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COVER STORY

I'm Frank Gehry, and This Is How I See the World

For the Architect Who Made Bilbao a Household Word, It's All About Freedom and Control

October 25, 1998|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

One of the surprises of Gehry's work is its violence. Each of his famously euphoric and sensual designs--for the Guggenheim, for the Disney Hall, for others--emerges not only from a sense of joyful chaos but also from a mind seemingly tearing apart both a fragile inner world and our shared cultural history, and then carefully piecing them back together, his way. But if Gehry is an anarchist, he's an anarchist with a practical bent. Despite appearances, he designs buildings pragmatically, from the inside out. He begins by assembling simple wood blocks that represent the layout of the project's components--a strategy that often baffles clients who know only his exuberant completed works. The forms come later.

Like all great architects, Gehry straddles the border between the practical world and the possibilities that lie just beyond. He is seeking freedom from the conventions of architecture, from the routine relationships between designer and client. As he slowly elaborates his increasingly fantastic architectural language, he expects clients to absorb his methods, to embrace the process, to get caught up in his excitement.

"Frank was always looking for freedom from restraint and from guilt, in some ways," says a former project manager, Paul Lubowicki. "It's about this mixture of anger and joy."

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Frank Owen Gehry was born on Feb. 28, 1929, in a working-class Jewish neighborhood of Toronto. His father, Irving, born in New York City, worked at a series of odd jobs, including arranging fruit displays for a local supermarket, selling slot machines and eventually opening a small furniture business. "My father would never come home with just a banana," remembers Gehry's younger sister, Doreen. "If he went out for a banana, he would come home with a whole crate of fruit."

Gehry has often described the fantastic images of growing up in the immigrant community. He remembers watching live carp swim in the bathtub while his maternal grandmother, Leah Caplan, prepared to make gefilte fish in the kitchen. On other occasions, she would bring home wood scraps from a local cabinet shop, and the two would build miniature cities on the living room floor. In his work, these images would later take on an almost mythical importance. Fish often appear as forms in his buildings. And Gehry once claimed that his later inspiration to pull buildings apart into discreet blocks sprang from those early childhood games.

By his own account, Gehry was a recluse, sitting for days in his room, sometimes with a close friend, tinkering with philosophical formulas. His father was a tough man, given to grand gestures and a terrible temper, which he often directed at his son. "I'd hide in the woodwork and try to be invisible," he remembers. "My father thought I was a dreamer, that I didn't know the value of a buck."

Gehry's mother, Thelma, a strong-willed woman who emigrated with her parents from Lodz, Poland, had high cultural aspirations for her children. She often played the violin for her family in the evenings and, when money permitted, took her children to the local philharmonic. There were few books in the house, but there was a hunger for culture. "Culture," Doreen says, "was something you had to go out and take."

Those early, fantastic memories of immigrant life ended abruptly in 1947, when, in the midst of a violent argument with his son, Irving suffered a heart attack while chasing Frank out of the house. It was a turning point in the family's fortunes. Soon after, Irving lost his furniture business and the family, worried about his failing health, moved to the warmer climate of Los Angeles.

They lived in cramped apartments, first in a run-down section near downtown, then in a Jewish neighborhood near the Fairfax district. His father supported the family working in a liquor store, often arriving home at 2 a.m. Gehry, now 17, found work driving a truck. At night, he and his sister alternated between sleeping on the sofa and a Murphy bed in the living room. "We had a kitchen the size of a closet," Doreen says. "But my mother cooked dinner every night and put a tablecloth on the table. She was really something."

"L.A. was like falling off a cliff," Gehry says. "It was very poor. We had a '37 Ford and were living in two rooms. My father was in bad shape. It was a shock."

Escape came in making art. He began attending classes at Los Angeles City College and took a ceramics course that a local artist, Glenn Lukens, gave at USC. The well-known California Modernist Raphael Soriano was designing a house for Lukens in the West Adams district, and Lukens took Gehry to meet the architect. It was an awakening. "When you're a kid, you're looking for role models," Gehry says. "Here was a guy in a black suit, a black beret, telling contractors what to do and railing against Frank Lloyd Wright. And I fell in love with the whole idea of it."

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