A portrait of Frank O. Gehry

A portrait of Frank O. Gehry

When we look back at our childhood, it is quite surprising to see the amount of ingeniousness that is present in all of us through which we inevitably become the young star of our own neighbourhood. It doesn’t matter if it is painting, playing or handicrafts. The capabilities we had acquired until then inevitably brought things of artistic value to the fore – at least in the eyes of our parents. We could create everything with our small little hands and allow our fantasies to run free. However, only a few of us will later fulfil that dream of living life as a star. And others will become stars accidentally because they gain the attention – to an extent that they had never dreamt of – for their exceptional works, like Frank O. Gehry.

It began with the laminated cardboard furniture series “Easy Edges”

Before Frank O. Gehry developed his own language of shapes, at the beginning of his career, he used conventional methods to express himself with materials such as plywood, corrugated metal and corrugated cardboard. Beginning in 1969, out of those, he developed his own laminated cardboard furniture series and named it “Easy Edges”. He wanted to show that, through the use of simple, everyday materials for example a carton, a new aesthetical dimension could be created. A good example of this is the Wiggle Side Chair that is striking because of its sculpture-like shape and which is comfortable and stable at the same time. Gehry’s chairs, made of shaped, six to nine layer bonded maple wood is being sold internationally by the firm, Knoll International, of the USA, from 1990 onwards. The Cross Check Chair, which was displayed at the Red Dot Design Museum Essen for a short time, is also from this period.

The beginning: Frank O. Gehrys private residence in Santa Monica

It all began with the renovation of a private residence in Santa Monica in California. Frank O. Gehry and his wife decided to renovate their own home that had been built in 1920. The bungalow remained and Frank O. Gehry began to expand it and to experimentally redecorate the facade. In order to do that, Frank O. Gehry only used ordinary materials that he had already used in the design of his furniture series, for example, corrugated metal and wire mesh. What resulted from this was a real masterpiece. Gehry’s impressive career began with the renovation of his residence in Santa Monica. That has made him one of the most wanted star architects of our times. In the eighties, the residence received a prize from the AIA and he, himself received the Pritzker Prize in 1989, which is the Nobel Prize for architects. Even today, Gehry’s residence is an attraction for art lovers and people interested in design.

Frank O. Gehry as the forerunner of deconstructivism

Even today, Frank O. Gehry’s residence in Santa Monica is mentioned as a representation of one of the first examples of the style of deconstructivism. This is even though this style first came to be popular through the exhibition “Deconstructivist Architecture” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In this architectural style, divergent elements of construction and geometric shapes (cylinders, cones, spheres, pyramids and cubes) are joined freely and the values of harmony, unity and stability give way to the special structure.

Deconstructivist architecture is characterised by surface manipulation, fragmentation, and non-rectilinear shapes which distort and dislocate architectural conventions concerning structure and envelope. It deliberately juxtaposes elements that appear to contradict each other in order to challenge traditional ideas of harmony and continuity – even stability! In short, deconstructivism challenges almost all traditional styles of building design. However, it is really no more than a series of postmodernist “impulses” rather than a coherent movement, or a consistent design style.


Gehry’s impressive career began with the renovation of a private residence in Santa Monica, which has made him one of the most seeked-out star architects of our times. The residence received a prize from the AIA and he, himself received the Pritzker Prize in 1989, which is the Nobel Prize for architects. Even today, Gehry’s residence is an attraction for art lovers and people interested in design.

7 impressive works by Frank O. Gehry

If we take a look at Frank O. Gehry‘s list of spectacular constructions, one thing becomes clear:His unmistakable signature that remains and which justifies the title of “Signature Architect”. Gehry has his own unmistakable style that has become his trademark: His rooms are usable although they tip over, the right corner is lifted and the geometry is non-existent. Everything tries to break apart in order to flow into each other. The shapes appear harmonious and unruly at the same time; in a particular way, they project a raw aesthetic. From the sketch with just a few lines, up to the completed building, Gehry turns his ideas into actions. His striking constructions have always caused a sensation and do not appeal to everyone; this is because Gehry polarises opinions and he has many critics who do not want to buy into his “art of architecture” and do not consider him a serious architect. They say that his designs are nothing more than crumpled up sheets of paper with a few lines on them.

However, Frank O. Gehry remains singularly unimpressed and, in 1989, emphasised in an interview with the magazine “The Independent”, that he is not an artist but is an architect. His work for a new design always begins with handmade sketches, in spite of that, he said in an interview to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, that he sees “his work as an architect as a provision of a service and not as artistic playing around”. Giving a very simple example he explained that he “never needs more than 15 seconds for a sketch”. That is followed by “30 to 40 further 15-second sketches” right up to the last sketch, which is then simply the right one.
The many international contracts that followed the award of the Nobel Prize are an indication of the fact that many believe in him and his “art”. This is in spite of the fact that his two most important contracts for the Guggenheim-Museum in Bilbao and the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles were awarded to him in competitions.

1989: The Vitra Design Museum in Weil on the Rhine

For a long time, Frank O. Gehry was well known only because of his experimental furniture designs made of corrugated metal and corrugated cardboard; he caused a furore with the public only after the renovation of his private residence. As opposed to that, he quickly caused a sensation in Europe through the design of the Vitra Design Museum. The four exhibition halls were thrown open in 1989 after a construction period of three years. This was Gehry’s first project in which he moved away from his mix of different materials and, in spite of that, designed a striking and extravagant building made up of cubes that appeared to be inserted into each other in an almost absurd way. A first outcry rang through Germany.

1991–1997: The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

The probably best known design by Gehry is the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. The building appeared to be exceptionally futuristic for that period through its eye-catching facade made of titamium. For the first time in his designs, Gehry used the CATIA CAD system (=Computer Aided Three Dimensional Interactive Application) from Dassault Systems with which three-dimensional models can be made.

1997–1999: The Neuer Zollhof (new customs office) in the media harbour in Düsseldorf

For the redevelopment of the harbour in Düsseldorf Gehry designed the “Neuen Zollhof” with three richly contrasting buildings that appear to be a sculpture and are called “dancing buildings” and “Gehry’s constructions”. The central building has a gleaming facade and this reflects the two adjacent buildings on the left and right. The Neuer Zollhof is today considered to be the landmark of the City of Düsseldorf.

1999–2003: The Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles

The Walt Disney Concert Hall can also make a claim to be a landmark, this time for the City of Los Angeles. Through his extravagant design of the building, Gehry won an international competition and was awarded the contract for the building and he remained true to his unmistakable language of shapes, in this case as well. The only exceptions in the case of this project were the many setbacks which, amongst others, had their origins in the CATIA simulation program; there were also administrative and financial problems that caused the project to be interrupted. At the end, the cost exceeded the estimated budget and this left a bitter aftertaste.

2001: The DZ Bank building in Berlin

At the Pariser Platz in Berlin, Gehry designed the DG Bank building. He had to comply with the prescribed design requirements that related to the structure of the facades and that required a strict geometry of the window sections. The result was a, for him, very modest building on the outside but which was well-proportioned and spoke a straightforward language.

2003–2006: The Hotel Marques de Riscal, in Elciego (Spain)

Gehry took on a new challenge in the design of a hotel in the heart of a wine cellar which was in the wine-producing town of Elciego with its 1000 souls. He was predestined to upgrade the status of the old vineyard through modern architecture and one that was meant to call up strong emotions. He cladded the Hotel Marques de Riscal with titanium and stainless steel and used the colours of pink and gold which were based on the corporate design of the vineyard.

2012 – 2015: The Facebook Campus

In 2012, Frank O. Gehry was contracted with the planning of the new Facebook Campus, which he completed in 2015. Based on the wishes of Marc Zuckerberg, he was supposed to design an unusually simple and gigantic hall in which a thousand employees could find space – quite in contrast to the otherwise spiritedly created shapes that were Gehry’s trademark. The building, made of metal, concrete and glass was completed in just three years and had a generously sized park on the roof of the campus, as a special feature. At the same time, he was also working on three other projects: The Museo de la Biodiversidad in Panama City, the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris lastly on the Pierre Boulez Saal of the Barenboim-Said-Akademie in Berlin.

Currently, Gehry is working on plans for the new Guggenheim museums in New York City and Abu Dhabi.

Frank O. Gehry’s method of working

When Frank O. Gehry began the renovation of his residence in Santa Monica, many critics had a tired smile for Gehry’s method of working. This impression has changed in the meantime, just as Gehry’s method of working has. In the 80s, Gehry was critical of modern technology and had said “I don’t know what to do with computers”. As opposed to that, he considers computers to be the interpreters of his work, who understand his handiwork and who convert his design ideas from the sketch into reality, without losing anything along the way. He has implemented many of his designs through the use of the 3D simulation program called CATIA and he has also revolutionised architecture a bit further. Gehry used the program for the first time in his project of the construction of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. However, the revolution had begun much earlier, namely in the aerospace industry.

A retrospective

The French aircraft manufacturer, Avions Marcel Dassault, was experimenting with computer technology from the end of the 60s onwards to create interactive technical drawings and had tried to sell this development to other companies as well. An agreement with IBM regarding sales led to its first success when the affiliated company, Dassault Systems was founded and was commissioned by Boeing to develop a complete aircraft using the digital design system. At that time, the then Managing Director of DS, called Bernard Charlès, met Frank O. Gehry to present the varied possible applications of his software product for architecture and to convince Gehry to use it, apparently successfully. Today, the well-known architect gushes about the precise simulation which makes less mistakes, makes new shapes for building construction possible and which allows the engineers to understand and plan the design draft better.

The architectural office, Gehry Partners

Gehry founded the architectural firm, Gehry Partners, LLP with ten partners in 2001 in Los Angeles, California. Here, work on individual projects is done in a way that is the opposite of that done normally, here it is carried out by everybody together. The competencies and the knowledge of the about 120 employed architects flows together into a single job and they all bring in all their knowledge of technological developments and design to the project.

Frank O. Gehry‘s commendable awards

From the end of the 80s, Frank O. Gehry has been awarded many prizes for his projects, works and buildings. In 1985 itself, he got an award for architecture, the Pritzker Prize, that is renowned worldwide for his deconstructivist architecture and which is awarded once a year. In the same year too, he was awarded honorary membership of the Bundes Deutscher Architekten, kurz BDA., from the Association of Self-employed Architects in Germany. In 1992, the Wolf Foundation awarded him the renowned, Wolf Prize of Arts, which is given for “Contributions made for the benefit of humanity and friendly relations between the peoples of the world”. The reason given was Frank O. Gehry’s capability to create incentives and to convert them into something through which he simultaneously provokes. Through a lot of self-confidence and his awareness of conflicts, he manages to destroy dogmas, principles and methods that are taken as a sign of the war for liberty.

Aesthetic creation for “The beauty of the world”

In the same year, the culture prize of the Gish Foundation, founded in 1994, the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, one of the most generously endowed prizes in the world, was awarded to Gehry for being an exceptional artist. Through that, he was rewarded for his contributions to aesthetic creation relating to the “The beauty of the world”. This prize is awarded not only to architects, but also to actors, musicians, dancers, directors and authors.

In the years that followed, he got many more prizes and awards such as the Austrian Friedrich Kiesler Prize for Architecture, which is awarded for extraordinary services in the arts and architecture and the Prince of Asturias Prize in the art category. The jury justified the handing-over of the Spanish award to O. Gehry as follows: “Gehry’s works are a masterful play with complex forms. They are characterised by the fall back on unusual materials such as titanium and by technological innovation.”

Many more honorary memberships and medals, too supplemented Gehry’s extraordinary curriculum vitae. In the years between 1999 and 2002, 3 gold medals, in total, were awarded to him, (1999: Gold Medal, American Institute of Architects [AIA], 2000: Gold Medal, Royal Institute of British Architects [RIBA], 2002: Gold Medal for Architecture, American Academy of Arts and Letters). The last award, which could not have been any better, as it explains Gehry’s influence on the arts and architecture, besides his contribution to them. Was The Presidential Medal of Freedom and this was also awarded to him; this is one of the highest awards of the United States of America.

Frank O. Gehry’s appearance in the television series The Simpsons

Due to his hard headed and successful style, Gehry became part of the television series, The Simpsons. The comic figure, based on Gehry, made a really grand and humorous appearance in Series 16, Episode 14. In this episode, Gehry’s architectural style and his sketches are made fun of. He receives an offer for the design of an opera house costing thirty million, which he is supposed to build in Springfield. He crushes up the letter and throws it down to the floor – the new design has been completed! (as can be seen here)

Gehry could clearly feel the effects of the broadcast of the episode. After that everyone believed that this was really how Gehry worked and that he got his inspiration for the design of actual buildings in this way, too. In the Public Affairs Show Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN, in September 2011, Gehry said that this gag has chased him around the world and that now clients come to him, crushed a piece of paper, gave him $ 100 and then told him to build it. Luckily, Gehry accepted all that with good humour. He said to the Süddeutsche Zeitung in an interview, “I wish that I could work in that way. Then, I could go sailing more often.”

Posted on 28.02.2017

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