ny creative artist—novelist, painter, or composer—can initiate the creative act, but not the architect. Every architectural design is the return of a serve, so to speak, that first must be lobbed by the client. The career of an architect is a parade of these clients, whose design problems he solves with more or less success. For this reason, most architectural biographies, however literate or witty, are distressingly limp objects. Architects’ lives, no matter how significant, do not make for good reading unless the architect happens to be an extraordinarily interesting personality, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, or takes part in extraordinary events, such as Albert Speer.
Neither is the case with Frank Gehry, the subject of a new biography by Paul Goldberger, the prominent architecture critic. To be sure, Gehry is an architect of immense significance. No building of the last half-century has been as influential as his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Its opening in 1997 sparked an international fever of museum-building that rages on unchecked to this day. The museum did not so much coin a new style (few have copied its shimmying free forms) as a new sensibility, which lifted the stuffy intellectual moralism that had seemed an inextricable component of modernism since it was brought over by German refugees during the 1930s.
The story itself is dramatic but not its principal actor. Eighty-six-year-old Gehry is a soft-spoken and notably low-key personality who has lived a thoroughly uneventful life: childhood in Toronto, a family move to Los Angeles, architectural study at USC, and a stint in the Army. Success came late in life, and only after long, patient career-building. Goldberger does his best with a subject who is more glacier than meteor, but most of his readers will open his book with only two questions: How exactly did Gehry develop his idiosyncratic free-form style, and how did he manage to convince the world’s cultural institutions to entrust him with their commissions?
rank Owen Goldberg was born in 1929, the son of the owner of an erratic slot-machine business. At the age of 25, he changed his name to Gehry, his own invention, at the behest of his wife and his mother, who were evidently dismayed at the success of The Goldbergs, the television series that had made the name synonymous with an overbearing Jewish mother. There is little in his early years to suggest greatness. He did the customary slog through various architectural offices, staying longest with Victor Gruen, the innovative architect of shopping centers and malls. He later worked for the Rouse Company, the enterprising developers who created the new town of Columbia, Maryland. Gehry typically downplays his early career in commercial architecture, but it seems to have gotten into his bones. Certainty his mature buildings for cultural institutions are closer to the world of festival marketplaces than to the temples and palaces that were once the models for museums.
Gehry went from a practice of impersonal commercial buildings to one of highly personal buildings of culture; few architects have turned so neatly on a dime.
Gehry’s accomplishment was to apply this attitude toward architecture, which he first did in 1978 when he bought and remodeled an old house in Santa Monica. Noticing how his friend Robert Irwin was using coarse fabric scrims to define insubstantial planes, he encased his house in an erratic jacket of chain-link fencing, corrugated metal, and plywood. The house looked as if it had passed through a cyclone and still carried the debris it picked up along the way. The Santa Monica house was an instant critical sensation. Goldberger recognized at the time that Gehry was forging a style for which there was as yet no name (he provisionally called it “studied slapdash,” although the movement it spawned would be known as Deconstructivism). Gehry, feeling that he was catching the winds of change, promptly discharged his staff, abandoned his lucrative practice in shopping centers, and decided to devote himself exclusively to handpicked projects. Overnight he went from a practice of impersonal commercial buildings to one of highly personal buildings of culture; few architects have turned so neatly on a dime.
In retrospect, the journey from the Santa Monica House to the commission for the Bilbao Guggenheim, which Gehry won in 1992, looks like a straight line. During the intervening decades, he applied his “studied slapdash” to ever larger and more prestigious buildings. The sense of a ramshackle, improvised collage remained, but the plywood and chain-link fencing gave way to brushed stainless steel. As he built in turn the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (designed in 1991 but not completed until 2003), he acquired the reputation as one of the world’s most innovative designers of buildings for the arts. Although Thomas Krens, the new director of the Guggenheim Museum, made a show of interviewing other architects for the Bilbao project, Gehry’s selection was as good as foreordained. (Perhaps the other architects were there to make him work harder.)
Goldberger shows how two unforeseen developments converged to give the Bilbao museum its idiosyncratic character. Gehry originally intended to clad the building in lead-coated copper but the collapse of the Soviet Union brought about a sudden drop in the price of titanium—which was the preferred Soviet material for deep-diving nuclear submarines. Because of its enormous strength, titanium could be milled to shocking thinness, even a third of a millimeter, as in the panels cladding the Guggenheim. Instead of a rigid wall, they form a strangely living membrane that even in a slight wind quivers delicately, like the wings of a butterfly.
The other development was a radical leap in what computers could do. Throughout history, architects needed first to draw graphically on paper or vellum the forms to be built; if you could not draw it, you could not build it. Before building a complex three-dimensional form, say the vault of a Gothic cathedral, one had to project its curves onto two dimensions, and to learn the joy of conic sections. But a new computer technology known as CATIA (Computer Aided Three-Dimensional Interactive), originally devised to design the fuselage of the French Mirage fighter jet, made it possible to build complicated curved forms without needing first to calculate and draw all their lines. With CATIA, you could crumple a piece of paper in your hand, scan it, transfer that data directly to the fabricating machines, and build it without ever having to pick up a pencil.
Which was exactly what Gehry was doing by the late 1990s, when he began exploring the sculptural possibilities of crumpled shapes. Its effects are to be seen in all of the post-Bilbao work, most recently in the Vuitton Museum, which opened last year in Paris and which transposes the Bilbao theme into glass. Not every project has ended quite so happily: His project for an ambitious new Guggenheim in lower Manhattan was unveiled at the worst possible time, just weeks before the attacks of September 11, and came to grief, as did plans to involve him in some capacity in the rebuilding of Ground Zero. Goldberger is generous when it comes to Gehry’s most conspicuous failure, the postponement (and likely rejection) of his controversial and deeply unpopular Dwight D. Eisenhower memorial in Washington D.C., asking whether the design itself might be “a miss . . . one of those moments when Babe Ruth strikes out.”
Goldberger might have asked whether it is precisely those qualities that made the Bilbao Museum so successful: Are the rapturous ecstasy of its writhing forms, its insistence on new materials and technologies, the pride and haughtiness with which it breaks from the past, its intensely personal character the qualities that one looks for in the designer of a memorial, which should express the character of its subject and not its creator? But this is only one question that goes unasked here.
nless one consciously sets out to perform literary assassination, a book written about a living figure is always inhibited. This need not be overt censorship; Goldberger says that Gehry had “no editorial control” over the book—his precondition for writing it—and one believes him. He details incidents that are clearly painful and embarrassing, as when during a family dispute the teenage Gehry punched his father, who promptly suffered a heart attack and collapsed. The recitation of such mortifying episodes gives the book the sense of an utterly unvarnished and candid account.
But there are little truths and there are big truths, and a book drawn heavily from interviews with its subject cannot help but be filled with the little truths, the passing minutiae of life, and the inevitable handful of well-polished childhood anecdotes. But this is the froth atop the wave, not the wave itself, and one looks to a biography for some sense of the shape of the life.
It is curious that so much attention is given here to parties and receptions in honor of Gehry: There is the account of the 82nd birthday party thrown by Bruce Ratner, the New York real estate developer, which opens the book; the 80th birthday in Los Angeles with 500 friends, clients, and celebrities, and Sally Kellerman singing “Happy Birthday”; the 2012 benefit concert he hosted for President Obama, for which he engaged Yo-Yo Ma to perform; an 85th birthday party in the Bilbao Guggenheim with a recital by Daniel Barenboim. That so much of this is in the book is revealing, for it suggests that it is important to Gehry. Why he should need this sort of validation is something Goldberger leaves unexamined.
Also left largely unexplored, and oddly so for a book about an architect, are the wellsprings of Gehry’s architectural creativity. Most architects fall into one of three categories: They either work within an established system, struggle against that system, or create a system all their own. Gehry is of the third kind, and his self-created system is improvisational and intuitive, in which the ultimate rightness of form is decided by unconscious instinct, by what looks right to the eye. When looking at the work of such an artist, one wants to know where this sense of visual rightness came from. One can refuse to be an academic and consult books, but this hardly means that one will be absolutely original; it only means that what one has seen earlier will bounce around all the more loudly in the unconscious. Gehry’s ineffable design sense clearly owes much to the experiments in amorphous free-form design that were the architectural sensation during his student days and his early practice: Le Corbusier’s abstract church at Ronchamps, Saarinen’s essay in fluid concrete for the TWA Terminal, the so-called “Googie architecture” of 1950s roadside California.
This early experience remained latent with Gehry until it was acted upon by his encounter with the Anti-Form artists of the late 1960s to produce something fresh and vital. It is no surprise that this should happen in California, which is congenial to an architecture of lively shapes, conceived as detached pavilions to be approached from the highway and not as objects of civic decorum politely related to their neighbors. This might be the real story of Gehry’s career but to tell it requires a more distant perspective than Goldberger can yet have. Perhaps he will conclude, as have so many of his colleagues, never again to write a book about a living artist.