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Renovation in progress

At 73, Frank Gehry faces the challenge of trying to avoid the formulaic and to stretch his architectural vision yet again.

October 13, 2002|Nicolai Ouroussoff | Times Staff Writer

In a celebrity-obsessed age, Frank Gehry has attained a stature that would make Andy Warhol quiver with jealousy.

Since the runaway success of his design for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, completed five years ago, Gehry has become one of the world's most recognizable cultural figures. His buildings -- raucous explosions of shimmering metal -- have become the dominant image of contemporary architecture, more familiar, perhaps, than the earlier landmarks of Frank Lloyd Wright.

That familiarity has landed Gehry a wealth of commissions. His Weatherhead School of Management building at Case Western Reserve University was dedicated Wednesday in Cleveland. A 430,000-square-foot Computer Science complex for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is under construction in Cambridge, as is his much-anticipated Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. And he is working on a hotel and conference center in Venice, Italy; a major addition to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington; and the Museum of Biodiversity in Panama City, Panama.

With so much public adulation focused on him, one might expect Gehry to retreat into self-absorption, or to simply churn out formulaic buildings in an effort to appease the demands of a ravenous market. If not all of these works measure up to the standards set by Bilbao, who can blame him? The market is unlikely to notice.

But there is increasing evidence that, at 73, Gehry has not yet reached the point of creative exhaustion. In September, he purchased a Venice lot where he plans to build a new home for himself and his family. The move would mean abandoning the Santa Monica house that has stood at the center of his architectural identity for decades.

At the same time, many of his recent projects suggest a desire to stretch the boundaries of his aesthetic vision. In the Panama design, for example, Gehry's typically exuberant forms have been replaced by a more delicate aesthetic of folding planes.

Such changes may reflect a desire to wiggle free of unwanted expectations. But they are also more personal. They are rooted in a need to break away from creative constraints -- something that has always lain at the core of Gehry's art. And they point toward a new chapter in Gehry's life, the third and final act in a long and prolific career.

"I sometimes think of Matisse," he said recently. "When I was younger, I loved his line drawings. And when I saw the cutouts he was making at the end of his life, it made me sad. I thought, here's this arthritic man reduced to making paper-doll cutouts. Now I realize that he used his problems, the physical deficiencies he was facing, and blasted forward."

A subtle shift in values

Most architects spend their lives honing a single vision. Mies van der Rohe -- a giant of the Modernist tradition -- revolutionized the profession by refining a relatively limited palette of glass and steel.

Gehry can claim two major breakthroughs in his career. The first came at age 49, when, after years of frustration designing relatively conventional buildings for local developers, he bought and began remodeling his Santa Monica house. At the time, many architects were trying to break from established Modernist dogmas. Gehry's answer was to tear apart a banal suburban bungalow, wrapping it in a collage of chain link, corrugated metal and exposed studs. The result was a powerful expression of social fragmentation.

For nearly a decade, Gehry expanded on that theme with a series of works whose raw, geometric forms were composed with the intensity of a child playing with building blocks. In the 1984 Benson House in Calabasas, for example, two banal, box-like structures were joined by a series of bridges and decks made out of raw plywood and 2-by-4s. In the Winton Guest House, built in Wayzata, Minn., in 1987, simple, platonic forms -- one shaped like a chimney stack, another a simple box -- were huddled together in an open field.

Such projects represented more than aesthetic games. They were colored by memories of childhood -- the working-class suburb of Toronto where he grew up; his father's crippling stroke in 1947; and the family's descent into poverty after it moved to L.A. Their composition seemed to reveal the tensions hidden beneath the numbing uniformity of suburban society.

But by the end of the 1980s, Gehry seemed to be reaching the limits of that vocabulary. He was now grappling with bigger commissions, and the mostly wood-frame structures he had produced until then could not be easily adapted to the scale of major public works.

Using computer software originally created to design fighter jets, Gehry began molding industrial materials into more sculptural forms. The first of these, the 1992 Vila Olimpica in Barcelona, Spain, included a gigantic steel mesh fish sculpture that hovered above an outdoor court. In the design for Disney Hall, the forms became more integrated, with a series of petal-like layers wrapping around a central core.

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