‘Frank Gehry: The Houses,’ a thoughtful retrospective


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Frank Gehry: The Houses

Mildred Friedman


Rizzoli: 320 pp., $85

Since curating Frank Gehry’s first major retrospective, an exhibition at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1986, Mildred Friedman has written extensively about the master architect. For her latest book, she has selected 21 of Gehry’s most significant, mid-career residential buildings from the 1960s to the late 1980s. The houses predate Gehry’s best-known works and, with a couple of exceptions, are free of computer-aided-design structures.

Friedman’s choices underscore the organic nature of Gehry’s early experimentation with form and materials, and they illustrate the creative spirit of the houses. As UCLA architecture professor Sylvia Lavin writes in the introduction, “every inhabitant of a house by Gehry becomes an artist as they are called on not merely to use its spaces but to perceive its architectures.”

This connection between art and architecture is part of the subtext, evident when Gehry says, “the biggest influence on the design of my houses was Robert Rauschenberg.” It is an invitation to consider Gehry’s use of chain-link fencing, plywood and corrugated sheet metal as objects in a life-size, residential collage or assemblage. Each house is a three-dimensional canvas made from Gehry’s raw materials, unconventional shapes, unusual angles and exposed structural framework.

“A structure in process is always more poetic than the finished work,” Gehry says, and indeed, in many of the houses, a rough, informal precision conveys vibrancy and energy. By leaving certain aspects undone, the architect reveals his materials and exposes more of his canvas to let it live and breathe. The houses presented here bolster the argument that Gehry is an artist who happens to be an architect.

Friedman starts with Gehry’s own house in Santa Monica (1977-78), pictured in the model at top and in the photo above. It’s a home that started life as a 1925 California bungalow and has become internationally known. New interviews offer surprising and deeper insights. Discussions with former Gehry associates and residential clients give perspective and context.


The book continues, project by project. The Winton Guest House in Wayzata, Minn. (1983-87), Gehry’s only house built outside Southern California, is a thoughtful and impressive chapter, with photographs showing the setting of the house and its surface details. The Sirmai-Peterson House in Thousand Oaks (1984-86), pictured above, and the Schnabel House in Brentwood (1986-89) are also well presented.

Credit for the profusely illustrated, large-format design goes to Jessica Fleischmann. “Frank Gehry: The Houses” is a fresh combination of interior and exterior photographs, plans and Gehry’s signature action drawings. The details from numerous scale models give an immediate and holistic perspective. In one meaningful and ironic layout, photographs of Gehry’s Easy Edges cardboard furniture (1972) are placed opposite scale models of the Gehry House (1977). One house model is made with corrugated cardboard painted silver to simulate corrugated metal.

Although the book’s focus is Gehry’s early houses, it does include occasional references to his nonresidential projects. The only omission from an otherwise comprehensive review is a timeline to show how Gehry’s commercial and institutional designs ran parallel to the houses.

-- Jeffrey Head

Above: The master bedroom in Gehry’s personal residence in Santa Monica.

Photo credits: Gehry Partners, LLP / Rizzoli