Frank Gehry Is Architecture’s Mad Genius

Frank Gehry is enjoying a major moment: his retrospective is in full swing in Paris and his latest creation opens today. Is he at the height of his talent or just a little bit crazy?

10.27.14 9:45 AM ET

“How do you tell the difference between aesthetic discipline and neurosis?” director Sydney Pollack asks Frank Gehry in his 2006 documentary about the architect, Sketches of Frank Gehry. The question, almost akin to a riddle, is certainly a relevant one to anybody in a creative field. Some critics of Frank Gehry would venture that he doesn't know the difference. Gehry himself draws the line at a different juncture during the film, saying, “What bugs me are these goddamn rules that my profession has, as to what fits and what doesn't. There is a certain threatening aspect to taking a leap, but once you try that… you can't stop.”

Pollack’s film is just one of the teeming examinations of Gehry’s vast professional archive, which the Centre Pompidou in Paris is showcasing (through January 26). An assemblage of 225 drawings, 67 models, and assorted documents, the exhibition pours over Gehry’s unique architectural dialect and signature sculptural whimsy. This is the first complete retrospective in Europe, and it is timed to the October launch of the Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton, a gleaming glass beached whale of a structure to serve as a private contemporary art space initiated by Bernard Arnault, that officially opens on Monday.

The Pompidou exhibition starts chronologically, with Gehry’s first completed project (Steeves House, 1959) and the foundation of his architecture firm (1962). His trajectory thereafter is too vast to neatly summarize, but some indelible projects include: the crisscrossed Vila Olímpica fish sculpture on the Barcelona waterfront (1992), symbolic of his Jewish heritage and the carp his grandparents would eat; the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health (2010) that looks like it’s melting under the Las Vegas sun; the wrinkled surface of the 76-story Beekman Tower in New York (2011); and the Biomuseo in Panama (2014), a brash playpen of vivid colors. (Note: The Daily Beast is headquartered in the Frank Gehry designed IAC building in New York City).

Technological advances in the 1990s allowed Gehry’s agency to digitize the complex geometry of his forms with software. The file-to-factory process was an evolution from “descriptive” to “generative”: the digital enabled Gehry to communicate his elaborate, hard-to-articulate vision into tangible detail (a blessing for contractors who otherwise struggled to deliver his atypical forms). Still, Gehry’s squiggle-heavy, hand-drawn sketches are startlingly evocative indicators of what the finalized edifices become. His maquettes, or models, illustrate this, too, in their budding materiality. Curator Frédéric Migayrou, co-director of the Musée National d’Art Moderne for the architecture and design collections, sought to highlight Gehry’s transformational process. “Rather than the finalized models, we display the experimental work-in-progress ones,” Migarou says. “You see the handwork, the glue, how the people in the agency were working on it.”

Iwan Baan

Another theme underlined in the exhibition is Gehry’s role as an urbanist. His Guggenheim Bilboa (1997) is singular not just for its jaw-dropping silhouette and scale, but also for its location on the port, which Gehry insisted on despite the neighborhood’s questionable reputation. This addition ultimately “reactivated” that sector of the city. “Placed elsewhere, it may not have been so successful. It is because it perfectly implanted, grafted to the city, that it works,” Migayrou says. “He completely disrupts not only the conception of architecture—but also the fabrication, the mise en oeuvre of architecture.”

Gehry’s relationship to unconventional aesthetics is probably the most notable—and contentious—feature of his work. Gehry had a tactile upbringing working in his grandfather’s hardware store, which he still remembers humbly and fondly. This rapport with the tactile blossomed in Los Angeles during the 1960s, when he engaged with the California art scene, befriending artists such as Ed Ruscha, Richard Serra, Claes Oldenburg, Larry Bell, and Ron Davis. Migayrou points out that although Gehry interacted with artists, he “never applies methods from the art world; he seeks to transpose them, to transcribe them into architectural language.”

Gehry himself concurred during a press conference earlier this week, saying, “I eliminated the artist part, and became an architect.”

Still, his artist friends influenced his practices, and, tellingly, Gehry has equated the surface of a building with a blank canvas. Having been taught Modernism, a school of thought that scoffs at the decorative, materials became his primary means of expression. (Or as Gehry framed it in the Sketches documentary: “mak[ing] beauty with junk”). For his own now-famed house in California, he initially bought property in a down-and-out neighborhood, and made an extension using “poor” materials such as cardboard (Rauschenberg’s influence), sheet metal, industrial wire, wood, and stone.

Having often been accused of creating buildings that are overworked and over-the-top, Gehry has a very strong response—he gave the finger to one such critique at a Spanish press conference this week. “Let me tell you guys, in the world that we live in, 98 percent of the buildings built are pure shit. They have no sense of design, or respect for humanity, for judgment, for nothing," he said in defense of his work.

In the Sketches documentary, Rolf Fehlbaum, Chairman of the Gehry-conceived Vitra Museum in Germany, perhaps ultimately encapsulates the architect best: “there is something strange, a bit messy—but in the end, these forces unleashed found a new order.” Many critics have disdain precisely for this strange messiness of his, this showmanship that dares to create a new order. Others admire its pioneer gutsiness. It certainly leaves few apathetic.

His newest achievement, the unparalleled, galactic-looking behemoth of the Fondation Louis Vuitton, has nothing neutral about it either. Funnily enough, it’s a significant barometer of just how far Gehry’s career has come. In his very early days, he did a stint as an architect in Paris, struggling while living in a suburban basement apartment relatively nearby.

Within are commissions from contemporary artists like Olafur Eliasson, Ellsworth Kelly, and Taryn Simon. From without, the Fondation features twelve “sails” and an “iceberg” covered in 19,000 white sheets of ultra-high performance fiber-reinforced concrete. “It really works in the park,” Gehry notes of the Fondation’s green location at the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, just west of the Paris periphery. “Bilbao was right in the middle of the city; this has breathing space, so it's not as confrontational.”

Gehry admitted: “Glass is not functional for any art, but to take advantage of that circumstance and turn it into a living space: that can change the building. If you filled that space with plants, it would be like the invasion of the Bois.” The artists that the Fondation collects, like Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Richard Prince, will do special pieces and address the peculiarities of the glass space through their work.

The vitality of the building is underscored by Gehry’s grasp of the power of light and the morphology of reflection. The structure’s capacity for metamorphosis means that “it’ll take time to understand the building, and understand the possibilities of it,” Gehry said. Miygarou marvels at Gehry’s ability “to bring dynamism to an object… to create movement in something that is inert—that’s the force of Gehry’s work.” It’s this unpredictable dynamism of the venue, well after completion, which sustains its vigor.

Whether it ultimately takes aesthetic discipline or neurosis to get to that point, it's hard to say.