Famous for challenging traditional ideas about architecture with his striking curved lines and `bendy’ houses, Frank Gehry is one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed architects.
Many of his buildings have become tourist attractions in their own right, such as the `dancing house’ in Prague and the titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao.
His creations involve sculptural shapes, curving silhouettes, the illusion of `falling down’ houses, and skewed perspectives.
We take a look at his life and feature nine of his most amazing architectural creations.
Life and career
Canadian-born American Gehry was born Ephraim Owen Goldberg in 1929, into a Polish-Jewish family. From his early life, he was interested in constructing buildings using unusual materials.
In 1947 Gehry and his family immigrated to Los Angeles where he attended Los Angeles City College. He then studied architecture at the University of Southern California and city planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and changed his name to Frank Owen Gehry. He began his career working for Victor Gruen Associates and Pereira & Luckman Associates in Los Angeles before working briefly in Paris for André Rémondet. Gehry then established his own firm, Frank O. Gehry Associates in 1962 in California, and later Gehry Partners LLP in 2002.
Experiments in design
Frank Gehry began working on cardboard furniture in 1969 and launched two popular furniture lines using industrial corrugated cardboard -`Easy Edges’ from 1969-1973, and `Experimental Edges’ from 1979-82. Gehry began to experiment with design in reaction to the modernist buildings found in many cities.
Often his radical designs and use of materials in unexpected ways attracted criticism for creating buildings that many felt looked unfinished. He is sometimes described as belonging to the deconstructivist movement due to his use of unfamiliar materials, while his vision of quirky architectural forms linked him with postmodernism.
Gehry gained attention when he rebuilt his family’s Santa Monica home using corrugated steel and chain link fencing, adding asymmetrical elements made from steel and glass. This was a turning point, and he began to design houses in southern California in the 1980s. As his work began to take on a greater scale, his commissions grew.
During the 1980s and 1990s, he created numerous notable buildings, including the Vitra Design Museum & Factory in 1987 in Weil am Rhein, Germany; the American Center in Paris in 1994 and the Frederik R. Weisman Art Museum in 1993 at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Frank Ghery designed his first skyscraper at 8 Spice Street, New York City, a 76-storey tower that was completed in 2012.
In the 2020s, Gehry completed the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington D.C.; a renovation of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and a housing development at Battersea Power Station in London. He also redesigned a bank in Los Angeles to house the Youth Orchestra of LA.
Gehry is known for his professionalism and for keeping to budget with his commissions – with the notable exception of the long-awaited Walt Disney Concert Hall project (see below), which went $170m over budget.
During his career, Frank Gehry has collected numerous awards, created a jewellery collection for Tiffany & Co., and designed public buildings, concert halls, and art museums all over the world during the 1980s and 1990s, from Jerusalem to Venice and Paris to Abu Dhabi.
He won the Pritzker architecture prize in 1989, an annual award recognising living architects who demonstrate talent, vision and have made an important contribution to the built environment. He was also given Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale Award in 1992 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2016.
Gehry designs structures that are instantly recognizable all over the world, frequently involving curvilinear forms, sculptural touches, steel and titanium. Whether critically acclaimed or ridiculed, Gehry’s work has made people engage with architecture in a new way; his recognizable structures with their often whimsical, outlandish designs have brought a sense of fun and interest to many cities around the world.
Over his long career, Gehry has continued to design buildings in expected ways, often on a large scale. Today, he is viewed as America’s greatest living architect and one of the country’s cultural institutions.
9 of Frank Gehry’s most ground-breaking buildings
Neuer Zollhof, Dusseldorf, Germany
This project helped transform the Media Harbour area as part of the redevelopment of the port of Dusseldorf. It comprises three separate office buildings and was built between 1996-1999 on the site of former warehouses (Architectuul).
The area was designed to be a desirable business and cultural area with open public space by the harbour front. The building is home to advertising, insurance and other businesses. The three towers comprise an area of 300-500 square metres around a main central space. They are constructed from concrete slabs and each building is individually finished – one with metal panels, one with a plaster finish while the third is faced with brick, giving each its own identity.
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles
Frank Gehry continued to design the new home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic for over 10 years due to unexpected delays. The building finally opened in 2003. The Walt Disney concert hall is the fourth hall of the LA music centre and is one of the most important buildings that Gehry created.
The billowing, stainless-steel exterior is inspired by his interest in sailing and the audience appears to be enfolded in the sail-like shapes (wttw). Gehry designed the auditorium to offer excellent acoustics and it’s lined with Douglas Fir panels. To help in the complex construction, Gehry used CATIA software (computer-sided 3-dimensional interactive application) which translated the organic drawings into construction plans.
Dancing House, Prague, Czech Republic
This project, on a riverside plot, was designed in 1992 and completed in 1996. It forms the offices of Dutch insurance company Nationale-Nederlanden, which provided funding. The building is constructed from metal mesh, a concrete cylinder and glass.
Thought to resemble a dancing couple, it’s nicknamed Fred & Ginger. The dancing section is supported by 99 concrete panels of different shapes and sizes and a twisted metal shape at the top of the building is known as Medusa.
It was designed by Frank Gehry and Czech architect Vlado Milunić. The concept of a static and dynamic element to the building came from Milunić, to symbolise the transition of Czechoslovakia from communism to democracy.
The project was backed by President Václav Havel who hoped it would become a cultural centre. However, it hasn’t met with universal approval – many people considered it incongruous amongst the backdrop of Prague’s typical Baroque, gothic and art nouveau buildings. It’s built on the site of an original building that was destroyed by US bombing in 1945.
Olympic Fish Pavilion, Barcelona
This eye-catching, 183 feet long, 114 feet high gold steel mesh fish sculpture was created for the 1992 Olympic village. Its position overlooks the Olympic marina and Barcelona’s beaches, forming a canopy over bars and restaurants next to the Hotel Arts.
Gehry used 3-dimensional aeronautical design software to help create the design, which is one of the biggest volume sculptures in the world. The fish sculpture is made from steel and clad in electro-coloured stainless steel strips. It appears to float on the Mediterranean as the sun reflects on the fish scales.
The design, testing, manufacturing and build took place in seven months (permasteelisagroup). Fish shapes are a recurrent motif in Frank Gehry’s work; he also created a range of unique fish lamps.
Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain
One of Gehry’s most iconic and monumental buildings, the Guggenheim Bilbao Spain opened in 1997 to huge national media interest. A space for modern and contemporary art, this new Guggenheim museum is renowned as an example of innovative 20th-century architecture and was inaugurated by King Juan Carlos I of Spain with an exhibition of 250 contemporary works.
Constructed from limestone, glass and titanium, the structure stands on the former site of a wharf in a curve of the River Nerviόn River. The site was chosen as it represents the reimagining of riverbanks as places where culture and leisure can thrive in the city.
The structure is made up of a curvaceous mass of `falling down’ stainless-steel buildings clad in an outer skin made from thin titanium sheets with a rough finish that changes colour according to the weather. To help design this mathematically complex structure, Gehry once again made use of CATIA software used by the aerospace industry. Viewed by many as his greatest building, the Bilbao effect led to ever more grandiose commissions.
EMP Museum, Seattle, Washington
Located in the Seattle Centre at the base of the Space Needle built for the 1962 World’s Fair, the Experience Music Project is an interactive museum dedicated to rock music and science fiction. The structure includes a concert hall, cultural centre, music school and a sound laboratory.
It was opened in 2000 by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and was renamed the Museum of Pop Culture in 2016. Gehry is believed to have been inspired by slicing up electric guitars and using the pieces in models for buildings.
The red, blue, purple and silver building is a tribute to the late guitarist Jimi Hendrix and the development of American music – Hendrix used to smash a Fender Stratocaster guitar at the end of every concert. The steel and aluminium flap sections of the building are designed to appear as if they are waving in the air behind Seattle’s monorail which runs through the building.
Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, Las Vegas, Nevada
The idea for the Lou Ruvo Center came from entrepreneur Larry Ruvo, whose father died from complications connected with Alzheimer’s Disease. A medical centre and research facility is attached to this steel-clad space.
Gehry was reluctant to take commissions in Las Vegas, fearing they would be turned into a theme park, but he made a deal with Ruvo that if he would increase the research carried out there to include exploration of Huntington’s Disease, he would agree (Architect Magazine, 2011).
The 60,000 square foot complex comprises two buildings joined by a steel trellis. The building is wrapped in metal cladding and faced with shingle panels. Gehry wanted to create an interior that did not look like a medical facility.
Doors and furniture were made from Douglas Fir to create a sense of calm, along with curving corridors. Ruvo’s aim was to create a statement building to help raise the profile of his Keep Memory Alive foundation and boost donations and grants.
Stata Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts
The Ray and Maria Stata Center is part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which focuses on computer, information and intelligence sciences. Typical of a building designed by Frank Gehry, it’s on a large scale, featuring towers and walls with unexpected angles, shapes and colours.
The design brief was to encourage the building’s occupants to interact with each other, and the finished product contrasts starkly with conventional academic building design. The exterior is covered with shining metal and red brick, and there are yellow painted sections along with metal canopies.
Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, France
Inspired by late 19th-century glass and garden architecture, this building stands next to the Jardin d’Acclimatation in the adjacent park, the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. The $143m structure was commissioned by Bernard Arnault, head of the Louis Vuitton luxury goods empire, to display both his and the Fondation’s modern and contemporary art collection.
It was constructed with sustainable aims and specifications and opened in 2014. This extraordinary building comprises 12 glass sails that reflect surrounding water and trees and billow open to reveal white concrete blocks or icebergs, a mass of steel struts, and oddly shaped wooden beams.
It incorporates 19,000 panels of Ductal – fibre reinforced concrete. Gehry designed the structure to take in views of the Paris skyline from its terraces, and inside, there are spiralling staircases and huge gallery spaces on four levels. It has been built on a 1-hectare plot between woods and gardens under a long-term lease that ends in 2062 (Design Build Network, 2014).
Architectural Digest. 2018. Best of Frank Gehry. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed 27th June 2022)
wttw. Undated. 10 buildings that changed America. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed 27th June 2022)
Architectuul. Undated. Neuer Zollhof. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed 28th June 2022)
Architect. 2011. Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed 28th June 2022)
Designing Buildings. 2020. Ray and Maria Stata Center. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed 28th June 2022)
Permasteelisagroup. Undated. Golden Fish. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed 28th June 2022)
Design Build Network. 2014. Louis Vuitton Foundation, Paris. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed 28th June 2022)