Much like Frank Lloyd Wright, Antoni Gaudi, and Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry is an architect whose work helped define a generation. Vanity Fair once named him “the most important architect of our age,” and his iconic works, which have become cultural landmarks and destinations in their own right, span the globe; from the famed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao to the Art Gallery of Ontario, these structures offer uniquely shifting perspectives that challenge our spatial relationships.
Gehry was born in Toronto in 1929, the son of a first generation Russian Jewish American father and Polish Jewish mother. According to Salon, he spent his childhood crafting “little cities” out of scrap wood. His grandmother supplied raw materials from her husband’s hardware store, encouraging Gehry’s creative side. In the postwar years, Gehry’s family emigrated to America, settling in California in 1947. He struggled there, as a young man, to find his niche; forays into radio announcing, chemical engineering, and truck driving proved fruitless and exhibited a lack of talent or interest in each. In an interview with the Academy of Achievement, he reflects that he turned to art as something of a Hail Mary. “You know, somehow I just started wracking my brain about, ‘What do I like?’ Where was I? What made me excited?’” he says. “And I remembered art, that I loved going to museums and I loved looking at paintings, loved listening to music. Those things came from my mother, who took me to concerts and museums. I remembered Grandma and the blocks, and just on a hunch, I tried some architecture classes.”
But even this personal discovery did not launch Gehry down an immediate path; like the dilating silhouettes of his structures, his journey meandered. After graduating from the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture, he joined the United States Army and dabbled in City Planning at Harvard. It was not until he returned to Los Angeles and took a position with Victor Gruen Associates, with whom he had apprenticed as a student, that he began to blossom and discover his unique voice as an architect.
Gehry moved to Paris for a year in 1961, and thus began an intense love affair with the city that would span decades. Despite a disappointing project in the ’90s — the American Centre, which closed after just two years — he would later go on to design the Louis Vuitton Foundation Building, an art museum and cultural centre nestled in scenic Bois de Boulogne public park. For inspiration, Gehry visited the garden and imagined a glass structure inspired by the Grand Palais des Champs-Élysées, using both the transparent and reflective qualities of glass to marry the building with the surrounding landscape and gardens.
Gehry returned to Los Angeles and established his own practice, Frank Gehry and Associates, in 1967. It would eventually, in 2001, become known as Gehry Partners. His creative output in the decades since has defined an era rife with change and rich with innovations in design and technology. His gravity-defying creations, indeed, seem to stand as beacons of the future; a critique once referred to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, perhaps Gehry’s best-known work, as “a lunar lander in search of its moon.” Others, like Salon, have pointed to the language relied upon in describing Gehry’s work to illustrate its cultural significance: “In describing Gehry’s ‘buildings’”, writes Karen Templay, “there’s a tendency to employ art terms — sculpture, collage, installation, assemblage — because ‘building’ just doesn’t cover it.” Still others argue that his work “defies categorization” altogether, avoiding the tropes of modernity in favour of playful transformation.
Below we take a look at some of Frank Gehry’s most iconic works — each distinct, yet all evident of a common thread: an architect’s refusal to conform.