California Funk

Ulf Meyer
28. February 2019
Frank Gehry in front of his Santa Monica home on "The Simpsons" (Image: Screenshot from "The Seven-Beer Snitch")

Frank Gehry turns 90 today. He has achieved … everything.

The real Gehry Residence in Santa Monica, California (Photo: IK's World Trip/Flickr)

To turn a standard residential bungalow in Santa Monica into a wild collage of corrugated sheet metal, chain-link fencing and poured asphalt, and then use that transformation as a starting point for one of the greatest architectural careers of the late 20th century, it could only be one person: Frank Owen Gehry, who turns 90 years old today, February 28, 2019. Looking back, the broken-up house in California may seem childish, but it must have felt like a breath of fresh air when Gehry first made changes to the house in 1978, especially when seen relative to the clumsy Postmodernism and conservative Zeitgeist prevalent at the time in the US and beyond. A radical statement at the time, Gehry invented a special version of Deconstructivist architecture that is today synonymous with the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris.

Gehry's masterpiece: Guggnheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain (Photo: Wojtek Gurak/Flickr)

Replicating a formula contains great danger, and that can be seen in Gehry’s phenomenal career. The look of a "crumpled paper bag" became a trademark and was incorporated in many of his projects anywhere in the world, regardless of whether it would fit — or not — the site, program, climate and context. It all started to look cartoonish. According to the (probably self-styled) legend, it was Gehry’s grandfather's hardware store in Toronto where the fascination for anything with “unfinished looks” and for utilitarian, "everyday" materials began. Gehry was still a child then: Frank Goldberg; he changed his name in 1956 because of antisemitism. 

Biomuseo in Panama, one of Gehry's more overtly cartoonish creations (Photo courtesy of Biomuseo)

His first architectural designs after studying at USC (he graduated in 1954) and Harvard (he dropped out) were for Victor Gruen, the Austrian-born architect who is attributed as the inventor of the modern shopping mall and whom Gehry worked for in LA. This must have been creatively underwhelming, so Gehry moved to Paris in 1961 to work for André Remondet, the architect of the French Embassy in Washington DC. But soon after Gehry set up his own office in LA and started designing a shopping mall called Santa Monica Place (1980, reconfigured by Jon Jerde 30 years later). It was not until the completion of the Norton House in Venice, California, in 1984 that Gehry exhibited a more eccentric design approach. The California Aerospace Museum in the same year (also the year of the Los Angeles Olympics) only strengthened the notion of a "Los Angeles school of architecture” (with Frank Israel, Eric Owen Moss and Thom Mayne) that broke free from Modernism’s mantras. The offices for advertising agency Chiat/Day (1991) in Venice incorporated Claes Oldenburg’s oversized binoculars. Yet soon the Pop-art approach would be traded for the juxtaposition of spaces and materials.

Chait/Day Building in Venice, California, with binoculars by Claus Oldenburg (Photo: Bobak Ha'Eri/Wikimedia Commons)

His courage for experimentation resonated particularly well in Europe. Vitra hired Gehry to add the Vitra Design Museum to its campus in Weil am Rhein, Germany, in 1989, when the fall of the Berlin wall brought Eastern Europe closer to the West and Gehry was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize. The “Dancing House” (aka “Fred and Ginger”) in Prague was completed in 1996, one year before the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. The economic impact the Guggenheim had on the struggling Basque city made it famous outside of architectural circles and led to more museum commissions by (overly?) ambitious mayors and other politicians who wanted to draw international attention to their towns or regions: the Museum of Pop Culture (2000) in Seattle, the MARTa Herford (2005) in Germany, the Biomuseo (2014) in Panama City, and even the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, planned for a site next to the Louvre Abu Dhabi but still a question mark. 

Rendering of Gehry's design for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, a project that has been in the works since 2006 (Image via Guggenheim Museum)

The revitalization of cities through iconic starchitecture became known as the "Bilbao effect" but never actually succeeded like it did in Spain in 1997. A change of typologies forced Gehry to become just a little more slick. The skyscraper, for instance, demands more discipline and efficiency with floor plans. Still, the tower at 8 Spruce Street in New York, which was branded as “New York by Gehry,” proved that funky, sculptural shapes work in the design of towers. The arte povera-like appeal of working with unfinished, crude, inexpensive objets trouvés was on the verge of becoming a waste of resources by creating functionless "showy" forms. From recycling unpainted plywood and metal the expression was now expensive, not resourceful. For one of his three "Neuer Zollhof" buildings in Düsseldorf’s Media Harbour (1998), Gehry even forced bricks to follow his signature sweeping lines.

Gehry's three buildings in Düsseldorf covered in plaster, stainless steel and brick (Photo: Frank Friedrichs/Flickr)

Gehry’s best mature works were built back in his home continent after the year 2000: the Walt Disney Concert Hall (2012) in Los Angeles, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion (2004) in Chicago’s Millennium Park in Chicago and the IAC Building (2007) in New York. As Gehry became a household name, he started designing (cardboard) furniture, jewelry and sculptures that would employ the same design principles that would proudly defy categorization. But even at 90 Gehry is productive. Currently there are two large projects in the cities Gehry is most associated with: In LA it is the Grand Avenue Project, a set of towers on Bunker Hill, and a twin tower (with David Mirvish) in Toronto. They relate to a move from cultural buildings to towers, and show that Gehry has become a universal brand name, to be used to the advantage of developers.

Left: The Grand in Downtown Los Angeles; right: Mirvish+Gehry in Toronto

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