Video: Frank Gehry and the fish


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In conjunction with my Critic’s Notebook marking Frank Gehry’s 80th birthday, I sat down with Gehry at his Los Angeles studio last week for a video-taped conversation covering a wide range of territory. In honor of Gehry’s birthday week we’ll be posting some short clips from that conversation here in the coming days. First up: Gehry talks about how an obsession with fish imagery triggered a breakthrough for him more than two decades ago.

Some background: In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of leading architects began to add historical ornament and decoration to their work, as part of the general backlash, which came to be known as postmodernism, against the clean lines and stifling purity of High Modernist architecture. Some critics -- and Gehry himself, as he explains in this clip -- found that use of ornament kitschy or cloyingly nostalgic and in certain cases even damaging to the idea of progress in architecture.


Gehry became fixated on finding ways to incorporate a sense of movement and emotion in his work -- to add some humanism to the coldness and inertness of modernism -- without resorting to direct quotation from buildings of the past. As part of that search, he began to sketch various kinds of fish, to design fish lamps and then over time to add fish shapes to his buildings. (The power of fish imagery for Gehry, he has speculated, may go back to his childhood in Toronto, where he sometimes played with carp his mother kept in the bathtub before cooking them.) Aside from allowing him to break free of the literal historicism of postmodern architects, adding the fish to his formal repertoire also marked the beginning of his exploration of curved surfaces. Figuring out how to construct the fish in three dimensions made it easier, later on, to develop the exuberant formal style he and his firm are now known for. In other words, you could make the case that the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall are direct descendants of the primordial fish figures Gehry began sketching a quarter-century ago.

Among Gehry’s many fish projects are the Fishdance restaurant in Kobe, Japan...

...this sculpture in Minneapolis...

and this installation in Barcelona, Spain, which he designed for the 1992 Summer Olympics.

Here is Gehry talking about his anger with ‘the postmodern thing’ and how he began to develop the fish motif. The architects he refers to near the beginning are Charles Moore, Robert Venturi, Michael Graves and Philip Johnson.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Photo credits: Gehry photo by Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times; Kobe fish by flickr user ..colb..; Minneapolis fish by flickr user timwilson; Barcelona fish by flickr user pogurì.