Gugg en Gehry
the architect as artist.He designed Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum and Prague’s “Fred and Ginger” building, winning the Pritzker Prize along the way. As a new documentary of his life and work, Sketches of Frank Gehry, hits screens this summer, Jack Pringle profiles the man who not only transformed the global architectural landscape but did wonders for European tourism in the process
ARCHITECT Frank Gehry is feted as one of the world’s best and most innovative creators of buildings for his spectacular free-form designs. He’s won the British Royal Gold Medal and the American Pritzker Prize, the two biggest honours in architecture, but you might not have predicted this from his early career.
In 1947, aged 18, he moved from Canada to Los Angeles with his parents. He got a job driving trucks and did a ceramics course before training to be an architect. He then forged a respectable career, working in LA and Paris before setting up his own practice back in LA in 1962, working on shopping centres and the like. But he always hung out with artists; that’s where he felt comfortable. In 1978, aged nearly 40, he bought a very ordinary house for his family, and without a client to fetter him, let rip with the most extraordinary extensions. He put a kitchen on the driveway and kept the tarmac as the floor. He built chain-link fence screens and put windows and walls at crazy angles. It broke the mould, became famous overnight and is still a mecca for students of architecture. He never looked back and set off on a whole new trajectory.
Collaboration with artists became important in his work, most famously at the Chiat-Day building in Venice, LA, where an advertising agency is entered by walking beneath giant binoculars by artist Claes Oldenburg. However, soon it was his buildings themselves that became the works of art, and Gehry became the architect sculptor. We saw this first in Europe at his curvaceous Vitra factory building in Weil am Rhein, Germany, in 1989.
His next big leap was also in Europe. Bilbao, a declining industrial port in northern Spain wanted a world-class art museum to help regenerate the town, and partnered with New York’s Guggenheim Museum to build a new gallery. Gehry won the commission in 1991 and set about designing a building like no other. He works in his studio with his team on models until he gets it right. The team then “digitises” the model into a computer system and finishes the technical design using a software system for designing aircraft. The result, for Bilbao, was a collage of individual building volumes expressed in flowing sculptural shapes clad in titanium. The inspiration came from chopped fish with glistening scales. It offered first-class exhibition spaces and was an instant success with critics and the public. Bilbao became the city to visit in Europe; so for the city fathers… job done.
Gehry went on to be a global superstar, a so-called “star-chitect”. In Europe he next designed an office building in Prague with two corner towers twisted around each other like dancers.
One is strong and heavy; the other is light and transparent. It’s called “Fred and Ginger” and is one of the sexiest buildings ever built. In Paris there is his American Centre, in Berlin the extraordinary DG bank with its free-form conference centre floating in the atrium, and in Barcelona his huge sculpture at the Hotel Arts stands record to his fascination with all things fish-shaped.
Tourists wanting the Gehry experience can do that too. Back in Spain he has just finished a 43-bedroom hotel at the Marqués de Riscal vineyard in Rioja country. It’s built of local sandstone, stainless steel and rippling coloured titanium. Ideal for a wine lover’s architectural weekend break.
The Guggenheim Bilbao is a landmark of both European architecture and museum architecture. It’s architecture for art’s sake, a building of interconnecting shapes, orthogonal blocks in limestone contrasting with curved and bent forms covered in Gehry’s trademark titanium. Like so many of his buildings, the Guggenheim Bilbao resembles a massive sculpture and yet still serves its primary function perfectly. Nineteen exhibition galleries are organised on three levels around the central atrium, connected by a system of curving walkways suspended from the roof, glass elevators and stair turrets. By playing with volumes and perspectives Gehry has managed to create huge interior spaces that do not overwhelm the visitor, and the art shines as a result. If you are planning a trip to Bilbao this spring for the museum’s 10th anniversary celebrations, look out for a couple of mouth-watering exhibitions on the brilliant Pablo Palazuelo, one of the key figures of Spanish art in the second half of the 20th century, and the German artist Anselm Kiefer.
For more info, see www.guggenheim-bilbao.es
The winery of Vinos Herederos del Marqués de Riscal in Elciego, the Rioja region of northern Spain, is one of the oldest in the country. The Marqués de Riscal himself decided to invigorate the area by building a small hotel for visitors to come on wine tours and take in the beautiful landscape. Who did he call? After the incredible revival of the once-sleepy port city of nearby Bilbao with the massive popularity of the Guggenheim there was only one man: Frank Gehry. The result is an exquisite luxury hotel made up of a series of rectangular elements, clad in sandstone, and combined with sweeping panels of gold and pink titanium and mirror-finish stainless steel. Opened in late 2006, the hotel offers a number of suites, a 45-seat restaurant for fine gastronomy combining traditional Rioja cuisine with modern influences, a wine bar with magnificent panoramic views of the wine country and a Caudalie Vinotherapie Spa where you can be pampered with all the anti-oxidants found in grapes! A combination of architecture, relaxation and wine makes Gehry’s Hotel Marqués de Riscal the 2007 place to visit.
For reservations call +34 945 180880
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the twin towers of the building
supposedly resemble American
dance movies’ most famous
The “Fred and Ginger” office building in Prague is classic deconstructivist Gehry. Resting lightly atop slender, animated columns, a glass-clad tower – its pinched waist minimising obstructions to the river view from the adjacent building – leans in toward a cylindrical tower. It is named after the American film icons Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers because of the “body language” of the two towers, which seem to be dancing.
To critics, it is an ugly California-isation of old Prague, surrounded as it is by traditional buildings. The German architectural writer Wilfried Dechau went so far as to call it “a crushed can of Coke”. But to its fans, Fred and Ginger is an example of postmodern beauty and originality and any violent undertones stand as a testimony to past conflict – the structure was erected on a plot formerly left empty after World War II bombing devastated parts of Prague. It remains a site to see on any visit to the Czech capital.
© getty images
Sketches of Frank Gehry
Released across Europe this summer, acclaimed director Sydney Pollack’s documentary on Frank Gehry is more than just a run-of-the-mill testament to the architect’s work. It’s a visual dialogue between two old friends – a conversation about art, architecture, movies and American culture. Filmed in an impromptu style (a Pollack nod to the way Gehry himself works) with hand-held video cameras and odd angles, we see chats between the two old hands at Gehry’s studio, his California home and beside his creations across the World. Although there is a lot of mutual ego-stroking, by the end we have what we want: an understanding of how this grandfatherly man comes up with such magnificent and daring works of art. “Frank often says that the sketch is the most fulfilling thing,” says Pollack (right). “We want to preserve that, the sketch quality – in the way we tell the story, and in the way we make the film.”
Pollack shows Gehry’s creative process, which starts with an abstract sketch and turns into ephemeral drawings then into architectural models. The resulting buildings – constructed of titanium and glass, concrete and steel, wood and stone – are caught on film in all their grandeur in Spain, the Czech Republic, Germany, Scotland, Switzerland and the United States.
In the end, Sketches of Frank Gehry is an intimate and informal portrait that pierces the skin of architectural theory, allowing the director to draw deep insights into the life of an extraordinary architect and his singular architectural process.