During a March 2015 trip to Paris, I visited the city’s newest art museum, the Fondation Louis Vuitton (pictured below), which had opened the preceding November. The museum is located in the Bois de Boulogne, and is housed in a dramatic building designed by the famed American architect, Frank Gehry. The glass, wood and stone structure is built in the shape of sailboat sails inflated by the wind.
The building itself is a challenge for the art inside. The building is so massive and its style so flamboyant that the art inside is almost overwhelmed. The overall effect is that the art feels almost insignificant and ephemeral. At the time of my visit, this effect seemed discordant to me. On further reflection, however, I have decided that this effect is a tribute to the building’s power – the building itself is a work of art, one arguably more fully realized that the art objects it contains.
I have been fortunate in the course of my travels to see other Gehry buildings, including, for example, the famous Dancing Building in Prague (pictured left). Though Gehry’s buildings are always interesting, they can be controversial as well. The Peter B. Lewis Building here in Cleveland, which houses the Graduate School of Business at Case Western Reserve University, and which is built in a highly stylized form similar to Gehry’s famous Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, has drawn a great deal of comment, not all of it flattering.
Because of Gehry’s prominence, because of his style, and even because of the controversy that much of his work attracts, it was with great interest that I read Paul Goldberger’s recent biography of Gehry, Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry.
Gehry arguably is our era’s most famous architect. The Bilbao Museum is his most famous work. Because Gehry has designed other buildings with echoes of the Bilbao Museum, it is easy to forget what a radical development the Spanish museum represented when it first opened in 1997. The famous architect and critic, Phillip Johnson, who visited the museum shortly before it opened, was moved to tears by the building and immediately called it “the greatest building of our time.” The building not only represents what was at the time a radically new architectural concept, but it also was a powerful demonstration of the application of computer design technology to the architectural process.
Interestingly, the buildings for which Gehry is most famous – including Bilbao, the Walt Disney Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, the Fondation Louis Vuitton – were all built relatively late in Gehry’s long and prolific career. These buildings were the culmination of Gehry’s life’s work. Goldberger’s book tells the story of how Gehry became the kind of designer who could conceive and execute designs that were bold, exciting, and new.
Frank Gehry began life as Frank Goldberg, a child of Jewish parents living in Toronto. His family moved to Los Angeles for his father’s health when Gehry was a young man. Gehry has lived in Los Angles ever since, but he has retained his outsider mentality, a defining attribute of his personality and of his architectural approach. His early years were important; there is something absolutely charming about the small boy who would become one of our era’s most important architects sitting on his grandmother’s kitchen floor and building cities out of wooden blocks.
Despite these early signs, Gehry did not purposefully set out to become an architect. He began by taking art classes in the University of Southern California extension program. His ceramics teacher encouraged him and guided him to the architecture program. He would eventually enroll in the architecture school at USC, followed by a disastrous and aborted year at Harvard. About the same time, he changed his name at his first wife’s insistence, and set out to begin his architectural career. At which point he was drafted into military service, one of the many twists and turns in Gehry’s life.
After completing his stint in the military, Gehry returned to Los Angeles, and following a short period at one of the city’s large architecture firms, he set out to form his own firm with classmates from USC. The work from this early period for which Gehry is now known was in its own way radical, although nothing like the more flamboyant buildings for which he is now famous. He developed a reputation for working with unusual materials; not the waves of titanium for which he would later be known, but unconventional materials, such as chain link fencing and plywood.
In those early years, Gehry was drawn to the Los Angeles art scene, and throughout his career, he associated more with those in the art world more than in the world of architecture. His association with painters and sculptors would have an enormous influence on his work and his creative sensibility; Goldberger notes that you can “think of Gehry’s buildings as representing a kind of ‘action architecture,’ following Harold Rosenberg’s famous description of [Franz] Kline, [Jackson] Pollock and William de Kooing as ‘action painters’.” (This action dynamic in Gehry’s design can be seen in many of his buildings, including the Dancing Building in Prague depicted above).
In his early years, Gehry also showed a truly remarkable level of professional courage and commitment to independence. Gehry had developed an important relationship with the Rouse Company, a real estate development firm working on a planned community in Columbia, Maryland. Among other things, as part of this relationship, Gehry designed the Merriweather Post Pavilion, one of the most successful outdoor music performance facilities in the country (and the first of Gehry’s buildings to receive national attention). Gehry’s relationship with Rouse was productive and successful – he would go to design a new headquarters building for Rouse – but ultimately Gehry decided to walk away.
After a dinner conversation with Rouse’s CEO caused Gehry to question the direction his career was taking him, Gehry not only decided to step aside from Rouse, but to stop seeking commercial work altogether, and to focus on architecture that he cared about. He was forced to let go of several dozen people working at his firm, reducing his team to just himself, his new wife Berta (who served as his bookkeeper) and one of his USC classmates. Very few professionals would have the courage or clarity of vision to do what Gehry did, but it was one of several moves he made in his career based on his fierce need for independence and his commitment to working on projects that allowed room for creativity.
One criticism you hear of Gehry’s work nowadays is that he is just designing the Bilbao museum over and over again. This charge is not even remotely true. The recently completed headquarters building Gehry designed for Facebook in Menlo Park, California could not be more different in design, aesthetic, and functionality than Bilbao. The Facebook building’s open floor-plan warehouse structure, with exposed beams and electrical wiring, is a model of efficiency and simplicity. But even with respect to the several buildings Gehry has designed that undeniably echo Bilboa’s undulating structure, the charge that he is repeating himself doesn’t stick. In the Gehry biography, Goldberger quotes one architectural critic as saying that with the Bilbao building, Gehry created an entirely new architectural language, one that had not previously existed. In his subsequent buildings that deploy the rippling and surging shapes first seen in Bilboa, Gehry is, according to the critic, providing further expressions of the language he first created.
It is not just Gehry’s work that is interesting; he is himself an interesting figure. While he was fiercely committee to maintaining his independence and preserving room to exercise his creativity, he has never been loner or an exile. To the contrary, Gehry had a remarkable talent for friendship; throughout his career he built relationships that would become increasingly important to his success and accomplishments. These friendship would include not only colleagues from the art world like Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg, but even business people, like Peter Lewis (the Chairman of Progressive Insurance), Paul Allen, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jay Pritzker, as well as those involved in the Los Angeles film industry, like Sydney Pollock, Ben Gazzara, and even Brad Pitt. Goldberg’s biography succeeds in bringing Gehry to life, and in helping to explain how his personal life supported his professional life.
For that reason, I am very comfortable recommending Goldberger’s biography of Gehry to anyone interested in the architect or in the contemporary world of architecture and design. Goldberger, an architecture writer for the New York Times and other publications, has been friends with Gehry for nearly four decades and has written about the architect’s work through the course of his career. Goldberger enjoyed what appears to have been unrestricted access to Gehry’s friends, family, and archives. The result is a remarkably sympathetic portrait of a very interesting man.
However, the sympathy between the biographer and his subject his not without its downside; Gehry had many disputes and falling outs over the course of his long career, and in each case, the story is told in this biography from Gehry’s point of view. For example, Goldberger’s account of Gehry’s split with his first wife is long, defensive, and really kind of boring. Moreover, as interesting as Gehry the man really is, there were times while reading this book when I found myself wishing for more of a design biography – with many more pictures – rather than a personal biography.
Despite these notes of concern, I am still comfortable recommending this book. It is an interesting read. One of the great things about reading this book is that it is impossible to read about Gehry’s work and his design aesthetic without also thinking about the purpose of architecture and the meaning of design and creative expression in the architectural process. When I visit a city for the first time, one of the first things I try to do is to locate the city’s distinctive buildings, to think about how the buildings fit within the city’s history and reflect the city’s people. Reading this book and its discussion of a creative designer, who has in many ways helped to redefine architecture and who certainly has shaped architectural design in our times, is a very interesting way to think more about the meaning and purpose of architecture. For this reason, most of all, I am happy to recommend this book.