A Closer Look at Frank Gehry's House

Frank Gehry's House in Santa Monica, California

Susan Wood/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The key to understanding architecture is to examine the pieces—to look at the design and construction and deconstruct. We can do this with the prize-winning architect Frank Gehry, a man who is too often despised and admired all in the same breath. Gehry embraces the unexpected in ways that have justifiably labeled him a deconstructivist architect. To understand Gehry's architecture, we can deconstruct Gehry, beginning with the house he remodeled for his family.

Architects rarely find stardom overnight, and this Pritzker Laureate is no exception. The Southern California-based architect was well into his 60s before the critical successes of the Weisman Art Museum and Spain's Guggenheim Bilbao. Gehry was in his 70s when the Walt Disney Concert Hall opened, burning his signature metal façades into our consciousnesses.

Gehry's success with those high-profile, polished public buildings may not have occurred without his experimentation in 1978 on his own modest bungalow-style house in Santa Monica, California. The now-famous Gehry House is the story of a middle-aged architect who forever changed his notoriety—and his neighborhood—by remodeling an old house, adding a new kitchen and dining room, and doing it all in his own way.

What am I looking At?

When Gehry remodeled his own home in 1978, patterns emerged. Below, we'll examine these attributes of architecture to better understand the architect's vision:

Design: How did Gehry experiment with design?

Materials: Why did Gehry use unconventional materials?

Aesthetics: What is Gehry's sense of Beauty and Harmony?

Process: Does Gehry make a plan or just embrace chaos?

Explore the aspects of Gehry's unconventional home in his own words, taken from the 2009 interview, “Conversations With Frank Gehry” by Barbara Isenberg.

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Frank Gehry Buys a Pink Bungalow

Frank Gehry and His Son, Alejandro, in Front of the Gehry Residence in Santa Monica, c. 1980

Susan Wood/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Back in the mid-1970s, Frank Gehry was in his 40s, divorced from his first family, and plugging along with his architecture practice in Southern California. He lived in an apartment with his new wife Berta and their son Alejandro. When Berta became pregnant with Sam, the Gehrys needed a bigger living space. To hear him tell the story, the experience was similar to many busy homeowners:

"I told Berta I didn't have time to find a house, and because we liked Santa Monica, she got a realtor there. The realtor found this pink bungalow on a corner which, at the time, was the only two-story house in the neighborhood. We could have moved in as it was. The upstairs part was large enough for our bedroom and a room for the baby. But it needed a new kitchen and the dining room was tiny—a little closet."

Gehry soon bought the house for his growing family. As Gehry has said, he began remodeling immediately:

"I started working on its design and got excited about the idea of building a new house around the old house. Nobody realizes I had done the same thing a year before in Hollywood, when the office was out of work. We figured we could both create work and make money. We had all chipped in and bought the house, then remodeled it. We built a new house around the old house, and the new house was in the same language as the old house. I liked that idea and I hadn't really explored it enough, so when I got this house, I decided to take that idea further."
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Experimenting With Design

Corrugated metal wall held up by angled wooden posts at Frank Gehry's home in Santa Monica

Susan Wood/Hulton Archive/Getty Images 

Frank Gehry has always surrounded himself with artists, so it should be no surprise that he chose to surround his newly purchased suburban 20th-century pink bungalow with unexpected ideas from the art world. He knew he wanted to further his experimentation with house-surrounds, but why a detached and exposed façade for all to see? Gehry says:

"Two-thirds of a building is the back end, the sides. That's what they're living with, and they put this little façade on. You can see it here. You can see it everywhere. You can see it in the Renaissance. It's like the grande dame going to the ball with her Oscar de la Renta outfit, or whatever, with a hair curler in back, which she forgot to take out. You wonder why they don't see it, but they don't."

Gehry's interior design—a glass-enclosed rear addition with a new kitchen and a new dining room—was as unexpected as the exterior façade. Within a framework of skylights and glass walls, traditional interior utilities (kitchen cabinets, dining table) seemed out of place within a shell of modern art. The inappropriate juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated details and elements became an aspect of deconstructivism—an architecture of fragments in unexpected arrangements, like an abstract painting.

The design was controlled chaos. Although not a new concept in the world of modern art—consider the use of angular, fragmented images in a Pablo Picasso painting—it was an experimental way of designing architecture.

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Inside the Gehry Kitchen

Kitchen interior of modern architect Frank Gehry's house in Santa Monica, California

Susan Wood/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Frank Gehry added a new kitchen to his pink bungalow, he placed the 1950s interior design within a 1978 modern art addition. Sure, there's natural lighting, but the skylights are irregular—some of the windows are traditional and linear and some are geometrically jagged, misshaped as windows in an expressionist painting.

"From the beginning of my adult life, I always related more to artists than to architects....When I finished architecture school, I liked Kahn and Corbusier and other architects, but I still felt there was something more that the artists were doing. They were pushing into a visual language, and I thought that if a visual language could apply to art, which it obviously could, it could also apply to architecture."

Gehry's design was influenced by art and so were his construction materials. He saw artists using bricks and calling it art. Gehry himself experimented with corrugated cardboard furniture in the early 1970s, finding artistic success with a line called Easy Edges. In the mid-1970s, Gehry continued his experimentation, even using asphalt for the kitchen floor. This "raw" look was an experiment with the unexpected in residential architecture.

"My house couldn't be built anywhere but California, because it is single glazed and I was experimenting with materials that are used here. It's also not an expensive construction technique. I was using it to learn the craft, to try and figure out how to use that."
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Experimenting With Materials

Frank Gehry House Exterior

Susan Wood/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Stucco? Stone? Brick? What would you choose for exterior siding options? To remodel his own home in 1978, a middle-aged Frank Gehry borrowed money from friends and limited costs by using industrial materials, such as corrugated metal, raw plywood, and chain-link fencing, which he used as one would enclose a tennis court, a playground, or a batting cage. Architecture was his sport, and Gehry could play by his own rules with his own house.

"I was very interested in the direct link between intuition and product. If you look at a Rembrandt painting, it feels like he just painted it, and I was looking for that immediacy in architecture. There were tract houses being built all over the place, and everybody, including me, said they looked better raw. So I started playing with that aesthetic."

Later in his career, Gehry's experimentation would result in the now-famous stainless steel and titanium façades of buildings like the Disney Concert Hall and Guggenheim Bilbao.

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Gehry's Dining Room—Creating the Mystery of Intention

nterior dining area of Frank Gehry's house, Santa Monica, California

Susan Wood/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Similar to the kitchen design, the dining room of the 1978 Gehry House combined a traditional table setting within a modern art container. Architect Frank Gehry was experimenting with aesthetics.

"Remember that on the first iteration of the house, I didn't have a lot of money to play with. It was an old house, built in 1904, then moved in the 1920s from Ocean Avenue to its present site in Santa Monica. I couldn't afford to fix everything, and I was trying to use the strength of the original house, so that when the house was finished, its real artistic value was that you didn't know what was intentional and what wasn't. You couldn't tell. It took all those clues away, and in my opinion that was the strength of the house. That's what made it mysterious to people and exciting."
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Experimenting With Aesthetics

Exterior of Gehry's home shows picket fence in front of modernist detached curtain facade, 1980

Susan Wood/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A sense of what is beautiful is said to be in the eye of the beholder. Frank Gehry experimented with unexpected designs and played with the rawness of materials to create his own beauty and harmony. In 1978, the Gehry House in Santa Monica, California, became his laboratory for experimentation with aesthetics.

"It was the most freedom I'd had at that point. I could express myself more directly, without editing....There was also something about the blurring of the edges between past and present that worked."

Nontraditional residential building materials contrasted with traditional neighborhood designs—the wooden picket fence played counterpoint to the corrugated metal and now infamous chain-link walls. The colorful concrete wall became a foundation not for the house structure, but for the front lawn, literally and symbolically connecting the industrial chain link with the traditional white picket fencing. The house, which would come to be called an example of modern deconstructivist architecture, took on the fragmented look of an abstract painting.

The art world influenced Gehry—the fragmentation of his architectural design suggests the work of the painter Marcel Duchamp. Like an artist, Gehry experimented with juxtaposition—he placed picket fences next to chain link, walls within walls, and created boundaries with no boundary. Gehry was free to blur traditional lines in unexpected ways. He sharpened what we see by contrast, like a character's foil in literature. As the new house enveloped the old house, new and old blurred to become one house.

Gehry's experimental approach frustrated the public. They wondered which decisions were intentional and which were building errors. Some critics called Gehry contrary, arrogant, and sloppy. Others called his work groundbreaking. Frank Gehry seemed to find beauty not only in raw materials and exposed design but also in the mystery of intention. The challenge for Gehry was to visualize mystery.

"No matter what you build, after you solve all the issues of function and budget and so on, you bring to it your language, your signature of some sort, and I think that's important. The most important thing is to be yourself, because as soon as you try to be somebody else, you tend to denigrate the work and it's not as powerful or as strong."
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Remodeling Is a Process

Frank Gehry's personal home with concrete retaining wall surrounding the yard

Santi Visalli/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Some people might believe that the Gehry residence looks like an explosion at a junkyard—haphazard, unplanned, and disorderly. Nevertheless, Frank Gehry sketches and models all his projects, even when he remodeled his Santa Monica house in 1978. What may appear to be chaotic or simply minimalist is really meticulously planned, a lesson Gehry says he learned from a 1966 art exhibit:

"...there was this row of bricks. I followed the bricks to a wall where a sign described the artwork as 137 firebricks by the artist Carl Andre. At that time I was doing the chain-link stuff, and I had this fantasy that you could call in architecture. You could call the chain-link guys and you could give them coordinates and they could build a structure....I had to meet this guy, Carl Andre. Then maybe a few weeks later, I did meet him and I told him how I had just seen his piece at the museum and I was so fascinated by it because all he had to do was call it in. I went on and on about how wonderful it was that he'd done that, and then he looked at me like I was a madman....He pulled out a pad of paper and started drawing firebrick, firebrick, firebrick on the paper....That's when I realized it was painterly. It kind of put me in my place...." 

Gehry has always been an experimenter, even with improving his process. These days, Gehry uses computer software originally developed to design automobiles and aircraft—Computer-Aided Three-Dimensional Interactive Application, or CATIA. Computers can create 3D models with detailed specifications for complicated designs. Architectural design is an iterative process, made faster with computer programs, but change comes through experimentation—not just one sketch and not just one model. Gehry Technologies has become a side business to his 1962 architectural practice.

The story of the Gehry House, the architect's own residence, is the simple story of a remodeling job. It is also the story of experimentation with design, solidification of an architect's vision, and, ultimately, the pathway to professional success and personal satisfaction. The Gehry House would become one of the first examples of what became known as deconstructivism, an architecture of fragmentation and chaos.

To which we say this: When an architect moves next door to you, take note!

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Craven, Jackie. "A Closer Look at Frank Gehry's House." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/a-closer-look-at-frank-gehrys-house-177994. Craven, Jackie. (2020, August 26). A Closer Look at Frank Gehry's House. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/a-closer-look-at-frank-gehrys-house-177994 Craven, Jackie. "A Closer Look at Frank Gehry's House." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/a-closer-look-at-frank-gehrys-house-177994 (accessed June 4, 2023).