For more than half a century, Frank Gehry has been shaking up the architectural world with his revolutionary designs that blur the line between sculpture and architecture. In 2010, a Vanity Fair article described him as “the most important architect of our age.” However, his avant-garde buildings, which thumb their nose at traditional understandings of architecture, often get . . . mixed reactions from the public.
Gehry originally hails from Toronto, Canada, and was born Frank Owen Goldberg in 1929. During his childhood, one of his favorite things to do was to build cities and homes out of scrap wood while playing at his grandmother’s house. His family immigrated to the States in 1947 and settled in Los Angeles when he was about 18. While working as a truck driver by day, Gehry took night classes at the Los Angeles City College—he later transfered to the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture. In 1956, he moved his family to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he studied city planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Gehry established his own practice, Gehry Partners, in 1967 in Los Angeles, which continues to produce unique designs, including the soon-to-debut, 45-story Grand L.A.
Although Gehry has won an armful of awards, including the coveted Pritzker Prize in 1989 for his oeuvre of unusual projects, he’s a controversial figure in the world of design. Gehry’s designs have been affectionately described as irreverent and unorthodox (unaffectionately as “monstrous” and “utterly god awful”) and he operates as more of an artist than an architect, often sketching out his initial ideas with scribbles. He famously voiced himself in the first episode of The Simpsons during which he designs a Springfield concert hall after being struck with inspiration by a crumpled piece of paper on the sidewalk. However, there is no doubt that Gehry’s love for thinking outside of the box revolutionized the field of architecture and proved, as a 1999 Salon article noted, that “people will travel halfway around the world to look at a building.”
Here are seven Frank Gehry–designed buildings that you can visit:
1. Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Where: Bilbao, Spain
When: Tuesday - Sunday 11 a.m. - 7 p.m.
Visit: Tickets start at $17, guggenheim-bilbao.eus
Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is more than a building—it’s also a symbol of Bilbao’s economic recovery. Located in a former wharf on the banks of the Nervión River (Bilbao is one of Spain’s most important port cities), the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao was the crown jewel of a massive revitalization project that hoped to remediate the decline of its industrial and manufacturing economic sectors—and it certainly worked. The museum officially opened in 1997 and garnered so much international attention that a new term, the “Bilbao effect,” was coined; it encapsulates how construction of a high-profile building can transform a previously struggling metropolis.
Composed of interconnected buildings sheathed in 33,000, ultra-thin titanium sheets, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao has such a complicated and intricate design that Gehry had to use computer software, CATIA, created for use in the aerospace industry, to conceptualize and plan his ideas—and to help stick to his $89 million budget. Inside, the museum is centered around a large atrium and 19 galleries. Visitors to the museum will note that there is hardly a straight line in the entire structure—an intentional choice by Gehry. In a 1993 interview with Charlie Rose, Gehry said he was inspired by the movements of fish and a desire to rebel against postmodernism. “Postmodernism is anthropomorphic to me so I thought, OK, if you’re going to back, let’s go back before man,” he said. “Back to 300 million years fish.”
And while a few critics feel the building is too bold or even a symbol of imperialism, there’s no disputing that the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao has been a very profitable source of income for the city.
2. Walt Disney Concert Hall
Where: Los Angeles, California
When: Open for concerts and special events
The Walt Disney Concert Hall, one of Gehry’s most famous works, is internationally considered to be one of the most acoustically desirable concert halls in the world. In 1987, Lillian Disney set aside $50 million to establish a concert hall in downtown Los Angeles to commemorate her late husband, Walt—yeah, that Walt Disney. Gehry’s proposal was selected from a pool of several candidates, and after a few bumps in the road (including two years when the project was put on a pause), the structure was completed in 2003. Sadly, Lillian Disney passed away in 1997 and never saw the finished work.
Today, Walt Disney Concert Hall is home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but visitors can also catch contemporary, jazz, and world music acts there. In a rather unusual move, the hall was designed so that the orchestra and audience would occupy the same space—some seats are so close to the musicians that concertgoers can see the performer’s sheet music. To perfect the hall’s sound, Gehry worked with Japanese acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota. The hall’s interior partitions and wave-like ceiling all act as part of the space’s acoustical system while echoing elements of the exterior’s design. The Walt Disney Concert Hall is now considered to be one of the definitive examples of deconstructivist architecture, a 1980s design movement that opposed symmetry and emphasized rebellion. Fun fact: the Walt Disney Concert Hall was originally planned to be built in stone, but after the success of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the committee insisted on metal, despite Gehry’s protests.
3. Weisman Art Museum
Where: Minneapolis, Minnesota
When: Wednesdays, 10 a.m. - 8 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Visit: Free, wam.umn.edu
If you see a bright beam of light rising alongside the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, it’s probably not divine intervention but sunlight bouncing off the Weisman Art Museum. Located on the University of Minnesota’s campus, the building was first intended to be a teaching museum but was later opened to the general public. The Weisman was established in 1934 by and named after Minneapolis-born, but Los Angeles–based philanthropist Frederick R. Weisman, who wanted to share his massive collection of art with the world. Originally, Weisman’s pieces were kept in an auditorium on campus; by the late 1980s, it was beginning to outgrow its original space. Today, the museum is home to 25,000 artworks (with an emphasis on American artists like Georgia O’Keeffe) and also houses one of the world’s largest assemblages of traditional Korean furniture. The building was officially unveiled in 1993 and saw a major addition (also designed by Gehry) in 2011, which nearly doubled the gallery space.
4. Children’s Institute Watts Campus
Where: Los Angeles, California
When: Daily 8:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.
Visit: Free, childrensinstitute.org
For more than a century, the Children’s Institute (abbreviated as CII) has helped Los Angeles families and children heal from traumatic experiences with free support services regarding child abuse, child care, and early education, plus other resources. In 2020, CII broke ground on a new facility in South L.A.’s Watts neighborhood—the project was designed pro bono by Gehry. The new building serves as a community and therapy center and as the headquarters of the LAPD Community Safety Partnership and Watts Gang Task Force, a program founded 15 years ago intended to reduce gang violence.
The project cost nearly $26 million to complete and clocks in at a little under 50,000 square feet. One of the main goals of the project was to strengthen ties between Watts and the CII, so Gehry aimed to make the building look as inviting and welcoming as possible. The exterior of the structure is made of simple plaster and corrugated metal claddings, while the interior is bathed in a wealth of natural light thanks to a series of picture windows and skylights. “I wanted this community to walk in and feel that we poured our hearts and souls into the design for them,” Gehry said in a 2022 Architectural Digest interview. You can check out the building during business hours and donate to the organization.
5. Dancing House
Where: Prague, Czech Republic
Visit: Prices start at $106 per night, expedia.com
This iconic Prague construction was created in a partnership between Gehry and Croatian Czech architect Vlado Milunić. Sited on what was once a vacant riverfront lot, the whimsically designed structure is now a multi-use space with restaurants, office spaces, and a bustling hotel—it’s now considered one of the city’s most iconic buildings. (A house previously occupied the space but was destroyed by U.S. bombs in 1945, when pilots mistook Prague for Dresden.)
Completed in 1996, the quirky new addition to Prague’s downtown had as many opponents as fans. The building’s two pillar-like structures almost seem to undulate, as though the two columns are dancing in the wind. Gehry initially named the building “Fred and Ginger” after Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but decided to scrap the idea because he was “afraid to import American Hollywood kitsch to Prague.” It strikes a sharp contrast to the art nouveau, Gothic, and baroque structures that Prague is better known for.
6. Museum of Pop Culture
Where: Seattle, Washington
When: Daily 10:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Visit: Tickets start at $28, mopop.org
Founded in 2000, Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture (aka MoPop) was dreamed up by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen and was initially branded the “Experience Music Project,” after the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The building, located kitty-corner to the Seattle Space Needle, consists of five distinct, curvilinear sections covered by 21,000 aluminum and stainless steel panels. The different finishes on the individual sections react to light differently and can change appearance depending on the viewer’s perspective, which is meant to be a metaphor for the ever-changing nature of pop culture.
Inside, the museum houses a variety of semi-permanent galleries and temporary exhibitions. Current showings include Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop, which explores the musical genre with four decades of photography focusing on some of hip-hop’s most influential artists like Tupac and Missy Elliot, plus Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses, which follows the grunge rock band’s rise to fame, with over 200 artifacts.
7. Louis Vuitton Foundation
Where: Paris, France
When: Wednesday - Monday 10:00 a.m. - 8:00 p.m., Fridays 11:00 a.m. - 11:00 p.m.
Visit: Tickets starts at $17, fondationlouisvuitton.fr
Gehry is a huge fan of sailing—in 2015, he constructed an entirely wooden boat for himself. But his love for the open sea and the influence it would have on his work predated his self-designed yacht. The Louis Vuitton Foundation was inspired by the shapes and movements of a sailboat. Sited near the famous Jardin d’Acclimatation in Paris’s 16th arrondissement, the futuristic structure stands in contrast with its garden-like grounds. Nicknamed the “Iceberg,” it took 3,600 glass panels and 19,000 panels of Ductal (an ultra-strength concrete reinforced with fibers) to create.
Plans for the museum first began forming in 2001 when Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH, met with Gehry shortly after visiting the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. The Louis Vuitton Foundation officially opened in 2014. Inside, 11 gallery halls feature the works of international contemporary artists, such as Takashi Murakami, Joan Mitchell, and Marina Abramovic. The building’s concert hall can accommodate up to 1,000 people for concerts, master classes, and dance performances.
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