Biography of Frank Gehry

Deconstructivist Architect of the Wavy Facade, b. 1929

Architect Frank Gehry at Age 65, Vitra Building
Architect Frank Gehry at Age 65, Vitra Building. Photo by Thierry PRAT/Sygma via Getty Images (cropped)

Inventive and irreverent, architect Frank O. Gehry (born February 28, 1929 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada) changed the face of architecture with his artistic designs realized with high-tech software. Born Frank Owen Goldberg and given the Hebrew name Ephraim, Gehry has been surrounded by controversy for most of his career. At first using unorthodox materials like corrugated metal and chain link, Gehry has created unexpected, twisted forms that break conventions of building design. His work has been called radical, playful, organic, and sensual.

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, a move encouraged by his first wife's belief that 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 until 1956 and then studied city planning on the G.I Bill for one year at Harvard Graduate School of Design. He returned to southern California with his family and eventually re-established a working relationship with Austria-born architect Victor Gruen, whom Gehry had worked with at USC. After a stint in Paris, Gehry again returned to California and established his Los Angeles-area practice in 1962.

From 1952 to 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 of Frank Gehry

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 began to be 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 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 is vast and visual—from the 1991 Chiat/Day Binoculars Building in Venice, California to the 2014 Louis Vuitton Foundation Museum in Paris, France. His most famous museum is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain—the 1997 spectacle that gave Gehry's career it's final boost.  Gehry had used stainless steel cladding for the 1993 Weisman Art Museum, at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, but the iconic Bilbao architecture was constructed with thin sheets of titanium, and the rest, as they say, was history. 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 one on 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, a work that 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 has taken on a number of different concert hall projects, from the small Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in 2001 at Annandale-on-Hudson in New York, to 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.

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—the architect's name is the marketing. 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 Ice Hockey tournament. Also in 2004, the Polish side of Gehry designed a twisty vodka bottle for Wyborowa Exquisite, also of Polish descent. In the summer of 2008 Gehry took on the annual Serpentine Gallery Pavilion at Kensington Gardens in London.

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 moved 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—Gehry fixed it, but claims 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. President Obama presented Gehry with the highest civilian award of the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2016.

What Style is 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. Deconstruction breaks down the parts of a piece so their organization appears disorganized and chaotic. Unexpected details and building materials tend to create a visual disorientation and disharmony.

Gehry on Architecture

"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."

Sources: MoMA Press Release, June 1988, pages 1 and 3 at [accessed July 31, 2017]; Conversations With Frank Gehry by Barbara Isenberg, Knopf, 2009, pp. 56, 62