Feature: Frank Gehry, an Outlier of Modern Architecture

“You can’t ignore history; you can’t escape it even if you want to. You might as well know where you come from, and you might as well know that everything has been done in some shape or form.” – Frank Gehry

Architecture as an art form can easily be overshadowed by the stringency of function. Yet everything about architect Frank Gehry challenges this status quo. His building designs are a testament to his philosophy. He wasn’t afraid to bend the rules—or the angles of his buildings.

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Frank Gehry is widely regarded as one of the most influential and revered figures in modern architecture, and I am fascinated to understand why. Innovation isn’t always met with widespread acceptance and accolade—especially during an artist’s lifetime—which is why I am intrigued by Gehry and the story behind his success.

My curiosity surfaced as a result of reading The Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, who explains successful people like Gehry “appear at first blush to lie outside ordinary experience.” Yet, Gladwell argues, they don’t. “They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy,” he explains.

“Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky—but all critical to making them who they are.”

I’m beginning to deconstruct, like Gladwell did with Bill Gates and others, the reason behind Gehry’s rising-from-nothing story.

Gehry was born Ephraim Owen Goldberg in Toronto on February 28, 1929 to immigrant Jewish parents, Sadie Thelma Caplanski and Irving Goldberg. [1] When Gehry was eight, his family moved to Timmins—a small mining town 428 miles north of Toronto—for his father’s business ventures distributing slot machines. In addition to bullying received by Polish children with anti-Semitic notions, Gehry recalls his emotionally unravelling father referring to him as “stupid” and “a day dreamer.” Irving doubted his son possessed any practical abilities to function in the world, abused him physically on occasion, and was seemingly convinced the boy would amount to very little. [1]

Gehry’s start in life and later outcome suggests yet another story of triumph against all odds, but there were key factors making this possible. Gladwell emphasizes:

“People don’t rise from nothing….It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”

Unlike his father, Gehry’s mother believed in her son’s potential and pushed him as a child. She wanted to expose him to the culture she felt deprived of in her youth and brought him to museums and classical music events while they lived in Toronto. He also had grandparents in Toronto that “gave him the sense that the world was rich in possibility.” [1] Such a world was created through hours spent building small cities out of wooden blocks with his grandmother and through studying the Talmud with his grandfather, which taught him the importance of curiosity and critical thinking.

Due to his father’s failing health, the family moved to Los Angeles when Gehry was eighteen. This redefined everything—leading Gehry towards the right kinds of failures and eventual successes that brought him to where he is now.

I’m focusing on Gehry’s childhood because I believe we truly are products of our time. As a young adult, Gehry was uncertain of his career direction. He remembers asking himself, “What do I like? Where was I? What made me excited?” He then explains, “I remembered art, that I loved going to museums and I loved looking at paintings, loved listening to music. Those things came from my mother, who took me to concerts and museums. I remembered Grandma and the blocks, and just on a hunch, I tried some architecture classes.” [2]

Gehry’s decision could not have been more timely. He began his career while “Los Angeles was in the middle of a post-war housing boom, and the work of pioneering modernists like Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler were an exciting part of the city’s architectural scene.” [2] The distinctive asymmetrical designs celebrating Gehry’s aesthetic philosophy would’ve been meaningless without the starkly contrasting geometric forms of these predecessors.

We’re all waiting for a lucky break, hoping we were born at the right point in time, trying to fall back on the right kind of internalized support from our childhood, and trusting we failed at the right things.

When we worry we’ve missed choice opportunities or fear we aren’t good enough to live up to the opportunities when they finally come our way, we must keep in mind that it takes a very unique combination of timing, upbringing, location, and cultivated talent for every past story of success.

“To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages today that determine success—the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history—with a society that provides opportunities for all.” – M. Gladwell

References

[1] Goldberger, Paul. (2015). Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

[2] “Biography and Video Interview of Frank Gehry at Academy of Achievement”. achievement.org. Retrieved 10-15-17. 

Image source

Featured Image and video trailer: Copyright © 2017 MasterClass / Frank Gehry Teaches Design and Architecture

Frank Gehry Walt Disney Concert Hall: Photograph – Kurgusal. Sketch – Gehry Partners.

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