a child. Many of his early buildings proudly displayed their humble materials, such as corrugated siding, aluminum, chain link fencing and plywood.
Gehry’s most famous buildings are less humble but are just as concerned with an emphasis on material, featuring huge soaring sweeps of gleaming, textured titanium or stainless steel.
Gehry’s buildings are scattered all over the world, and many of them are visual focal points that attract the attention of tourists as surely as any famous public sculpture. His well-known titanium- and stainless-steel-clad edifices include the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain; the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles; the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago; and the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.