Ways to support us
About The Art Story a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Org
Frank Gehry Photo

Frank Gehry - Biography and Legacy

Canadian-American Architect

Born: February 28, 1929 - Toronto, Canada
Movements and Styles:
Modernism and Modern Art

Biography of Frank Gehry


Gehry was born Frank Goldberg in Toronto, Ontario. His parents were Sadie Caplan and Irving Goldberg (a former boxer and a travelling salesman who specialized in pinball and slot machines). They were descended, respectively, from Polish and Russian Jews and, although he rarely used it, Frank was also given the Hebrew name Ephraim. The architect later said of his parents: "my father thought I was a dreamer, I wasn't gonna amount to anything. It was my mother who ... would push me".

Frank Goldberg and his sister, Doreen, were raised not only by their parents but by their grandparents. The young Frank Goldberg spent Saturday mornings at his grandfather's hardware store, using the wood chippings he found there to build miniature imagined cities with his grandmother. Some critics believe that these activities inspired the architect to go on to use everyday materials such as plywood in his work.

During Frank Goldberg's teenage years, his family experienced financial hardship as a result of poor investments as well as new gambling laws that had an impact on his father's business. This, along with Irving Goldberg's ill health, prompted the family to move from Toronto to Los Angeles in 1947 for a fresh start. This was a turning point for Frank Goldberg, who would later become known for his Californian style of design. According to some biographers, it was at this point the family name was changed by Frank's father from Goldberg to Gehry (although others believe this happened after Frank Goldberg's marriage in 1952).

Education and Early Training

Arriving in Los Angeles in his late teens, Gehry initially tried a number of professions including truck driving, radio announcing, and chemical engineering. Struggling to find a course and career that interested him he "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."

Despite finding architectural drafting difficult, Gehry persevered and with encouragement from his teachers and the help of scholarships, he graduated from the University of Southern California with an architecture degree in 1954. By this time, the young architect had married Anita Snyder, a transcriber with whom he had two daughters, Brina and Leslie. Snyder supported Gehry during his years at university and some biographers credit her with the decision to change the family surname, owing to concerns that their children - like Gehry - would be the victims of anti-Semitic abuse. Regardless of when this change occurred, Gehry later said that he regretted changing his name, noting that he "wouldn't do it today".

Constructed from cardboard, the <i>Easy Edges</i> furniture line (1972) added a new artistic dimension to a previously utilitarian and non-traditional medium

Having graduated in the middle of the post-war housing boom in Los Angeles, Gehry began to work full-time for the architectural firm Victor Gruen Associates, where he had apprenticed as a student. In the same year, however, he was drafted into the US army under a new recruitment drive and, whilst serving, became involved in designing furniture for soldiers. It is said that Gehry's pieces were so well-designed that they continually ended up in the officers' quarters. He would later bring out a line of cardboard furniture called Easy Edges (1969), inspired by this work, and a further line Bentwood Furniture in 1992.

After serving for a year in the army, Gehry moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife, to study city planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Here, he became disillusioned by the failure of architecture to address social injustice, taking particular offence at his own professor's involvement in designing a palace for the Cuban authoritarian ruler Fulgencio Batista. Choosing not to complete the programme, he instead returned to California and resumed work with Victor Gruen Associates, under whom Gehry, along with his colleague and friend Greg Walsh, were responsible for building a private residence. This residence, called The David Cabin, established features that would come to identify Gehry's work such as protruding and exposed elements.

Mature Period

Frank Gehry (2013)

In 1962, Gehry established his own architectural practice in Los Angeles. Whilst his early projects were typical of modernism - characterised by symmetry and clean geometry - Gehry was soon inspired by artists such as Ed Moses and Billy Al Bengstone to pursue a more experimental style that made use of found objects and waste material. He began to expose the usually hidden elements of buildings such as unpainted plywood, rough concrete and corrugated metal, or in the words of journalist Richard Lacayo to "insinuate odd bits of business into his designs" in an attempt to "humanize" them. In 1966 Gehry and his wife divorced and in 1975 he married Berta Isabel Aguilera, with whom he went on to have two sons.

One of the best expressions of Gehry's early experimental style can be found in his own house in Santa Monica (1978), which retained the original 1920s building wrapped in a contemporary design. It was built with the proceeds from the Easy Edges furniture line which attracted national attention and began to popularize Gehry's aesthetic. The house acted as a showcase for his work and although appalling his neighbours it attracted critical attention that encouraged Gehry to pursue this approach in his commercial designs. The writer and broadcaster Kurt Andersen wrote, in the 1980s, "[Gehry] may no longer be written off as an idiosyncratic California bad boy. He must be regarded as one of the two or three more important members of the late-modernist generation". In 1989 Gehry was awarded the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize - the panel having been impressed by Gehry's ambition and experimentation (which they compared to that of Picasso) and the theatrical nature of his work.

<i>The Chiat Day Building</i> (1991)

The prize prompted several international commissions for Gehry including the Fishdance Restaurant in Kobe, Japan (1986), the Vitra Design Museum in Germany (1987) and several projects in California such as the Los Angeles Aerospace Museum (1982). In the museum, in particular, Gehry demonstrated his playfulness - placing a futuristic F104 Starfighter jet over the main entrance, angled as though launching from the building. Similarly, his design for the West Coast headquarters of advertising firm Chiat Day featured an entrance that resembled a pair of giant binoculars.

Late Period

Frank Gehry Photo

The completion of the Guggenheim in Bilbao (1997), marked another turning point for the architect. The building received critical acclaim both for its appearance and economic impact on the area. It broke definitively with his modernism of earlier decades and, although it attracted some criticism for being "gratuitously eccentric", established Gehry as a leading international architect.

Gehry went on to produce several more landmark buildings including the Walt Disney Concert Hall (2003) in Downtown Los Angeles ("the most effective answer to doubters, naysayers, and grumbling critics an American architect has ever produced" -LA Times), the New World Center (2011) in Miami Beach ("a piece of architecture that dares you to underestimate it or write it off at first glance." -LA Times) and the Biomuseo (2014), a biodiversity museum in Panama City, Panama. A proposal to connect the Walt Disney Concert Hall to Los Angeles City Hall with a new thoroughfare is currently underway and marks the sweeping impact of Gehry's vision on the area.

<i>8 Spruce Street</i>, formerly Beekman Tower, is a 76-storey skyscraper in New York City, designed by Gehry and opened in 2011. It received the Emporis Skyscraper Award the same year.

Nevertheless, not all of Gehry's recent buildings have been designed and built smoothly. Those unrealised include the Corcoran Art Gallery expansion in Washington, D.C., a new Guggenheim museum in New York City, and Gehry's contributions to both the Pacific Park (Brooklyn) redevelopment and World Trade Center Performing Arts Center. Furthermore, the architect's 8 Spruce Street (formerly the Beekman Tower of 2010 caused controversy as it exceeded the height of the nearby Trump Building by 1 foot - prompting an exchange of words between Gehry and Donald Trump.

Now in his 90s, Gehry remains a significant presence on the architectural scene. 2014 marked the completion of his dramatic Louis Vuitton Building in Paris, and in 2016 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on account of his "bold and thoughtful structures [that] demonstrate architecture's power to induce wonder and revitalize communities" (quoting the presidential award citation). The architect was also praised for his technological innovation and refusal to limit himself to conventional materials, processes, and styles. Outside of his architectural work, Gehry has also been involved in designing exhibitions, jewelry and household items and, most recently, a yacht.

The Legacy of Frank Gehry

Gehry with a model of his Parc des Ateliers (2010)

Although Gehry is sometimes associated with the Los Angeles School or Santa Monica School of architecture (a group of influential postmodern architects who studied there including Eric Owen Moss and Thom Mayne), his work defies easy categorisation. Whilst he shares the transformative principles of modernist architects, he breaks away from the modernist style by taking a much more experimental approach, making his designs exciting, and very recognisable. This ability to create a unique and different aesthetic has led to his buildings becoming iconic symbols of an area and tourist attractions in their own right. Gehry's buildings often make use of unusual, everyday materials and he was one of the first modern architects to experiment in this way. As such he has been called "the apostle of chain-link fencing and corrugated metal siding". This has inspired other architects to employ novel building materials in a similar fashion, notably, Philip Johnson.

Gehry is not without critics, however, and amongst the most outspoken of these is art critic and historian Hal Foster, who perceives the architect as playing into the hands of large companies, seizing on iconic architecture to gain commercial recognition. Gehry's formula, according to Foster, uses outrageous design to attract glamour and media attention, whilst having little architectural substance, particularly with respect to the perceived disconnect between interior and exterior, and form and function. The architect has countered claims that " [his] fans tend to confuse his arbitrariness with freedom, and his self-indulgence with expression" by asserting that the movement and feeling in his buildings are essential to revitalize post-war cities, which, at present, are "cold" and "bland". Both men have reacted strongly on this matter - Gehry claiming "Ninety-eight per cent of everything that is built today is pure s**t", whilst Foster is rumoured to have purchased T-shirts bearing equally rude remarks about Gehry.

In the 1990s Gehry's architectural firm pioneered the use of computer software to optimize his designs and translate them into construction and fabrication processes, allowing more fluid and experimental plans. The program they developed is now widely used within the industry including by well-known architectural studios such as Herzog & de Meuron and Zaha Hadid. Furthermore, having lost his daughter to cancer, Gehry spends one month each year with the department of microbiology at Princeton University, sharing the creative methodology and processes of realization that he employs in his architectural practice with experts in cancer research. It is the architect's belief that these iterative methods are transferable, both to the sciences and other businesses.

Do more

Content compiled and written by Dawn Kanter

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Frank Gehry Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Dawn Kanter
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Available from:
First published on 08 Apr 2019. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]