Building Beauty the Hard Way


TIME: Architecture & Design – October 13, 1986

Building Beauty the Hard Way

After years of risky experiments, Frank Gehry relaxes

His buildings are easier to dislike than those of any other important American architect. They are often dissonant and usually constructed of homely materials — unpainted metal and plywood, asphalt shingles, stucco, rough concrete. They typify no up-and-coming architectural trend. In the postmodernist era, when much fashionable architecture has been charming and playful and not much more, Frank Gehry’s difficult, edgy buildings are singular and brave.

Gehry, 57, has lived in Southern California almost continuously since he was a teenager, and his buildings are Californian — brash, unpretentious, ad hoc, construction-worker constructivist. For him, imperfect construction details and urban sprawl are now American givens: the challenge is to make buildings that are compelling in spite of off-the-rack materials and confused, banal surroundings.

 With his work of the 1980s, as complicated as ever but no longer perverse, Gehry has accomplished an extraordinary synthesis of the common and the profound. Now that he allows a measure of classicist calm to seep into his work, he may no longer be written off as an idiosyncratic California bad boy. Gehry must be regarded as one of the two or three most important members of the late-modernist generation — and maybe the most successful formal innovator of all.

 The cultural arbiters are busy just now granting the maverick Gehry their imprimatur. Currently on view at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis is the first major museum show of his work, an elaborate installation for which Gehry designed a 23-ft.-high freestanding copper structure, a fish-shaped enclosure, complete with lead “scales,” for the exhibition of his fish-shaped Formica- chip lamps and a cardboard space for the exhibition of his cardboard furniture. “I’m trying to pretend it’s not a big deal,” Gehry said just before the opening in Minneapolis. “But it’s a big deal.”

 After the University of Southern California and a year of graduate study at Harvard, Gehry returned to Los Angeles and designed several astonishingly forward-looking works. In two projects, he seems to have invented (and then chucked away) a virtually full-blown postmodernism a decade before the movement was officially born. An office building for Kay Jewelers (1963) is a handsome pastiche of Japanese forms and concrete columns with capitals of redwood; a Kay shop (1964) makes use of the voided pediment and pitched drywall ceiling that became shopping-mall cliches 20 years later.

 In 1972 Gehry became briefly famous and nearly rich for inventing Easy Edges, a playful, functional line of furniture. The structural principle was ingeniously low tech: cardboard was glued and sandwiched together, each layer of corrugations at right angles to the layer above and below. The furniture was cheap ($37 for a chair) and chic. But Gehry decided he could not stomach becoming known as a designer of ubiquitous designer furniture. Less than three months after it was introduced, he withdrew Easy Edges from the market. “I was trying to make the Volkswagen,” he says today. “I did, and it worked, and I got carried into a vortex, and I quit.”

 With the collage of a house that Gehry built for himself in 1978, he discomfited his Santa Monica neighbors, his corporate clients and some of his professional peers. He took a plain pink house, tore out sections of its exterior walls and most of its interior plaster and built a shell of corrugated metal, chain-link fence and cubist glass carbuncles. The finished, willfully unfinished-looking structure might be from a new-wave Oz: it is as if the tornado dropped Dorothy’s house into Mad Max land.

 Today Gehry is no longer so interested in perversity, or in the particular kind of architecture verite his infamous house epitomizes. “I’ve played ) tough guy and exposed joists and stuff. So what? I want to move out,” he says. “I want to build a new one.” What he would build for himself now is probably the kind of abstract quasi-classical villa he has recently designed — rather formal compositions of cubes, reflecting pools, domes and pergolas. For the past few years, indeed, Gehry’s architecture has been undergoing a salutary kind of continental drift: many of his recent buildings have been broken down into elemental one-room units. The compounds suggest tiny village squares of some perfect Platonic past. A comfortable architecture of community is evoked, not slavishly copied, Disney-like; the nostalgia, such as it is, is oblique and unsentimental. “I still like the feeling of not pretty,” he says.

 Gehry’s impeccable campus for the Loyola Marymount University law school (1984) in Los Angeles features raw concrete columns, plain metal exteriors and plywood interiors, but the humble materials make the neoclassical gestures seem earned and bona fide, precisely not skin-deep. Instead of merely renovating the top floor of a Beverly Hills apartment building in 1984, he sliced it off and built one of his tight little pseudo villages in its place, a riot of pink and green stucco, black granite and corrugated metal. Out at the Irvine campus of the University of California, Gehry has just finished a stucco and galvanized-metal home for the engineering department. The improbably beautiful Irvine building is a different kind of composite, a sort of Lego architecture by way of 1925 Moscow .

 Then there are the fish-scale Formica lamps, and the giant fish now on display in Minneapolis. And a 70-ft. chain-link fish planned for a restaurant Gehry is designing for Kobe, Japan. The image, purely subjective, has become an obsession. He doesn’t quite get it either. “I never intended to build fish,” Gehry says. “In my mind, I say, ‘Enough with the fish.’ But it has a life of its own.” He frets that this new symptom of perverse inscrutability will damage his mainstream prospects.

 It seems unlikely. Among the projects he has under way are a 16,000-sq.- ft. Malibu beach house; a Venice office building that has as its centerpiece 45-ft.-tall “binoculars” conceived by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen; a striking, complicated building for the Yale Medical School; an elaborate development in Cleveland that would include an insurance-company chairman’s house, a museum, a think tank, a health club and an art park; and, in Dallas, a complex that would look as if it had marvelously survived an earthquake.

 “I do feel I don’t have to prove so much,” Gehry says. “It feels like I can relax a little.” That is all to the good. Not very long ago, Frank Gehry seemed only a very interesting architect. Today, full of confidence, he seems more like a great one. He has peers who are more influential and whose work is more stylish. But no other architect can claim a body of work so distinctly his own or so characteristically American.