Biography of Frank Gehry, Controversial Canadian-American Architect

Architect Frank Gehry

Thierry PRAT/Sygma/Getty Images 

Inventive and irreverent architect Frank O. Gehry (born February 28, 1929) changed the face of architecture with his artistic designs realized with high-tech software. Gehry has been surrounded by controversy for most of his career. Using unorthodox materials like corrugated metal, chain link, and titanium, Gehry has created unexpected, twisted forms that break conventions of building design. His work has been called radical, playful, organic, and sensual.

Fast Facts: Frank Gehry

  • Known For: Award-winning, controversial architect
  • Also Known As: Owen Gehry, Ephraim Owen Goldberg, Frank O. Gehry
  • Born: February 28, 1929 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  • Parents: Sadie Thelma (née Kaplanski/Caplan) and Irving Goldberg
  • Education: University of Southern California's School of Architecture, Harvard University
  • Awards and Honors: Presidential Medal of Freedom, J. Paul Getty Medal, Harvard Arts Medal, Order of Charlemagne; honorary degrees from many universities, including Oxford, Yale, and Princeton
  • Spouse(s): Anita Snyder, Berta Isabel Aguilera
  • Children: Alejandro, Samuel, Leslie, Brina
  • Notable Quote: "For me, every day is a new thing. I approach each project with a new insecurity, almost like the first project I ever did. And I get the sweats. I go in and start working, I'm not sure where I'm going. If I knew where I was going I wouldn't do it."

Early Life

As a teenager in 1947, Goldberg moved from Canada to Southern California with his Polish-Russian parents. He chose U.S. citizenship when he turned 21. He was traditionally educated at Los Angeles City College and the University of Southern California (USC), with an architecture degree completed in 1954. Frank Goldberg changed his name to "Frank Gehry" in 1954. This move was encouraged by his first wife, who believed a less-Jewish-sounding name would be easier for their children and better for his career.

Gehry served in the U.S. Army from 1954–1956. He then studied city planning on the G.I Bill for one year at Harvard Graduate School of Design before returning to southern California with his family. He went on to reestablish a working relationship with Austria-born architect Victor Gruen, with whom Gehry had worked at USC. After a stint in Paris, Gehry again returned to California and established his Los Angeles-area practice in 1962.

From 1952–1966, the architect was married to Anita Snyder, with whom he has two daughters. Gehry divorced Snyder and married Berta Isabel Aguilera in 1975. The Santa Monica house he remodeled for Berta and their two sons has become the stuff of legends.

Career Beginnings

Early in his career, Frank Gehry designed houses inspired by modern architects such as Richard Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright. Gehry's admiration of Louis Kahn's work influenced his 1965 box-like design of the Danziger House, a studio/residence for designer Lou Danziger. With this work, Gehry started to get noticed as an architect. The 1967 Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland, was the first Gehry structure reviewed by The New York Times. The 1978 remodeling of a 1920s-era bungalow in Santa Monica put Gehry and his new family's private home on the map.

As his career expanded, Gehry became known for massive, iconoclastic projects that attracted attention and controversy. The Gehry architecture portfolio includes unique structures such as the 1991 Chiat/Day Binoculars Building in Venice, California, and the 2014 Louis Vuitton Foundation Museum in Paris, France. His most famous museum is the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, the 1997 spectacle that gave Gehry's career its final boost. The iconic Bilbao architecture was constructed with thin sheets of titanium, and it continues to draw fascinated tourists. Color has been added to Gehry's metal exteriors, exemplified by the 2000 Experience Music Project (EMP), now called the Museum of Pop Culture, in Seattle, Washington.

Gehry's projects build on one another, and after the Bilbao museum opened to great acclaim, his clients wanted that same look. His most famous concert hall is arguably the 2004 Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California. He began visualizing with a stone facade in 1989, but the success of the Guggenheim in Spain inspired the California patrons to want what Bilbao had. Gehry is a great fan of music and he has taken on a number of different concert hall projects. Examples include the small Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in 2001 at Annandale-on-Hudson in New York, the open-air Jay Pritzker Music Pavillion in 2004 in Chicago, Illinois, and the rather sedate 2011 New World Symphony Center in Miami Beach, Florida.

Notable Work

Many of Gehry's buildings have become tourist attractions, drawing visitors from around the world. University buildings by Gehry include the 2004 MIT Stata Complex in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the 2015 Dr. Chau Chak Wing Building at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Gehry's first building in Australia. Commercial buildings in New York City include the 2007 IAC Building and the 2011 residential tower called New York By Gehry. Health-related projects include the 2010 Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, Nevada, as well as the 2003 Maggie's Centre in Dundee, Scotland.

Furniture: Gehry had success in the 1970s with his line of Easy Edges chairs made from bent laminated cardboard. By 1991, Gehry was using bent laminated maple to produce the Power Play Armchair. These designs are part of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) collection in New York City. In 1989, Gehry designed the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, his first European architectural work. The museum's focus is on modern furniture and interior designs. Also in Germany is Gehry's 2005 MARTa Museum in Herford, a town known in the furniture industry.

Gehry Designs: Because architecture takes so long to become realized, Gehry often turns to the "quick fix" of designing smaller products, including jewelry, trophies, and even liquor bottles. From 2003 to 2006, Gehry's partnership with Tiffany & Co. released the exclusive jewelry collection that included the sterling silver Torque Ring. In 2004, the Canada-born Gehry designed a trophy for the international World Cup of Hockey tournament. Also in 2004, Gehry designed a twisty vodka bottle for Wyborowa Exquisite. In the summer of 2008, Gehry took on the annual Serpentine Gallery Pavilion at Kensington Gardens in London.

Career Highs and Lows

Between 1999 and 2003, Gehry designed a new museum for Biloxi, Mississippi, the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art. The project was under construction when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005 and pushed a casino barge into the glittering steel walls. The slow process of rebuilding began years later. Gehry's most famous low, however, may have been the burning reflection from the completed Disney Concert Hall, which impacted both neighbors and passers-by. Gehry fixed it but claimed it was not his fault.

Throughout his long career, Frank O. Gehry has been honored with countless awards and honoraria for individual buildings and for him as an architect. Architecture's highest honor, the Pritzker Architecture Prize, was awarded to Gehry in 1989. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) recognized his work in 1999 with the AIA Gold Medal. Former President Barack Obama presented Gehry with the highest civilian award of the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2016.

Style of Gehry's Architecture

In 1988, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City used Gehry's Santa Monica house as an example of a new, modern architecture they called deconstructivism. This style breaks down the parts of a piece so their organization appears disorganized and chaotic. Unexpected details and building materials tend to create visual disorientation and disharmony.

Gehry on Architecture

In Barbara Isenberg's book, "Conversations With Frank Gehry," Gehry talked about the approach he takes to his work:

"Building a building is like berthing the Queen Mary in a small slip at a marina. There are lots of wheels and turbines and thousands of people involved, and the architect is the guy at the helm who has to visualize everything going on and organize it all in his head. Architecture is anticipating, working with and understanding all of the craftsmen, what they can do and what they can't do, and making it all come together. I think of the final product as a dream image, and it's always elusive. You can have a sense of what the building should look like and you can try to capture it. But you never quite do."
"But history has acknowledged that Bernini was an artist as well as an architect, and so was Michelangelo. It's possible that an architect can also be an artist....I'm not comfortable using the word 'sculpture.' I've used it before, but I don't think it's really the right word. It's a building. The words 'sculpture,' 'art,' and 'architecture' are loaded, and when we use them, they have a lot of different meanings. So I'd rather just say I'm an architect."


Frank Gehry's work has had a profound impact on postmodernist architecture. His unique use of materials, line, and technology have inspired architects and changed the way architects and engineers think about structures. His most significant structures, such as the Bilbao Guggenheim, have, as Salon’s Karen Templer wrote, "...changed the way people think about the field of architecture. Gehry has proven that people will travel halfway around the world to look at a building as well as its contents. It stands as evidence that a building can put a town on the map."


  • Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Frank Gehry.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 24 Feb. 2019.
  • Frank O. Gehry.” Academy of Achievement.
  • Isenberg, Barbara. "Conversations With Frank Gehry by Barbara Isenberg." Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012.
  • The Museum of Modern Art. "Deconstructivist Architecture." June 1988.
  • Sokol, David. “31 Spectacular Buildings Designed by Frank Gehry.” Architectural Digest, 25 Nov. 2018.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Craven, Jackie. "Biography of Frank Gehry, Controversial Canadian-American Architect." ThoughtCo, Sep. 7, 2021, Craven, Jackie. (2021, September 7). Biography of Frank Gehry, Controversial Canadian-American Architect. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "Biography of Frank Gehry, Controversial Canadian-American Architect." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).