It Takes a Village: On Frank Gehry’s Domesticity

Me and Frank Gehry go way back.

I’ve never met him, don’t get me wrong, but I’ll make an analogy: Y’know how the music of your teenage years is first to be ejected once you reach maturity, how the anger and angst of youth just seems trite and adolescent once you’re reprogrammed by the liberal arts? That’s how I felt about Frank for a long time. He was a gateway for me to the great architecture of the recent past, my first discovery, and learning about and (attempting to) understand his work was my first experience of membership in the exclusive club called architecture.

Sometimes, however, the music (or the architecture) of youth is rediscovered, only to reestablish its place at the top of one’s pile. This has recently happened for me with Jay-Z’s recorded output from the 1990s, and it’s also happened with ol’ Frank.

I was browsing the Cleveland Public Library’s rather extensive architecture collection, and came across Rizzoli’s recent collection of private residences designed by  Frank, Frank Gehry: The Houses. Glancing through it, I remembered what I once found so fascinating about his work, namely the fractured- and fragmented-ness of it all, the sense that he had made architecture out of the detritus of American building. He was putting together the leftover pieces from all that was already familiar to me, a suburban kid coming of age in Ohio.

Frank Gehry: The Houses, edited by Mildred Friedman (Rizzoli, 2009)

When restricted to a single building type, monographs can often be stale and repetitive, dealing in small differences rather than broad strokes. But Frank’s houses are most definitely of sufficient deviation to warrant such a lush publication. From the California modernism of his early works to the orgasmic outpouring of his experimental Lewis House, this book thoroughly covers the development of his architectural thinking, and could help familiarize neophytes with the headspace from whence his recent works come. In my case, however, the book brought me back to that first moment of discovery and understanding, and helped me better understand my own headspace.

For years I’ve been reacting harshly to Frank, who often seems to be the object of derision in schools of architecture. It’s easy to see why when one looks at something like his Norton House, one of the projects featured in Rizzoli’s monograph. There’s just no way to teach what he’s doing, it comes from the years of the experimentation and the trial-and-error Rizzoli’s book encapsulates. It’s understandably difficult for teachers to deal with students who think they can do what Frank does, and the knee-jerk reaction is to condition them against it.

Norton House (Frank Gehry, 1984)

The Norton House isn’t necessarily the best place to start a discussion of Frank’s work – like others, it is an expression of individualism responding to a particular client and particular context, in this case Venice Beach and writer Bill Norton – but it is emblematic of his tendency toward composite or collage, what he calls the village concept. For Frank, a home should be a village, composed of several unique forms, each with their own function and material. For the Nortons, he arranged a haphazard array of material types and applications on a box not much smaller than the site dimensions, supplemented by the best known an most easily recognized element, a study-cum-lifeguard shack for the writer husband facing the Venice beachfront.

Frank’s village concept is most clear in his Winton Guest House in Wayzata, Minnesota. Here, discrete rooms pinwheel around a tall central space. Each of these rooms is an individual, covered with a different material and of a disparate shape. So disparate are the forms of the Guest House that the pieces were separated, moved and reassembled after a change in ownership.

Winton Guest House (Frank Gehry, 1987)

Winton Guest House, in process of move

The seeds of this village approach were sown in some of Frank’s earliest projects, namely the Danziger and Davis Studio Residences. While neither is as ostentatious as Norton or Winton, both exhibit steps in the direction of the fragmentation and dissonance Frank would later explore. Between the bifurcated cube of Danziger and the haphazard interior articulation of Davis, an idea took hold: each room should have its own character, its own personality. This idea, I think, has permeated all of  Frank’s work since, as seen in his schematic technique of piling and re-piling wooden boxes before shrinkwrapping in metal and plastic. Even Bilbao, that game-changer of all game-changers, is similar in plan to Winton, a series of discrete forms fanning outward from a large central space.

It all has something to do with family and a little to do with community. For Frank, the worst thing in the world is a balloon-frame tract house, built like everything else and undermining our sense of community by giving everyone their own private space. If his houses are like villages, they reinforce the importance of interaction through the necessary movement from one private space to another, bumping into family or friends in the private streets of a house.

In larger scale works such as his much-maligned Stata Center at MIT, Frank explores this village concept with more vigor. Central to Stata is a bad joke: a computer nerd, a philosopher and a linguist walk into a bar… The Stata is an engine that hopes to construct such a meeting. His houses aim for a smaller goal, bringing together fathers with sons or mothers with angsty teenagers, even if only momentarily. Here’s hoping it works.

Dealing only with his houses seems to me an effective way to introduce the work of Frank Gehry without becoming distracted by the shimmer and shine of Bilbao and of his personality. It doesn’t tell the whole story by any means, but gives an effective outline of the plot. Frank Gehry: The Houses is probably available at your local bookstore, given the ubiquity Frank has achieved in recent years. If it’s not, find a new bookstore. Or a good library.