Oculus Book Review: Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry by Paul Golberger

The Center for Architecture ended its 2015 Oculus Book Talk series with the eminent Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA, on hand to discuss his latest triumph, Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry. The 12.14.15 conversation with James Russell, FAIA, director of Design Strategic Initiatives at the NYC Department of Design and Construction and longtime architecture critic, was an affable and insightful discussion.

Russell asked Goldberger to explain his impulse to write a biography, and why he picked Frank Gehry, FAIA, in particular. According to Goldberger, his agent was nervous that he would write a novel, while a biography would enable him to contextualize the architecture of our time. He added that Gehry has had an interesting – and unexpected – life for a North American architect, which frames architectural culture in a different light. He also expressed a desire to look at how the life and work of a creative maker such as Gehry could unfold in a narrative.

The initial sections of Goldberger’s narrative are quite lively. He provides a deep and sensitive texture of a middle-class life through the 1940s and ’50s. Painting the landscapes that Gehry grew up in, a non-cosmopolitan Toronto and the vast expanse of the mining town Timmins, Ontario, speak to a pragmatic quality that arises later in Gehry’s work.

Goldberger excels in describing Gehry’s arrival and education in Los Angeles in the 1950s. The story he tells of the Goldberg (Gehry’s family name) family’s struggles and finally rise to a comfortable status in Los Angeles evokes feelings of adventure, hope, and ambition that a proper American epic should have. Goldberger accounts in detail Gehry’s education and the young modernist architect’s experience. The author documents the impact of the University of Southern California professors on Gehry, as well as his brilliant relationship with architect Greg Walsh (who became Gehry’s invaluable colleague in his practice). While the world may think of Gehry as a maverick iconoclast, this account of his education illustrates the tradition of dedication and engagement that an architectural education requires, whether of modernist origin or not.

Other sections of the book are enlightening. The story of the building of Gehry’s own residence in Santa Monica is excellent. Goldeberger describes how the house grew through Gehry’s life and career, and how it will live on after he passes. He comes back to the house throughout the book and, in a fashion, is as much a character as Gehry’s first two wives.

The development of the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain juxtaposed with the evolution of the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles is the meat of the book. This story is where Goldberger accomplishes his goal of creating the cultural context of both projects – how politics and the cities that the buildings serve shaped them. The advent of the software program CATIA that Gehry’s office adopted and developed to build a new company, Gehry Technologies, illustrates a potent and dramatic shift in the architectural landscape and the cultural climate of the last four decades of architectural practice.

The final projects, the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris and the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, DC, are beautiful projects to complete the story. Though currently mired in politics, the Eisenhower Memorial brings us full circle to the iconic chain-link façade of the Santa Monica Mall parking garage, completed in 1980. For Goldberger, the Vuitton Foundation provides insight into the future of architecture.

Since Gehry is living, there are a few instances where intimate information is included that shakes the reader out of the Gehry magic. Descriptions of the downfall of a number of protégées were particularly unfortunate. They seem like gossip and relay uncomfortable and unnecessary insight into Gehry’s character. The reader might come away with too many occasions where smoking pot was a bonding force in Gehry’s relationships.

In Goldberger’s lecture, he alluded to an idea that the body of Gehry’s work may lay out a cultural narrative through the last decades. Unfortunately, in most instances, this cultural narrative manifests itself as a string of influential clients, admirers, and benefactors. It is easy to grow weary of the list of notable names and connections that knit the book from project to project. Perhaps an illustration of the cultural climate of the times (i.e., Disney Hall was done during the Clinton administration, and the stripped-down aesthetic of Gehry’s early work was a reaction to Reaganomics) might have made a finer point. The movers and shakers who have given and taken away from Gehry’s career were less interesting than what was actually at work in the models and drawings that Gehry and his office developed. One has to remember that before Gehry, there was a time a “Gehry” building was “impossible to build.” After Gehry, there is no “impossible.” More insight into the actual design technique – Goldberger embedded in the model shop or sitting next to a draftsman working with CATIA – might have served better.

For designers, this book serves as a tremendous guide to a career that is honest, authentic, and less than gilded. Goldberger’s descriptions of the lesser known projects, Santa Monica’s Edgemar retail center, the Loyola Law School campus in Los Angeles, and the infamous Fishdance Restaurant in Kobe, Japan, are all woven into the narrative to illustrate how all of Gehry’s work, even the most minor, has shaped the exuberant and culture-shifting architecture that he is “known” for. As this book ages, it will serve as invaluable commentary on the one man who has changed design culture into 21st-century architecture.

Event: Oculus Book Talk: Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry
Location: Center for Architecture, 12.14.15
Speakers: Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA, Contributing Editor, Vanity Fair, and Author, Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry; and James Russell, FAIA, Director, Design Strategic Initiatives, NYC Department of Design + Construction
Organized by: AIANY Oculus Committee