At home with the Gehrys
Few American architects have expressed the turmoil of the creative process with as much raw emotion as Frank Gehry. The fragmented, sometimes violent forms he has designed over the last 50 years seem to capture the whole range of human experience. And no structure has manifested that internal struggle more than his own house.
Starting his second marriage, he famously renovated a pink Dutch Colonial bungalow in Santa Monica in 1978, carving through existing walls and wrapping it in a raw skin of metal, glass and plywood that left neighbours and critics agape with wonder. Fifteen years later, he attacked the house again, smoothing over the rough edges as if to defy his own legend as well as create some comforts for his wife, Berta, and his two sons. Yet gradually, the house seemed to become a psychological burden. "I was emotionally trapped because it was this icon," Gehry has said. He worried that its status as an architectural landmark would weigh on his children after his death. His familyâ€™s lifestyle had changed.
He resolved to start from scratch, and before long, he was sketching.
Gehry, 75, has been showing me various models of the house for nearly two years. Last autumn, he mentioned by phone that something in the design had finally clicked and he invited me to come and see it.
But when I arrived at his office in Los Angeles one day in December, he was in a prickly mood. His wife, Berta, who oversees the finances in his office, had told him that morning that she was uncomfortable with the idea of a detailed newspaper account of the plans for her family home. Gehry, whose short, rumpled figure has become almost as recognisable as his swirling metallic buildings, restlessly began pointing out models of a stadium in Brooklyn, a tower in Manhattan - just about every other project he was working on.
After about 45 minutes of this, I began wondering if he was having second thoughts.
"Iâ€™m OK with it," he said. "But Iâ€™m getting into a lot of emotional stuff." We headed off for lunch. When we returned to the office later that afternoon, he was ready at last to unveil the model.
Conceived as a series of free-standing pavilions scattered across a half-acre plot in Venice, California, the house is far more commodious than his current one. And surprisingly, its mix of tumbling timber-and-glass structures and banal boxes lacks the angst that made the earlier house such a hypnotic expression of personal upheaval.
It is the work of a man who has achieved a measure of inner peace - someone who no longer feels a need to rage against established institutions.
Yet it is anything but complacent. Its lightness of spirit is a testament to Gehryâ€™s creative stamina at a point in life when many architects of his stature are content to recycle well-tested formulas. If only as an example of his willingness to venture into unexplored territory, it will undoubtedly rank as one of his most important works.
Getting here has not been easy for him. His current house has become as much a part of his identity as, say, the Glass House has been to Philip Johnson. Its contorted form was a violent attack against suburban conformity, and it established him as one of the major talents of his generation.
When Gehry renovated the house in 1993, many were horrified: in removing some of the houseâ€™s toughness, he had virtually destroyed its character. Gehry responded that he was simply adapting to the times. His family was growing older; his two sons, Alejandro and Sam, needed more privacy. He decided to extend the house to the back, adding a new bedroom. That led to other changes, like covering the exposed stud ceiling and removing the asphalt floors in the dining room. But he admits now with a shrug: "Once I touched it, the whole thing began to unravel. It got tarted up."
That lack of sentimentality - that sense that memory can be a prison as well as a source of inspiration - is essential to his creative process. He has said that he even needs to create some personal discomfort to force himself into new creative territory: dwelling in the security of the past, he argues, can be a trap.
Even so, Gehry likens his decision to design an utterly new house to walking off a cliff. He spent years looking for the right site; when he found it - a relatively ordinary plot in an up-and-coming neighbourhood still littered with the occasional boat trailer or rusting pickup truck - he let the project languish for months as he fretted about how to begin. As if to heighten that sense of insecurity, he decided not to collaborate on the design with either of the two major project managers in his office; instead, he chose to work with a younger, less experienced architect, Meaghan Lloyd, who has essentially served as project apprentice.
The compound, which Gehry hopes to begin constructing in August, will sprawl over three adjacent plots that are barren except for two towering palms and a pine tree. The main house, one of two structures made of glass and timber beams, is meant to be a refuge for Gehry and his wife. Nearby, a separate structure - more delicately conceived - will serve as the main dining and living area, or "living pavilion". A series of simpler structures will house his childrenâ€™s rooms, a separate guest room, a gym and a garage.
Gehryâ€™s compound suggests a retreat into a realm of sensual pleasures. Its private enclaves - nestled within a landscape of rolling lawns and a reflecting pool - form an architectural oasis, a haven for the imagination. Gehryâ€™s tent-like living pavilion and open-air kitchen are rooted in a relaxed southern California hedonism.
His vision is also rooted in the messiness of everyday life. In all the houses he has designed - from the intentionally crude, tar-shingle-clad Benson House of 1984 to the more formal 1989 Schnabel House and the playfulness of Norton House, he has explored the tension between the desire for independence and the need for communal intimacy.
Gehryâ€™s post-modern Norton House (pictured on the cover of this weekâ€™s magazine) was built on a relatively mean budget of 150,000 (Â£80,500) in 1983. Constructed on the edge of Venice Beach, California it was built following Gehryâ€™s notion that "buildings under construction look nicer than buildings finished". The outer structure consists of concrete blocks, tiles and stucco, but it is fragmented, revealing wooden logs and the disjointed interior structure of the building. There are whimsical touches including the elevated "private perch" study, which resembles a life-guard stand, and the bright red chimney pot. The building houses three bedrooms, living room, kitchen, terrace, study and garage.
His most aggressive design was the 1978 renovation of his own home. Gehry designed it as he was beginning a new life with his wife after an earlier failed marriage; its fragmented forms can be read as an attack on the clichÃ©s of the suburban American dream. It was as if he were tearing apart his past and rebuilding it on his own terms.
The new compound, by comparison, represents a romantic vision of their survival together. The private quarters for the couple, a composition of boxy rooms embedded in a frame of overlapping timber beams and glass panels, will create the illusion of drifting amid the surrounding treetops. On the ground floor, a sunken living room faces the reflecting pool to the south; people inside will virtually be able to reach out and touch the waterâ€™s surface. A small kitchen and breakfast room anchor the rear.
From here, a central atrium leads to the upper floors. The bedroom, bathrooms and a small living space encircle the atrium on the second floor. Higher up, two offices are joined by a narrow bridge.
Gehry has compared the structure to a tree house, with its sense of secret intimacy. The bedroom, a platform framed on three sides by a low wall, is supported on a forest of slanting pillars, so that it will seem to hover just above the edge of the reflecting pool. To reinforce the mood of leafy enclosure, Gehry plans to encircle the house with trees. Screened porches on the lower level will open the house to the gardens.
The progression from one room to the next is a remarkable expression of the rhythms of a coupleâ€™s shared life. As they rise through the building, the rooms will seem to pull apart and come together again, so that the couple can experience varying levels of privacy, from the most intimate proximity to a distance that allows them a sense of themselves as individuals.
"I really agonised about how Berta and I wanted to live," Gehry says. "I like to feel her presence sometimes even when Iâ€™m not standing next to her. But she needs her own world, too."
He strove for a similar elasticity in their relationships with their sons, now grown and living on their own. (Gehry also has two daughters from his first marriage.)
The main guest house, which will mostly be used by the children when they come to visit, is set at the siteâ€™s eastern edge, as far as possible from their parentsâ€™ quarters. A smaller guest house is set next to the living pavilion, with a view overlooking the street.
The simple, box-like forms of those buildings are meant to anchor the composition more firmly to the landscape. But Gehry has also pulled off a wonderful visual trick. Each structure is topped by a glass roof supported by crisscrossing beams. The beams support a big planter for a single tree that rises from the roof, providing a shady canopy for the loft-like interior, with the view overhead filtered through the branches.
As discrete as the buildings are, Gehry did not want them to become private citadels. In an earlier version of the design, the main house included a large first-floor living room. Fearful that he and his wife would hunker down there and rarely leave, he has cut that room to half its original size. For the same reason, he has kept the pavilions that house the childrenâ€™s and guest rooms small.
Ultimately, the houseâ€™s success will hinge on the living pavilion, which may become the compoundâ€™s most mesmerising space. The pavilionâ€™s glass-and-timber shell is anchored at one end by a fireplace. The kitchen is outside, in a separate structure that will also have a second-floor guest room. A projection screen can be lowered opposite the fireplace to turn the pavilion into a screening room at night.
Gehry imagines that his sons will use the pavilions for parties - and that the privacy the design lends them will encourage them to spend more time at home. The architect, meanwhile, will be able to invite clients to the house without disturbing the sanctuary he shares with his wife.
For all his insistence on not dwelling in the past, Gehry allows a few fond recollections. One of the details he loves most in his old house is a large, asymmetrical skylight that breaks through a corner of the dining room, framing a view of an enormous pine tree. At night, the glass panels pick up fragments of unexpected views - a light left on in the yard, his wife drifting though the living room.
Here, that detail is harnessed for an entire building. The structureâ€™s fractured glass skin will refract images of the trees and houses outside and of people moving around inside, like an indoor/outdoor hall of mirrors. Gehry plans to blur the boundary between the private and public realms by creating a series of mechanised glass panels that open like garage doors.
It is as if someone had taken a hammer to the pure abstract forms of Johnsonâ€™s famous Glass House. Glass here is as much about illusion as about transparency, suggesting that daily existence consists of multiple, mutable realities.
Absolute truths have never held much of an attraction for Gehry, who has always tried to find room for imperfection, rebellion, contingency. He is determined, for example, that his son Sam, who works in his office and is considering becoming an architect, escapes his shadow and finds his own voice.
"The whole design is set up so that you can break it back down into its individual lots," he said. "So when weâ€™re gone, the kids can sell off parts of it if they want to, or get rid of the whole thing. Itâ€™s really for them."