Portrait of Frank Gehry ©Thomas Mayer
Gehry was born Frank Owen Goldberg on February 28, 1929, in Toronto, Ontario. His parents were Polish Jews. A creative child, he was encouraged by his grandmother, Mrs. Caplan, with whom he would build little cities out of scraps of wood. His use of corrugated steel, chain link fencing, unpainted plywood and other utilitarian or “everyday” materials was partly inspired by spending Saturday mornings at his grandfather’s hardware store. He would spend time drawing with his father and his mother introduced him to the world of art. “So the creative genes were there,” Gehry says. “But my father thought I was a dreamer, I wasn’t gonna amount to anything. It was my mother who thought I was just reticent to do things. She would push me.”
He was given the Hebrew name “Ephraim” by his grandfather but only used it at his bar mitzvah.
In 1947 Gehry moved to California, got a job driving a delivery truck, and studied at Los Angeles City College, eventually to graduate from the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture. According to Gehry: “I was a truck driver in L.A., going to City College, and I tried radio announcing, which I wasn’t very good at. I tried chemical engineering, which I wasn’t very good at and didn’t like, and then I remembered. You know, somehow I just started racking my brain about, “What do I like?” Where was I? What made me excited? 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.” After graduation from USC in 1954, he spent time away from the field of architecture in numerous other jobs, including service in the United States Army. He studied city planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design for a year, leaving before completing the program. In 1952, still known as Frank Goldberg, he married Anita Snyder, who he claims was the one who told him to change his name, which he did, to Frank Gehry. In 1966 he and Snyder divorced. In 1975 he married Panamanian, Berta Isabel Aguilera, his current wife. He has two daughters from his first marriage, and two sons from his second marriage.
Having grown up in Canada, Gehry is a huge fan of ice hockey. He began a hockey league in his office, FOG (which stands for Frank Owen Gehry), though he no longer plays with them. In 2004, he designed the trophy for the World Cup of Hockey. Gehry holds dual citizenship in Canada and the United States. He lives in Santa Monica, California, and continues to practice out of Los Angeles.
Much of Gehry’s work falls within the style of Deconstructivism, which is often referred to as post-structuralist in nature for its ability to go beyond current modalities of structural definition. In architecture, its application tends to depart from modernism in its inherent criticism of culturally inherited givens such as societal goals and functional necessity. Because of this, unlike early modernist structures, Deconstructivist structures are not required to reflect specific social or universal ideas, such as speed or universality of form, and they do not reflect a belief that form follows function. Gehry’s own Santa Monica residence is a commonly cited example of deconstructivist architecture, as it was so drastically divorced from its original context, and in such a manner as to subvert its original spatial intention.
Gehry is sometimes associated with what is known as the “Los Angeles School,” or the “Santa Monica School” of architecture. The appropriateness of this designation and the existence of such a school, however, remains controversial due to the lack of a unifying philosophy or theory. This designation stems from the Los Angeles area’s producing a group of the most influential postmodern architects, including such notable Gehry contemporaries as Eric Owen Moss and Pritzker Prize-winner Thom Mayne of Morphosis, as well as the famous schools of architecture at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (co-founded by Mayne), UCLA, and USC where Gehry is a member of the Board of Directors.
Gehry’s style at times seems unfinished or even crude, but his work is consistent with the California ‘funk’ art movement in the 1960s and early 1970s, which featured the use of inexpensive found objects and non-traditional media such as clay to make serious art. Gehry has been called “the apostle of chain-link fencing and corrugated metal siding”. However, a retrospective exhibit at New York’s Whitney Museum in 1988 revealed that he is also a sophisticated classical artist, who knows European art history and contemporary sculpture and painting.
Reception of Gehry’s work is not always positive. Art historian Hal Foster reads Gehry’s architecture as, primarily, in the service of corporate branding. Criticism of his work includes complaints that the buildings waste structural resources by creating functionless forms, do not seem to belong in their surroundings and are apparently designed without accounting for the local climate.