A Look at Some Frank Gehry Structures

Gehry - Architecture Portfolio of Selected Works

Undulating skin of stainless steel waves over the entrance to a performing arts center in upstate New York
Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Jackie Craven

From his earliest works, architect Frank Gehry has shattered conventions, designing buildings that some critics say are more sculpture than architecture — think Guggenheim Bilbao and the Disney Concert Hall. Using unorthodox materials and space-age methods, Gehry creates unexpected, twisted forms. His work has been called radical, playful, organic, sensual — a modernism called Deconstructivism. The New York by Gehry (8 Spruce Street) residential tower in Lower Manhattan is unmistakable Gehry, yet at street level the facade looks like another NYC Public School and the west facade is as linear as any other modern skyscraper.

In many ways the relatively tiny Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College is what many of us think of as Gehry-made. The architect chose brushed stainless steel for the exterior of this 2003 music center so that the sculptural building would reflect light and color from the pastural landscape of New York's Hudson Valley. Undulating stainless steel canopies project over the box office and lobby. The canopies loosely drape over the sides of the theaters, creating two tall, sky-lit gathering areas on each side of the main lobby. The canopies also create a sculptural, collar-like shape that rests on the concrete and plaster walls of the two theaters. Like most of Gehry's architecture, the Fisher Center brought much praise and criticism all at the same time.

Here we'll examine some of Frank Gehry's most famous projects and try to understand the patterns of the architect.

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain, 1997

shiny, curvy modern metal building as seen from a park bench across a body of water
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Tim Graham/Getty Images

 We'll begin the photo tour with one of Frank Gehry's most consequential works, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. So famous is this sleek museum in northern Spain, a dozen miles from the Bay of Biscay bordering western France, that it is known simply as "Bilbao."

"We decided to make the building metal because Bilbao was a steel town, and we were trying to use materials related to their industry," Gehry said of the 1997 museum. "So we built twenty-five mock-ups of a stainless steel exterior with different variations on the theme. But in Bilbao, which has a lot of rain and a lot of gray sky, the stainless steel went dead. It only came to life on sunny days."

Gehry was frustrated that he couldn't find the right metal skin for his modern design, until he came upon a titanium sample in his office. "So I took that piece of titanium, and I nailed it on the telephone pole in front of my office, just to watch it and see what it did in the light. Whenever I went in and out of the office, I'd look at it...."

The buttery nature of the metal, as well as its resistance to rust, made titanium the right choice for the façade. Specifications for each titanium panel were created using CATIA (Computer-Aided Three-dimensional Interactive Application).

To build highly stylized, sculpted architecture Gehry uses computers and software designed for the aerospace industry. CATIA helps create three-dimensional digital models with associated mathematical specifications. Precise building elements are manufactured off-site and put together with laser precision during the construction. Gehry's trademark sculpturing would be cost-prohibitive without CATIA. After Bilboa, all of Gehry's clients wanted shiny, wavy sculptural buildings.

The Experience Music Project (EMP), Seattle, 2000

Aerial view of a music museum looks like a trash heap from above with a train running through it
Experience Music Project (EMP) in Seattle, Washington. George White Location Photography/Getty Images

In the shadow of the iconic Space Needle, Frank Gehry's homage to rock-and-roll music is part of the Seattle Center, site of the 1962 World's Fair. When Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen wanted a new museum to celebrate his personal loves — rock-and-roll and science fiction — architect Frank Gehry was up to the design challenge. Legend has it that Gehry broke apart several electric guitars and used the pieces to make something new — a literal act of deconstructivism.

Although built with a monorail running right through it, EMP's facade is similar to Bilbao  — an array of 3,000 panels consisting of 21,000 "shingles" of stainless steel and painted aluminum. "A fusion of textures and myriad colors, EMP's exterior conveys all the energy and fluidity of music," says the EMP website. Also like Bilbao, CATIA was used. The Experience Music Project, now called the Museum of Pop Culture,was Gehry's first commercial project in the Pacific Northwest.

Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 2003

shiny, gray, curvy modern building with panes of glass peeking
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California. Carol M. Highsmith/Getty Images (cropped)

Frank O. Gehry learns from each building he designs. His career is an evolution of design. "Disney Hall would not have been built if Bilbao hadn't happened," says the architect of both iconic buildings.

The stainless steel Walt Disney Concert Hall expanded the reach of Los Angeles' Music Center. "Maybe it's not beautiful by definition in their world," Gehry has said of its controversial design, "but it may over time become beautiful if you live with it, which is what happened to Bilbao and to Disney Hall. But in the first showing of them, people thought I was bonkers." The stainless steel building caused some controversy after its grand opening, but Gehry responded and the controversial design was fixed.

Maggie's Dundee, Scotland, 2003

White, cottage-like building, wavy silver roof, Frank Gehry, white silo-like tower
Maggie's Dundee, 2003, at the Ninewells Hospital in Dundee, Scotland. Press photo (c) Raf Makda, August 2003, via Heinz Architectural Center, Carnegie Museum of Art (cropped)

Maggie's Centres are small residential buildings near major hospitals located throughout England and Scotland. Designed for sanctuary and peace, the centers.help people cope with the rigors of cancer treatments. American architect Frank Gehry was asked to design the very first newly built Maggie's Center in Dundee, Scotland. Gehry modeled the 2003 Maggie's Dundee on a traditional Scottish "but 'n' ben" dwelling — a basic two-room cottage — with swirling metal roofing that had become the Gehry brand.

Ray and Maria Stata Center, MIT, 2004

The Ray and Maria Stata Center, designed by Frank Gehry, is an odd jumble of lopsided buildings. The Center houses three departments
The Ray and Maria Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Donald Nausbaum/Getty Images

Buildings are designed to look lopsided at the Ray and Maria Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But the unconventional design and the new way of construction led to cracks, leaks, and other structural problems. The amphitheater had to be rebuilt, and reconstruction cost some $1.5 million. By 2007, MIT had filed a negligence suit against Gehry Partners and the construction company. As is typical, the construction company charged that the design of the Stata Center was defective and the designer claimed the defencts were from mis-construction. By 2010 the lawsuit had been settled and repairs were made, but it does point out the hazards of creating new designs without construction management companies fully understanding the materials and building methods.

MARTa Herford, Germany, 2005

long view of wavy metal roof on red brick building named MARTa Herford -- People line up to enter the 'MARTa' museum on May 7, 2005 in Herford, Germany. The museum of contemporary art and design, designed by US star architect Frank Gehry, offers an exhibition space of 2,500 square meters and was completed after a construction time of four years.
The MARTa Museum in Herford, Germany. Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

All Frank Gehry designs are not constructed with polished metal façades.  MARTa is concrete, dark-red brick, with a stainless steel roof. "The way we work is we make models of the context that the buildings are going to be in," Gehry has said. "We pretty thoroughly document it because that gives me visual clues. For instance, in Herford I wandered around the streets, and I found that all the public buildings were brick and all the private buildings were plaster. Since this is a public building, I decided to make it brick, because that's the language of the town....I really spend time doing that, and if you go to Bilbao, you'll see that even though the building looks pretty exuberant, it is very carefully scaled to what's around it....I'm really proud of this one."

MARTa is a contemporary art museum, with a special focus on architecture and interior design (Möbel, ART, and Ambiente). It opened in May 2005 in Herford, an industrial town (furniture and clothing) east of Westphalia in Germany.

IAC Building, New York City, 2007

multi-sided office building, frosted white and transparent glass panels
The IAC Building, Frank Gehry's First New York City Building. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Using an exterior skin of frit — ceramic baked into the glass — gives the IAC building the white, reflective look, a windswept air that The New York Times called "elegant architecture."  Frank Gehry loves to experiment with materials.

The building is the corporate headquarters of IAC, an internet and media company, in the Chelsea area of New York City. Located at 555 West 18th Street, its neighbors include works from some of the most famous modern architects working — Jean Nouvel, Shigeru Ban, and Renzo Piano. When it opened in 2007, the high-resolution video wall in the lobby was state of the art, a concept that fades quickly over the years. This points out the challenge of the architect — how do you design a building that exudes the "now" of the day's technology without it falling quickly behind over the years? 

With eight office floors in the 10-story building, interiors were configured so that 100% of the work spaces have some exposutre to natural light. This was accomplished with an open floor plan and a sloped and angled concrete superstructure having a cold-warped glass curtain wall where the panels were bent on site.

The Louis Vuitton Foundation Museum, Paris, 2014

glass sails in sprawling building in a park setting
Louis Vuitton Foundation Museum, 2014, Paris, France. Chesnot/Getty Images Europe

Is it a sailing ship? A whale? An over-engineered spectacle? No matter what name you use, the Louis Vuitton Foundation Museum marked a another triumph for octogenarian architect Frank Gehry. Located in Jardin d’Acclimatation, a children's park within Bois de Boulogne in Paris, France, the glassy art museum was designed for the renown Louis Vuitton fashion company. The construction materials this time included a new, expensive product called Ductal,® a high-performance concrete reinforced with metal fibers (by Lafarge). The glass facade is supported with wooden beams — stone, glass, and wood being the earth elements to amplify the geothermal energy system.

The design idea was that of an iceberg (interior "box" or "carcass" accommodating galleries and theatres) covered with glass shells and 12 glass sails. The iceberg is a metal framework covered with 19,000 Ductal panels. The sails are made from custom-made panels of specially-fired glass. Custom-manufacturing specifications and assembly locations were made possible with CATIA design software.

"This building is a whole new thing," wrote architecture critic Paul Goldberger in Vanity Fair, "a new work of monumental public architecture that is not precisely like anything that anyone, including Frank Gehry, has done before."

Author Barbara Isenberg recounts that Frank Gehry conceived the design for the museum during a 45-minute MRI brain scan. That's Gehry — always thinking. The 21st century Vuitton museum is his second building in Paris and is very different from the Parisian building he designed twenty years earlier.

University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Business School, Australia, 2015

model of Frank Gehry Treehouse design has been described as a crumpled paper bag
Model Design for the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, the "Treehouse," at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia. Gehry Partners LLP via the University of Technology Newsroom

Frank Gehry planned a surreal, crinkled design for the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, the architect's first building in Australia. The architect based his idea for the UTS business school on the structure of a tree house. Exteriors flow into interior, and interiors flow in vertical roundness. Looking at the the school building more closely, the student can see two external facades, one made of wavy brick walls and the other massive, angular sheets of glass. Interiors are both traditional and modernist abstract. Completed in 2015, UTS shows how Gehry is not an architect who repeats himself in wavy metals — not entirely or absolutely, anyway..

Before Bilbao, 1978, the Start of an Architect

picket fence in front of corrigated metal panels and jagged window skylights
Frank Gehry's House in Santa Monica, California. Susan Wood/Getty Images (cropped)

Some point to Gehry's own home remodeling as the beginning of his career. In the 1970s, he enveloped a traditional home with a radical new design.

Frank Gehry's private home in Santa Monica, California began with a traditional tract home with clapboard siding and a gambrel roof. Gehry gutted the interior and re-invented the house as a work of deconstructionist architecture. After stripping the interior down to the beams and rafters, Gehry wrapped the exterior with what appears to be scraps and rubbish: plywood, corrugated metal, glass, and chain link. As a result, the old house still exists inside the envelope of the new house. The Gehry House remodeling was completed in 1978. In large part it was why Gehry won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1989.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) called the Gehry Residence "ground-breaking" and "provocative" when it selected the Santa Monica house to receive the 2012 Twenty-five Year Award. Gehry's remodeling joins the ranks of other past winners, including Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West in 1973, Philip Johnson's Glass House in 1975, and the Vanna Venturi House in 1989.

Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis, 1993

Stainless steel wavy skin facade with windows irregularly cut out
Weisman Art Museum, 1993, The University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Carol M. Highsmith/Getty Images (cropped)

Architect Frank Gehry established his design style in the stainless steel façade waves of the Weisman at University of Minnesota's East Bank Campus, Minneapolis, Minnesota. "I always spend a long time looking at the site and thinking about what's contextual," says Gehry. "The site was on the side of the Mississippi, and it faced due west, so it had a western orientation. And I was thinking about the University of Minnesota buildings that have been built. About the president of the university telling me that he didn't want another brick building....I had worked with metal already, so I was into it. Then Edwin [Chan] and I started playing with the surface and curving it like sails, like I always like to do. Then we made it in metal, and we had this nice sculptural façade."

The Weisman is brick with a stainless steel curtain wall. The low rise structure was completed in 1993 and renovated in 2011.

The American Center in Paris, 1994

smooth stone surface of multi-layered, multi-dimensional, asymmetrical building
Cinematheque Francaise, Paris, France. Olivier Cirendini/Getty Images (cropped)

The first Paris, France building designed by architect Frank Gehry was the American Center at 51 rue de Bercy. In the mid-1990s, Gehry was experimenting and honing his deconstructivist style and building techniques. In Paris he chose the locally familiar commercial limestone to play with modern Cubist design. His 1993 Weisman Art Museum in Minnesota has a design similar to this Paris building, although in Europe it may have been a more contrary act to round out Cubism. At the time, in 1994, the Paris design introduced new modernist ideas:

" What strikes you first is the stone: a mellow, vellum-colored limestone that wrapped around the building immediately establishes it as an anchor of solidity in a sea of glass, concrete, stucco and steel....Then, as you come nearer, the building gradually breaks out of the box....Signs throughout the building are executed in the stencil letters that were a trademark of Le Corbusier....For Gehry, machine-age modernity has joined classical Paris...."— New York Times Architecture Review, 1994

This was a transitional time for Gehry, as he experimented with new software and more complicated inside/outside designs. The earlier Weisman structure is brick with a stainless steel facade, and the later 1997 Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain is built with titanium panels — a technique not likely without advanced software specifications. The limestone in Paris was a safe choice for experimental design.

However, the nonprofit owners of the American Center soon found that operating the expensive architecture was financially unsustainable, and in less than two years the building closed. After being vacant for a number of years, Gehry's debut building in Paris became home to La Cinémathèque Francaise, and Gehry moved on.

Dancing House, Prague, 1996

bent, crooked tower buildings on the corner of a city street
The Dancing House, or Fred and Ginger, Prague, Czech Republic, 1994. Brian Hammonds/Getty Images (cropped)

The stone tower near the swooning glass tower are fondly called "Fred and Ginger" in this vibrant, tourist city of the Czech Republic. Amid the Art Nouveau and Baroque architecture of Prague, Frank Gehry collaborated with Czech architect Vlado Milunić to give Prague a modernist talking point.

Jay Pritzker Music Pavilion, Chicago, 2004

outdoor amphitheater and lawn in city setting
Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago. Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Pritzker Laureate Frank O. Gehry loves music as much as he loves art and architecture. He also loves problem-solving. When the City of Chicago planned an open-air performance venue for the people of the city, Gehry was enlisted to figure out how to build a large, public gathering area close to the busy Columbus Drive and make it safe. Gehry's solution was the curvy, snake-like BP Bridge connecting Millennium Park with Daley Plaza. Play some tennis, then cross over to take in a free concert. Loving Chicago!

The Pritzker Pavillion in Milennium Park, Chicago, Illinois was designed in June 1999 and opened July 2004. The signature Gehry curvy stainless steel forms a "billowing headdress" over the stage in front of 4,000 bright red chairs, with an additional 7,000 lawn seating. Home to the Grant Park Music Festival and other free concerts, this modern outdoor stage is also home to one of the most advanced sound systems in the world. Built into steel piping that zigzags over the Great Lawn; the 3-D architecturally-created sound environment is not simply loudspeakers hanging from Gehry's pipes. The acoustic design considers placement, height, direction, and digital synchronicity. Everyone can hear the performances thanks to TALASKE Sound Thinking in Oak Park, Illinois.


"The concentric arrangement of loudspeakers and the use of digital delays create the impression that sound is arriving from the stage, even when most of the sound arrives to distant patrons from nearby loudspeakers."— TALASKE | Sound Thinking

Jay Pritzker (1922-1999) was the grandson of Russian immigrants who had settled in Chicago in 1881. The Chicago of that day, a decade after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, was recovering, vibrant, and on the cusp of becoming the skyscraper capital of the world. The Pritzker progeny were raised to be prosperous and giving, and Jay was no exception. Jay Pritzker is not only the founder of the Hyatt Hotel chain, but also the founder of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, modeled after the Nobel Prize. The City of Chicago honored Jay Pritzker by building public architecture in his name.

Gehry won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1989, an honor that enables the architect to pursue passions that contribute to what architects call "the built environment."  Gehry's work has not been confined to shiny, wavy objects, but also to sculpted public spaces. Gehry's 2011 New World Center in Miami Beach is a music venue home to the New World Symphony, but there's also a park in the front yard for the public to hang out and hear performances and watch movies projected onto the side of his building. Gehry — a playful, inventive designer — loves to create spaces indoors and out

Sources

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