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Give That Man Another Guggenheim!

How Frank Gehry became our greatest architect.

At the End of the Century: One Hundred Years of Architecture

By Richard Koshalek, Zeynep Celik, Jean-Louis Cohen, Elizabeth A.T. Smith, and Beatriz Colomina

Harry N. Abrams; 352 pages; $65

Frank O. Gehry: The Complete Works

By Francesco Dal Co and Kurt W. Forster

Monacelli Press; 596 pages; $75

Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain

There’s no official ranking of architect status. But there is an unofficial score, which can be found in At the End of the Century: One Hundred Years of Architecture, the newly published catalog of an exhibition put together by the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. In the back of this hefty volume is an index, which affords a rough-and-ready estimate of who’s up and who’s down at the moment. The name of Robert A.M. Stern is nowhere to be found. I.M. Pei has but one reference, as does Michael Graves. The trendy Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Hadid garners two. More established names such as Peter Eisenman, Richard Meier, Richard Rogers, and Renzo Piano rate four mentions each. Rem Koolhas and Cesar Pelli have five. Tadao Ando gets eight, Philip Johnson nine, Robert Venturi 11. Frank Gehry has 32. So highly is Gehry rated by the seven architectural historians who contribute essays to the catalog that he beats out even Frank Lloyd Wright (27) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (31). Only Le Corbusier (104) ranks higher. That Gehry is our greatest living architect and one of the very greatest the century has produced is by no means an eccentric opinion these days. Gehry has, in the last several years, won every prize known to architecture and has been written about with rhapsodic, if sometimes flaky, enthusiasm. Last year, the New York Times’ architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp, celebrated Gehry’s design for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain (1991-97), as “the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe.” Philip Johnson, in a recent interview with Metropolis, said that the Bilbao had made him weep repeatedly.

Frank O. Gehry: The Complete Works

This kind of hype can’t but make you suspicious. How did the 69-year-old Gehry vault over his contemporaries? Until 20 years ago, he was unknown even in his hometown of Los Angeles. Before the Bilbao opened, he was hardly a household name outside of Los Angeles, often dismissed by colleagues as a jokester and an impractical artiste. One building changed all that. But as a new book of his complete works illustrates, Gehry’s reputation rests on far more than his grand slam in northern Spain. The Bilbao was the culmination of a great creative unfolding, which was taking place without much public notice, as Gehry’s lesser contemporaries received far more public attention. His work deserves not just accolades but understanding. Herewith, an introduction. Born in Toronto and raised mostly in Los Angeles, Gehry was for the entire first part of his career very much a California architect. (He still hasn’t built anything in New York City, though Thomas Krens, the director of the Guggenheim, wants to commission Gehry to build yet another branch of the museum on the Hudson River piers.) After dropping out of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and working for a few frustrating years as part of a corporate practice, he launched his own firm in 1962. What first distinguished his work was its locally inspired idealism. Gehry used humble, unlikely materials to build inexpensive houses in a sun-drenched climate. He employed chain-link fencing for shading; asphalt for kitchen floors; galvanized, corrugated steel for walls; and used corrugated cardboard to make furniture.

Model of Gehry residence
Winton guest house

The first of his buildings to attract widespread attention was Gehry’s own house in Santa Monica, Calif. Taking an ordinary pink bungalow, Gehry blew it up and froze the explosion in midair. Glass skylights burst out on unexpected trajectories; a corrugated steel frame, half the height of the house, envelops the façade. In subsequent years, Gehry continued to be more interested in building homes for middle-class people than for the wealthy ones who increasingly clamored to be his clients. A wonderful example of this is the whimsical Norton residence in Venice, Calif., a house decorated like a beachfront seafood restaurant, which was built on a budget of $150,000.    What’s fascinating about these projects is the way Gehry cracks open the structure of a building, jumbling its interior and exterior. This was sometimes connected with a movement called “deconstructionist” architecture, but Gehry followed no program and belonged to no school. If his work has an affinity for an artistic movement, it would have to be the Cubism of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. It is as if Gehry was analyzing spatial volumes, then separating and reassembling them in a previously unknown way. As his work developed in the early 1980s, his disassembly of architectural structure became increasingly radical and, simultaneously, more elegant. Perhaps the best example of this is his Winston guest house (1982-87), in Wayzata, Minn. Each room becomes its own building; the minibuildings recombine to form another building. In Gehry’s public work, you see this process in the Loyola University Law School in Los Angeles, a long-term project that began in 1978 and continued through the 1980s. There is an intellectualism to these works that is not the theory-driven kind that dominated East Coast architecture during the same period. Gehry’s intelligence is visual and spatial. His rooms talk to each other, creating a feeling of intimacy and community.

Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain

The other big impulse in his artistry is less cerebral and more playful. In the late 1970s, Gehry began working with the pop artist Claes Oldenburg; the two later collaborated on the Chiat/Day Building, an advertising agency with a giant pair of binoculars in front of it. Oldenburg’s surrealism seemed to encourage Gehry to plumb the depths of his own imagination, where he found–a fish. In 1981, Gehry designed a giant sculpture of a fish standing on its tail to occupy an atrium. The following year he put giant illuminated fish in a restaurant in Venice, Calif. He made fish lamps and sculpted the model for a kettle with fish for spout and handles. The first exhibition of Gehry’s work, which took place in Minneapolis in 1986, was entered through the body of a giant fishlike structure. In numerous interviews, Gehry has credited this figure to his grandmother, who kept live carp in the family’s bathtub in preparation for making gefilte fish. Yet the symbolism seems Christian as well as Jewish. Gehry’s fish is a savior, a perfect organic form that rescues architecture from modernist sterility.      In a number of sculptures, a coiled snake joined the fish. Soon, these t wo animal shapes began to appear in Gehry’s buildings in a more abstract and gestural way. You can read the Bilbao (which I have seen only in photographs, alas) as an evolved version of the pairing. The coiled snake is centered over the atrium, its head projecting up as a blunt skylight. The fish stretches out horizontally along the riverbank. The building’s titanium skin, which reflects a shimmering, multicolored light, recalls scales. These forms are not gimmicks that a visitor is supposed to “get.” They are figures buried deep in the form of the building, which yields not an explicit metaphor (as in an Eero Saarinen building) but a manifold suggestiveness. Some people look at Bilbao and see a ship with high sails. Others see a flower. In even more recent designs, Gehry has worked from the form of a horse’s head, which now has a number of plastic variations, though none of these buildings has been completed.

Model of Walt Disney Concert Hall

In the later 1980s, as Gehry the Californian became more of an international figure, the two main elements in his work–the deconstructive and the animal-sculptural–began to come together in a truly inspired way. I would describe this style as zoomorphic Cubism, the organic and angular combining to spectacular, mind-expanding effect. You see this in the museums and concert halls that display his talent at its height. In addition to the Bilbao, there are the Vitra Design Museum in Germany (1987-89), the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio (1989-92), the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis (1990-93), and the in-progress Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. In his most recent plans, such as the Experience Music Project in Seattle (under construction), the Bard College Performing Arts Center in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. (unbuilt), and the Samsung Art Museum in Korea (abandoned), these two strains reach an even greater unity. Though practically attainable–the Bilbao was built according to schedule and on budget–these structures seem like wonderfully impossible Expressionist fantasies. None of Gehry’s contemporaries has anything like his range or refined artistic temperament. They try to be playful and descend into postmodern kitsch, as Graves does. They try to be important and wander into thickets of theory, as Eisenman, who has published his correspondence with Jacques Derrida, does. Gehry can be successfully jokey and serious at the same time. Where many modern architects talk to each other, Gehry creates for a much wider audience. In so doing, he is restoring passionate public interest to a field that a decade ago seemed to be losing it. He has earned his 32 mentions, and then some.