Frank Gehry: Architect as sculptor

Guggenheim in Bilbao
The Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, was dsigned by American architect Frank Gehry next to the Bilbao river.
Photo by DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images

Frank Gehry was raised in Toronto, Canada, and moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1947. His architecture career began on a fairly traditional path.

After graduating from the University of Southern California's School of Architecture in 1954, Gehry worked for several firms in the 1950s and '60s, before opening his own firm, Frank O. Gehry and Associates, in 1967.

Architect Frank Gehry
Architect Frank Gehry is known for his dramatic curved building designs. Among his many projects is the Weisman Art Center at the University of Minnesota.
Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

According to a documentary on Gehry's life, he didn't break out of the traditional architectural mode for several years, even though he experimented with the design of his own home -- playing with shapes and textures.

The story goes that a houseguest of Gehry's asked him why he was so creative with his home, but so reserved and traditional in the execution of his work. So Gehry decided to take his work in a new direction.

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He began using unusual materials, such as chain link and corrugated metal, in some of his designs. He also started experimenting with curvilinear shapes and unorthodox surfaces.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is perceived to be Gehry's most iconic and representative work, and was a culmination of Gehry's new direction. Other major works that follow similar form include the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, and Millenium Park in Chicago.

The Waisman
The Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, designed by Frank Gehry.
MPR file photo

Gehry discussed his approach in a 1980 edition of Contemporary Architects.

"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 program, and interacts with it to accommodate his needs. If he can't do that, I've failed."

Gehry's work does have its critics, who say that his buildings are often designed with little regard for the local climate, that they are out of scale with their surrounding neighborhoods, and that the spectacle of the buildings themselves overwhelm their intended purpose.

In Los Angeles, the Disney Center has raised concerns about the amount of sun and heat that radiates off its metal exterior. The Los Angeles Times reported that the Center has "roasted the sidewalk to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to melt plastic and cause serious sunburn to people standing on the street."

Gehry's Disney hall design
The curving and folding exterior walls of the Walt Disney Concert Hall are clad in more than 6,000 steel panels. The 2,265-seat hall, designed by architect Frank Gehry, opened in 2003.
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Gehry is considered a modern architectural icon and celebrity, and is now considered a major "Starchitect." The term usually refers to architects who are known for their dramatic, impactful designs, which often achieve fame and notoriety through their shock value.

Gehry has received a number of major architectural awards over his long career, including the Pritzker Prize in 1989. The citation from Pritzker jury sums up the feelings many have about Gehry's work.

"His sometimes controversial, but always arresting body of work, has been variously described as iconoclastic, rambunctious and impermanent. But the jury, in making this award, commends this restless spirit that has made his buildings a unique expression of contemporary society and its ambivalent values."

Gehry, 78, is still actively involved in designing new projects. One of his latest is a new center to be the home of the NBA's New Jersey Nets, proposed for Brooklyn. The project involves more than just a basketball arena, though. The 16-building development would including housing, office buildings and shops. Many of the neighbors who live in the area oppose it.