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Review: Book on Gehry helps explain him, but does not resolve his long-term status

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 5, 2009 - Frank Gehry bears responsibility for the student of design that I am today.

Let me explain.

I am a recent graduate of the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. My fellow students and I always looked for and studied the newest, most avant-garde, most intelligent and sensitive architects they can find. We continue those pursuits after graduation.

During my four years as an undergrad at Wash U, Frank Gehry certainly fell in the class of architect described by those qualities. There were certainly others: Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando, Rem Koolhaas, to name a few. But among students, it seemed to me Frank Gehry sparked most of the debate.

On one side were those who gushed about his knee-buckling ability to fuse an artist's intuition with an architect's sensitivity. On the other side sat artists and architects alike, neither of whom would claim him as their own.

"He's a sculptor with no sense of spatiality," an architect might say, that is, an architect with little sense of the properties that come together to make space accommodating, practically and aesthetically, to those who use and look at it. On the other hand, the artists would retort, "There are no bathrooms in a work of art!"

Admittedly, I lean toward the side of all the skeptics. In the recent book about him, "Conversations with Frank Gehry," by Barbara Isenberg, Gehry touches on a wide range of subjects. Particularly exciting comments from Gehry include reflections on his early career and insight into his creative process. While at it, he also makes a point of defending himself against us skeptics.

When Frank Gehry was my age -- 22 -- he was married and driving a truck, so I guess I don't need to close the books on my architecture career just yet. Gehry's route to "starchitect-dom" is markedly circuitous. Had it been more linear, he assures us, he would not be the man he is today.

Gehry began his career in Los Angeles heavily involved with and influenced by the L.A. artist community in the 1960s and '70s. He lists Ed Moses, Ken Price and Billy Al Bengston as key artists.

Being a part of that community had a large impact on the way Gehry worked then -- and still works today. While his intuitive yet deliberate process has undergone only minor changes over the years, the product of that process has changed dramatically. His earlier work would be unrecognizable to those who know him only for his more recent voluptuous metal creations.

His early work is obviously influenced by popular Southern California architecture of the 1960s and '70s, an architecture that had sponged up copious aspects of Japanese design, as well as qualities evident in the work of one of the first starchitects, Frank Lloyd Wright.

As Gehry explains it, the Japanese style and the use of wood at the time were very attractive to a young California architect like himself and were accessible to him as well. He could imagine doing that kind of architecture, whereas, had he been looking at the work of Le Corbusier, he would not have been able to grasp it and apply it.

For me, as an architecture student, Frank Gehry is similarly inaccessible. Reading this book gives us an idea of where the Gehry we see today came from, as well as an appreciation for his method of working. Nevertheless, his style remains elusive. It is, for better or worse, difficult for a student to grasp, to learn from and to emulate.

Captivating though his sculptural infusions might be, they can be difficult topics of architectural conversation -- they so often lack spatial qualities. That is to say, one cannot occupy the beautifully billowing sails at the Guggenheim Bilbao or those at the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago. Are these places beautiful? I think people agree that they are. But where is that beauty lodged, in architectural or sculptural qualities?

While my fellow classmates argued back and forth about the merit of Frank Gehry's work, his name was noticeably absent from any conversation involving a professor. "Look at Zaha Hadid," a member of the faculty would instruct, or "Check out Steven Holl," but never Frank Gehry.

Gehry's exclusion from basic architectural conversation will change with time - his work is far too significant and prolific, like it or not. But as of now he seems to stand in the favor of neither artists nor architects. By virtue of his no-man's land existence, somewhat ironically, he has also created a niche for himself to be successful.

His comments in this book stress the careful deliberate, and often painstaking nature of the process by which he arrives at his designs. As a student of the demanding profession of architecture, I understand, appreciate and draw inspiration from his proven successful means of design.

His great success tells us that the world agrees: Frank Gehry is a great designer. In architecture schools across the country, however, the debate continues: Is Frank Gehry the architect of this generation? Or is he a gifted artist whose architectural endeavors will not stand the test of time?

Philip Syvertsen is a recent graduate of the College of Architecture at Washington University. He lives in Evanston, Ill.