Frank Gehry

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 July, 2004, 12:00am

Should I have heard of him? Probably, and you may have stopped and stared at his quirky buildings. Frank Gehry, who was born in Canada but became a naturalised United States citizen, is renowned for his deconstructed architectural style and his sculptural, functional buildings. It's an approach that has won him acclaim from many quarters. 'There are no gloomy Gehry buildings,' announced the prestigious Pritzker architecture prize jury when Gehry won the prize in 1989. (The Pritzker is considered the architectural equivalent of the Nobel prize.) 'One cannot think of anything he has done that does not make one smile.'

Go on, make me smile: He's the man responsible for the famous, seductively curvaceous Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain (far right), a free sculpture of abstract, metal-clad forms that caused considerable excitement when it was completed in 1997. Time Magazine named it Building of the Century and it has attracted visitors to Bilbao from around the globe, despite the city's seedy reputation. There's also the riotously coloured Beach House in Venice, California, where Gehry deliberately pulled apart conventional building design and materials. The result is a curious 'upside-down' house with an ocean-facing lookout. Or there's the Experience Music Project in Seattle, Washington, a museum of pop music commissioned by software billionaire Paul G. Allen in 1969. While the voluptuous, curving sheet-metal-clad building is dedicated to Jimi Hendrix, it's also known as 'Frank Gehry's Rock Temple'.

Where does he find his inspiration? In art. 'Painting had an immediacy I craved for in architecture,' Gehry once said. Asked if he had any mentors or idols in the history of architecture, Gehry picked up a photograph of Romanian abstract artist and sculptor Constantin Brancusi and said, 'I tend to think more in terms of artists like this. He has had more influence on my work than most architects.' Gehry's genius lies in his ability to create designs that are works of art as well as intelligently functioning spaces. He's been a revitalising force in modern architecture.

How did he start out? Gehry was born in 1929 and spent much of his childhood making 'little cities' out of scrap wood. He studied at the universities of Southern California and Harvard, and moved to Paris to work for architects Pereira and Lickman in 1961. Once there he spent his weekends travelling to various architectural meccas, including Chartres cathedral and Le Corbusier's Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamps. In 1962 he returned to Los Angeles and set up Frank O. Gehry & Associates. Gehry first came to public attention in the early 1970s with his Easy Edges furniture: chairs, stools, tables and an ottoman in laminated cardboard. They were an instant hit. Ironically, it took Gehry more than 20 years to get national attention for one of his buildings, an inexpensive but unconventional renovation of his home. The house, which remains influential today, led to countless commissions, a huge number of prizes and eventually a line of furniture - the Gehry Collection by Knoll Studio.

What's he doing now? He's still designing at Gehry & Associates, working on a huge range of new projects and commissions. In the past few years he has designed the stunning Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which opened in 2003, and a new wing for the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington.

Last word from the architect: 'I approach each building as a sculptural object, a spatial container, a space with light and air, a response to context and appropriateness of feeling and spirit. To this container, this sculpture, the user brings his baggage, his programme, and interacts with it to accommodate his needs. If he can't do that, I've failed.'