Visual Culture

7 Buildings That Defined Frank Gehry’s Legacy

Heather Corcoran
Feb 27, 2017 10:24PM

There are few architects whose name alone can conjure an entire design ethos, but Frank Gehry is undoubtedly one of them. Over the past half-century, the 87-year-old architect has developed an innovative brand of postmodernist design marked by undulating lines, unusual materials, and the use of technology to create forms previously thought unimaginable.

Gehry was born in Toronto in 1929, but it’s the West Coast of the United States, where his family moved in 1947, that is synonymous with his work. Though he is associated with Los Angeles School architects such as Eric Owen Moss and Thom Mayne of the architecture firm Morphosis, his work remains unmatched—and completely his own.

“Frank is unique,” said the architect Philip Johnson early on in Gehry’s career. “By ‘unique,’ I don’t say Mies van der Rohe or Le Corbusier, and I don’t say beautiful, but unique in his passion for using strange shapes and giving you a gut reaction that no one else succeeds in doing. His buildings are shocking. They don’t please the eye the way the Taj Mahal does, but they give you a mysterious feeling of delight.”

Gehry Residence, Santa Monica, California, 1978

Photo by IK's World Trip, via Flickr.

It was Gehry’s own home in Santa Monica, California that marked his entrance onto the architecture scene—only his neighbors weren’t too happy about it. That’s because Gehry and his wife, Berta, had bought a 1920s Dutch colonial-style bungalow and, in a radical architectural gesture, customized it.

Rather than demolishing the house or adding on to the existing structure, however, Gehry built around it, using off-the-shelf materials in the style of the early modernists. The chain-link fencing, corrugated metal, plywood, and glass that he used for the shell would become hallmarks of his early work, though some would argue that they gave the house an unfinished feeling.

Gehry himself referred to the style as “cheapskate architecture.” Regardless, the house’s odd angles and almost cubist approach to space proved a hint of what was to come from Gehry.

Norton Residence, Venice Beach, California, 1984

Photo by @hello_baibai, via Instagram.


In Venice Beach, California, a quirky house stands out from its neighbors thanks to the towering lifeguard stand-like studio structure that emerges from its center. It’s the home Gehry created for Lynn and William Norton, an artist and writer, and an early example of his assemblage-like approach to architecture.

As with much of his early work, here he was able to create an ambitious design on a limited budget (and a narrow lot) thanks to his embrace of everyday materials, including kitchen tile, concrete blocks, and timber logs. The result is a compound of fragments in different shapes and colors that together form a coherent sculptural statement.

Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany, 1989 

Photo by Sandstein, via Wikimedia Commons.

Gehry’s first European comission was also the first time he traded angular forms for a more sleek, curved composition, this time in white plaster and zinc. The structure, commissioned by Vitra’s Rolf Fehlbaum, who enticed the architect by inviting him to take expressive license with his design, was a defining moment for the architect.

He trades postmodernist citations of recognizable forms for a more imaginative approach in the design, tying swooping curves and hard edges into a single volume that’s as functional as it is sculptural. While critics were unsure of what to make of it, critic Aaron Betsky coined a term for the burgeoning movement of fractured modernism: “violated perfection.”

Dancing House, Prague, Czech Republic, 1996

When Gehry was called on to create an icon for Prague on a tiny lot, the site of a building destroyed during World War II, the architect came up with one of his most daring statements to date.

Made of 99 concrete panels, each differently shaped, the structure’s front facade juts out as if it were made of two entwined human figures. This has led some to call the building Fred and Ginger (after Hollywood icons Astaire and Rogers), though Gehry himself has downplayed the association. The designer instead preferred to see it as a “new Baroque” answer to the surrounding architecture.

Guggenheim Bilbao, Bilbao, Spain, 1997

Perhaps Gehry’s most famous design, the undulating metal forms of the Guggenheim Bilbao marked the beginning of a new kind of landmark that could draw cultural pilgrims from around the world. It was dubbed the “Bilbao Effect.”

Using CATIA‭ 3D modeling software, Gehry designed the building as a series of intersecting forms in titanium-clad steel, seemingly random curves oriented to reflect light. An extraordinary feat of technology, it was a break from the stark angles of conventional architecture, leading Johnson to call it the “greatest building of our time” and the New York Times magazine to call it a miracle.

Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 2003

Frank Gehry
Disney Hall Photographs (Suite of 3 with Cloth Presentation Folio) , 2003
Edward Cella Art and Architecture

Back in California, Gehry continued to explore the limits of shapes he could create by using CATIA software. Based on a design the architect completed in 1991, the Disney Concert Hall actually predates the Guggenheim Bilbao, though the $274 million project wasn’t completed until 2003. But like its Spanish cousin, the building references a boat’s billowing sails, a recurring reference for the designer.

While the concert hall was immediately praised for both its acoustics and form, the building wasn’t without problems. Its mirror-finish steel exterior reflected the hot Los Angeles sun in ways that heated nearby apartments and raised the temperature of the sidewalk to up to 140 degrees. To correct the problem, Gehry’s firm conducted computer analysis to identify the problematic panels, which were sanded to a matte finish to eliminate the glare.

New York by Gehry at Eight Spruce Street, New York City, 2011

Photo by @ifstudiony, via Instagram.

Photo by @exteriortointerior, via Instagram.

Gehry’s first skyscraper marked a new era of residential towers in New York City. At 76 stories, it was one of the tallest residential buildings in the world when it opened, rising above downtown landmarks like the Woolworth Building as a symbol of the rebirth of Lower Manhattan.

The twisting steel structure is made of 10,500 steel panels, almost every single one a different shape, so that the form of the building appears to change depending on the vantage point—almost like the ripples of a mirage. Its innovative use of materials on such a large scale led the New York Times to herald the structure as a skyscraper for the digital age.

Biomuseo, Panama City, 2014

Photo by @noelschajris, via Instagram.

After the success of the Guggenheim Bilbao, Panama City’s Biomuseo was intended to reinvigorate the capital. The architect’s first Latin American commission, which he took in part because his wife is Panamanian, celebrates the biodiversity fostered by the isthmus of Panama.

Located on a narrow causeway, the 43,000-square-foot building is an exuberant collection of forms surrounding a central atrium. Gehry started the design by building models with brightly colored wooden blocks, and the resulting structure, made of plaster-covered concrete, echoes Panama’s tin-roofed houses and colorful tropical flora. The architect has called it a very personal project, and he eschewed payment, donating his services to the people of Panama.

Heather Corcoran