Paul Goldberger’s magisterial new 513 page book, Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry (Knopf), is a superb achievement and a compelling read for anyone interested in modern architecture. Gehry, at 86 — after the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Disney Hall in LA, a 76-story residential skyscraper in Manhattan, and countless other signature works around the world — is now arguably the “other Frank” — meaning he is comparable in stature to Frank
Lloyd Wright. So it is high time there was an authoritative Gehry chronicle. As a biography it is as important and insightful about an architect’s motivations and evolving frame of mind as Le Corbusier: A Life, by Nicholas Fox Weber.
The book takes us from Gehry’s difficult childhood in Toronto in the 1930s, through the move to Los Angeles in 1947, architecture school at USC, a stint in the army, city planning at Harvard, work for shopping mall designer Victor Gruen, time in Paris and then back to LA where he launched his practice in 1962. There he found friendship with, and inspiration from, a circle of up-and-coming modern painters who incorporated ordinary found objects in their work. Subsequent chapters cover the building of his and second wife Berta’s famous cyclone fence house in Santa Monica, his fish sculptures and cardboard furniture, the commissions for Bilbao and Disney, the range of New York work, the Dwight Eisenhower Memorial in Washington D. C., and the Louis Vuitton Museum in Paris, which opened last year.
I only met Gehry once, many years ago when he was on an AIA-Sunset Western Home Awards jury, but I remember that his comments on the various house designs were terse, not to say monosyllabic, and he struck me as an artist more comfortable with doing than talking. Paul is adept at drawing him out and getting at the thinking, and the contexts and stories, behind the designs. In a way Paul acts as kind of architectural therapist, helping Gehry unravel and make sense of a lifetime of anxiety about his own work and, in effect, complementing the actual psychotherapy Gehry received from his friend the psychologist Milton Wexler. So I guess you could say that this book is the architect’s ultimate “psychiatry couch session.”
One theme that’s especially strong throughout Building Art is the sense of contradiction, both within Gehry’s nature and his art. For example, Paul writes: “Frank’s work represented emotion as much as intellect and emerged out of intuition far more than theory; like all of his architecture, Bilbao was at once pragmatic and idealistic.” He makes the point that Gehry was heavily influenced, in a push-pull sort of way, by the mid-century California modernism of his early milieu. Describing the billowing shapes of Disney Hall, Paul writes: “The great sails were a symbol of the new, but they were also a way of creating decoration, or giving the building an element that existed solely for visual pleasure. Frank was consciously going against the puritanical strain that had always run through modernist architecture, the belief that a building needed to be ‘honest,’ ‘pure,’ and ‘rational’ — that ornamentation was not just a self-indulgent frill and a useless return to historical copying, but an ethical transgression, a violation of modernist principles.”
A related theme is Gehry’s desire to express movement in architecture, leading to his manipulation of fish shapes and compound curves, which drew inspiration from Japanese carp and Greek sculpture. Expressive movement would become his way of providing the third ingredient in the classical Vitruvian definition of architecture as “commodity, firmness, and delight.” Paul explains: “The architecture of Bilbao would articulate his larger goals more clearly than ever before: he wanted less to shock than to find a fresh and different way of using architecture to produce the sensations of satisfaction, comfort, and pleasure that more traditional buildings did.”
I have experienced Disney Hall and there Frank Gehry made not only a new symbol for LA on the outside, but also a space that lifts the audience, reshapes and recombines it with the orchestra, and transports both into a sensual new reality. It’s a room that does more than reverberate — it resonates. So does this book. Bravo Paul!