The Frank Gehry Story

  • 2016-07-06
  • The New York Review of Books

(photo by Paul Morigi)

Artists are a biographer’s nightmare. The most important events in their lives are usually the ones that take place quietly, slowly, in the repetitive actions of work, or within the sanctum of their skulls. Even Caravaggio, an artist with a penchant for swashbuckling exploits, spent as much time putting brush to canvas as he did making trouble, and his canvases finally tell us more about the man and his art than the police blotters recording his conflicts with the law.

The life of the architect Frank Gehry poses similar challenges. The real question his biographer needs to answer is the impossible one: how a sixtyish architect from Los Angeles ever came to imagine, much less build, the coppery metal carapace of the Guggenheim Museum in the heart of Basque country, in the declining port city of Bilbao. Before that 1997 project, and the subsequent plan to build a new concert hall in Los Angeles, Gehry was best known for constructing cheap buildings of cheap materials in the funky geometric shapes that began to punctuate the cityscape of Los Angeles in the disco era, one of them his own house on a placid residential street in Santa Monica.

The answer to these mysteries of creation has as much to do with what Gehry saw as with how he lived (he is a Toronto-born transplant to the West Coast who has had two wives and four children), or what kind of a person he might have been