Metropolis Reimagined

The subject of a new career retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, iconoclastic architect Frank Gehry is poised to redefine Los Angeles once again.

  • Category
  • Written by
    Lynn Morgan

Few architects in history—Christopher Wren in London, Baron Haussmann in Paris, Louis Sullivan in Chicago and Stanford White in New York—have been privileged to “remake” cities according to their own artistic visions. In our time, Frank O. Gehry is such an architect.

Born in Toronto and trained at the USC School of Architecture, Gehry has embraced Los Angeles as a headquarters, a laboratory and a muse. Los Angeles, with its sprawling and varied topography, roiling social diversity and notorious reputation for relentless reinvention—elements that others have held in disdain—inspire, even energize Gehry. In a city where anything seems possible, his talent for creating unique and challenging buildings has found fertile ground in which it can flourish.

In ways and buildings large and small, Gehry has altered the visual character of Los Angeles, expanding our understanding of what any individual building can or should be. The city, filled with creativity, free spirits and unrepentant eccentrics, has provided the perfect backdrop for Gehry’s boundary-smashing designs. LA was ready to consider, accept, even celebrate buildings that seem chaotic and gleefully dystopian.

Stephanie Barron, a veteran curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), was instrumental in bringing the Frank Gehry exhibition to Los Angeles.

“Architecture is not my specialty,” she explains modestly. “I’ve had a long history with Frank Gehry, though, since the 1970s. He has worked with me on other exhibitions for the museum. This is actually our seventh show together. When I heard that the Pompidou Centre was doing a retrospective on Frank, I thought it would be perfect to present it in Los Angeles.”

A frequent visitor to Gehry’s studio, Stephanie wanted museum visitors to share a similar experience. “I’ve felt the excitement there, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the public could feel it too?’”

The show is filled with models, renderings and even early, scribbled conceptual sketches. (Frank Gehry is a man of many talents, but freehand draftsmanship is not one of them.) “It’s a glimpse into the workings of his mind,” she says. 

The workings of that mind have transformed the city, creating landmarks and cultural touchstones like the Loyola Law School in Downtown Los Angeles, the former “Temporary Contemporary” Museum  (now known as the Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo), the Edgemar complex on Santa Monica’s Main Street and the Goldwyn Library in West Los Angeles. Gehry was commissioned by advertising executive Jay Chiat to design a new headquarters for his company, Chiat/Day in nearby Del Rey. 

Gehry collaborated with renowned pop artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen to create the “binoculars building” on Main Street in Santa Monica. It is now a satellite office for internet giant Google.

In 1997, after years of delays, political and financial roadblocks, and a huge amount of civic skepticism, the Walt Disney Concert Hall opened in Downtown Los Angeles. Unfurling like a stainless steel lotus blossoming mysteriously on Grand Avenue, the Disney Concert Hall instantly became one of the city’s most recognizable, internationally celebrated landmarks. More than any other recent development, the building has re-energized Downtown Los Angeles, and its gleaming, sculptural splendor still makes everything around it look dated and obsolete.

In between those large-scale public commissions, Gehry also created smaller, more intimate projects that have also had an impact on the city’s visual life, including studio spaces he designed in Venice for artists Chuck Arnoldi and Laddie John Dill, and the famous “compound” he created for the late actor/director Dennis Hopper—as well as the architect’s own Santa Monica home.

“The community of artists he embraced has helped to define him,” says Paul Goldberger. A Pulitzer Prize winner for his architecture criticism in The New York Times, Paul is now a senior editor at Vanity Fair. He has just published Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry

He has known the architect for more than 30 years. “Venice, especially back then, had a louche, rough-around-the edges vibe. The rawness appealed to Frank.”

Gehry has a powerful affinity for the Los Angeles creative community. Early in his career he began hanging around the Ferus Gallery in its early days, rubbing shoulders with the creative outliers who would eventually turn the city into an art capital: Ed Moses, Billy Al Bengston, Tony Berlant and others who lived and worked in Venice.

Reminiscing about his discovery of the LA art world, Gehry has said, “When I got close to those guys, I would hang out in their studios and watch them work—how they dealt with it—and it was very different. I was terribly enamored with the directness of it, with the Mount Everest-ness of it, how they had to confront the white canvass. The whole process seemed more likely to produce beautiful work than the architectural process did.”

In 1977 Gehry and his second wife, Berta, purchased a smallish, turn-of-the-century Dutch Colonial house on a quiet Santa Monica street. It was modest and something of an anomaly. Surrounded by traditional English-style houses, Craftsman bungalows and California’s ubiquitous Spanish Revival houses, it looked as if it belonged in some New England college town. 

It was ripe for renovation. Gehry exploded the structure, exposing its frame … enclosing it in glass, corrugated metal and chain link. The result was, like many of Gehry’s buildings, electrifying and polarizing. It became a minor tourist attraction, drawing sightseers and architecture students to the Santa Monica side street. Some of the neighbors despised the increased traffic; others nicknamed the Gehry house “the prison.” 

Gehry and his wife no longer live there, but it is still a touchstone for his fans. It is typical of Gehry’s early work: exploring materials that other architects and aesthetes disdain; his gleeful rejection of the strict, rectilinear aesthetic that had defined and dominated Modernism for most of the 20th century; the explosion of precise, geometric shapes into surprising, unpredictable, asymmetrical forms.

It is a style and vision that Gehry has pursued and refined on projects around the world. In 1989 he won the Pritzker Prize—the Nobel Prize, or perhaps the Oscar, of architecture.

He has exported his architectural vision across America, designing Seattle’s Experience Music Project, the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in New York, and the Ray and Maria Stata Center for Computer, Information and Intelligence Services at MIT in Cambridge. 

The latter inspired a savage attack by John Silber, the former president of Boston College, in a book called Architecture of the Absurd: How “Genius” Disfigured a Practical Art. It is a vitriolic attack on Frank Gehry and other “starchitects” whom John feels are more concerned with their personal visions and egos than with designing functional structure.

“Gehry’s work can be polarizing,” Stephanie admits. “He designs buildings that look ‘different’ and make people uncomfortable at first. He imagines things that nobody else has ever seen, and he has the tools to make them real. By harnessing technology, he can take the most astonishing sketch and turn it into reality.”

Gehry’s artistic vision has been welcomed around the world. The architect has designed major projects in Japan, three towers in Düsseldorf, the American Center and Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris and the DZ Bank in Berlin. Gehry’s “Frank and Ginger” apartment buildings in Prague are beloved landmark— their sinuous lines seeming to sway and dance before the viewer’s eyes.

No Frank Gehry project at home or abroad has approached the impact and acclaim of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Sited on the banks of the Nervion River and completed in 1998, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is a billowing, swooping sculpture—evoking a galley in full sail. It is clad in a skin of titanium panels so thin yet malleable that they seem to flutter in the wind, making the building look as if it is in motion. Quixotic and mercurial, it was immediately hailed as a masterpiece. Robert Hughes, the late art critic, declared it the single most important building of the 20th century.

More importantly, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao was embraced passionately by the public, re-energizing the Bilbao waterfront socially and economically as locals and tourists flock to view the building itself as much as the collection it housed. The museum continues to attract a million visitors a year, causing economists and sociologists to talk about the “Bilbao effect”—the galvanizing impact a spectacular building can have on a local economy.

At age 86, Gehry is displaying little inclination to slow down or pass his baton to another architect. Instead he continues to seek out new projects and challenges. He collaborated with Tiffany & Co. on a jewelry line; his furniture designs are sold at Design Within Reach; and he even designed a sleek and elegant bottle for Wyborowa vodka. An avid yachtsman, Gehry designed “Foggy”—a custom sailboat for his friend Richard Cohen.

“Frank is interested in fame,” Paul explains. “He wants to do things that are tangential to his architectural practice … things that will allow his name to become known to the general public, not just academics and aesthetes.”

He has succeeded. Gehry is not just the most famous architect in Los Angeles or in America but all over the world. His visual style is unmistakable, and he is the recognizable face of his discipline. He is contemporary architecture’s most marketable “brand.”

When developer Bruce Ratner hired Gehry to design 8 Spruce Street, a 72-floor tower in Lower Manhattan, the developer touted the project’s lofty architectural pedigree just as aggressively as its views, fancy finishes and chic location. The cachet of living in a building designed by an architect responsible for universities, museums and opera houses added to both its appeal and its price.

Gehry continues to reimagine Los Angeles. He is slated to design a high-end, mixed-use hotel and residence/retail complex at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights called Sunset Gateway. 

He has also been selected to oversee the restoration of the Los Angeles River. In the 1930s, the 51-mile-long Los Angeles River was encased in concrete to provide the city with a flood channel, transforming it from a natural waterway into a storm drain—a bleak and desolate scar across the urban landscape. In recent years sections of the river have been restored to their natural state; parts of it are surrounded by hiking trails and can be navigated by kayak. 

Mayor Eric Garcetti has promised a full-scale restoration, accompanied by urban waterfront development. The project will involve multiple architects, but Gehry will mastermind it.

When asked about the largest project of his career, Gehry was typically self-effacing. “They asked,” he said. “I accepted. I’m a sucker.” He is overseeing the Los Angeles River Project pro bono.

“Frank is very interested in places,” says Paul. “His work is about the experience of architecture: real space, real materials. At this point, it is impossible to say what the river project will be; it won’t look like a 50-mile-long Bilbao! He wants to be remembered for something besides a series of individual buildings. An urban river, under ideal circumstances, is a place of beauty.”

Stephanie is convinced that Gehry will continue to reimagine Los Angeles and export that vision around the world.” He has changed the way that we imagine architecture,” she says. “He cares about the experience that people have inside his buildings. He’s not an elitist. He’s a humanist.” λ