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A Design for Every Decade: To Frank Gehry on his 88th Birthday

Written by Cindy Marie Jenkins on Tuesday, February 27th, 2018 at 11:16am.

Here at Nook, we have a passion for people, places, and properties. There is a reason that we say people first, for what makes a neighborhood special if not the people who live there? Welcome to #TastemakerTuesday, where we’ll feature the visionaries in our favorite nooks who are dedicated to building a better community through their talents.

How do you speak of architecture without saying his name? Frank Gehry is “the most important architect of our age,” according to Vanity Fair. Biographer Paul Goldberger describes his process as wanting “to locate his work where the line of imagination and the line of problem solving cross.” He’s “a friendly genius,” toasted Arianna Huffington on the occasion of his 80th birthday, although many accounts contest the “friendly” part of that assessment.

I thought we could celebrate his 88th birthday by highlighting one design for every decade that he’s been working.

I’ll merge the 1950s and 60s since only two of his buildings are usually listed in these times (US Modernist does elaborate on his career in the 1960s, but it's...less than impressive).  After a few false starts with other firms, leaving his graduate school early and changing his name to avoid anti-Semitism, Gehry’s main accomplishment in this decade was the Melvin David Residence in Idyllwild. Utterly charming in wooden orange tones, exposed walls and separate guest house, Gehry and partner Greg Walsh were able to make their mark on this little cabin that could. Then the 1960s brought the Kline Residence in Bel Air, rebuilt after a murder left it infamous and a fire burned it down. Gehry and Walsh designed a similarly lovely home that offered homage to the original structure.

1970s: Along with some stylish residences, his own residence was renovated from a 1920s bungalow to what would be known as deconstructivist and postmodern. Gehry didn’t want to remove the original Dutch Colonial exterior, so he thought it would be interesting to build a second exterior as part of the home’s expansion. He also looked around and saw nothing but apartments replacing two-story homes, and that may be the moment that Frank Gehry decided not to care what anyone - specifically his neighbors - thought. The addition to his home can only be described as what happens when an airplane hangar marries a Little League baseball diamond, but no one can deny that it’s Gehry.

1980s: This decade ushered a series of renovations and extensions to Gehry’s portfolio, as well as many designs that were never built. The MIke and Penny Winton Guest House is his most striking, with a series of geometric shapes akin to random sets of  a child’s building blocks. It was auctioned off in 2015 and moved to Hudson Valley in New York.

1990s: The Guggenheim Bilbao is clearly the fan favorite of this decade, but The Dancing House - also known as The Fred and Ginger House and disdainfully named The Drunk House when it was built - evokes such an emotional response that it’s hard to ignore. Built by Gehry and Vlado Milunic soon after the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, the curves and deconstructivist form greatly contrasts with Prague’s traditional Gothic and Art Nouveau designs. It isn’t just the boldness that compels me to include it here; there’s a beauty to taking geometry out of a cityscape, and many modern developers embrace the curve more readily nowadays, which may account for Gehry’s prominence rising in this time.

2000s: I remember when the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles finally opened. As outlandish as the exterior felt to me at first, everyone who experienced the new acoustics understood how the interior could allow everyone “to now hear what the L.A. Phil was supposed to sound like,” according to its Music Director at the time, Esa-Pekka Salonen. The music opened into such a new dimension that they noticed errors in the musical notes on their scores, pages that had been in use by the LA Phil for years. You can’t discuss Gehry’s achievement without also mentioning how the glare from its stainless steel exterior melted plastics in neighboring residences and caused traffic accidents shortly after its opening, which meant they had to lightly sand some of the sides down. Per usual with a Gehry design, detractors abound and genius is debated to this day.

2010s: The tower at 8 Spruce Street in lower Manhattan stands as both a triumph of Gehry over his long and tangled relationship with New York City as well as a direct challenge to the straight lines surrounding it. Curvature in stainless steel embrace luxury apartments have a separate entrance from their ground level school building, an odd and not entirely satisfying combination. In New York City, however, it is more about the views of and from a building than the close-up, and in that manner, 8 Spruce Street delivers an entirely unique experience from anything surrounding it to date.

What do you predict will be Gehry’s greatest accomplishment in the new decade? My bet is on this model train museum.

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