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Last month the Pritzker Prize-winning architect, Frank Gehry, celebrated his 80th birthday. We pay homage to the man who redefined the modern skyline as we spoke to him at the recent Venice Biennale.

Frank Gehry’s definition of luxury:
Sailing on my boat.

Designer, architect – indeed starchitect – few architects have achieved such fame, or notoriety, as Frank Gehry. Born on February 28, 1929, inspired by early studies with his grandfather, the Canadian-born architect moved to Los Angeles in 1947 to study architecture at the University of Southern California, followed by Harvard Graduate School of Design in Massachusetts, where he studied urban planning, before returning to LA. In 1962 Frank Gehry established his own architectural office.

In 1989 Gehry was named Laureate of the coveted Pritzker Architecture Prize in recognition of early projects, such as the Loyola Law School, the California Aerospace Museum and the Vitra Design Museum and Factory in Weil am Rhein, Gehry’s first European building. However, it was the unveiling of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 1997, one of the most famous structures of the 20th century, that established him as an architectural icon, giving rise to oft cited term ‘starchitect’. “When I went to Bilbao, three months before the building was finished, I said to myself ‘Oh my god, what have I done to these people?’ That was my first reaction. It’s taken two or three years or more for me to accept it as a decent building,” Gehry recalls modestly.

Recently, the architect won further plaudits as the recipient of last year’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement award at the 11th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice. As Aaron Betsky, Director of the exhibition notes, “Frank Gehry has transformed modern architecture. He has liberated it from the confines of the ‘box’ and the constraints of common building practices. As experimental as the art practices that have been his inspiration, Frank Gehry’s architecture is the very modern model for an architecture beyond building.” But with success, Gehry has taken his fair share of criticism, particularly from purists who decry his deconstructivist forms “The issue of critics are also a reality that are there. I learned a long time ago that if you believe the good ones, you have to believe the bad ones too. There is always room for criticism. I’ve been throughout my life much more self critical of my work than anybody who’s ever written anything critical about me. I beat them by miles,” he jokes.

Frank Gehry’s stylistic approach to architecture has been celebrated by manufacturers such as Knoll, which produced a series of chairs, designed by the architect, in the early 1990s. His exploration into furniture began two decades earlier with Easy Edges, a collection of low-cost cardboard furniture that was an incredible success. Fearing that industrial design would overshadow his architectural aspirations, production ceased and he returned to building structures. “When I design buildings I try not to use the Mies van der Rohe model or the Frank Lloyd Wright model, where you design all the furniture, all the drapes, the dishes, etc. I like the idea of a more open system, where people bring things of their own to the space, they use it and it becomes their space, it has a life of its own.” A decade later he returned, this time taking furniture away from the functional to a more artistic realm, blazing a trail for today’s Design Art scene. And, in 2006, Gehry applied his artistry to jewelry when the illustrious New York jeweler Tiffany & Co. famously collaborated with him to create an exceptional collection of sculptural wearable art, informed by the undulating silhouettes of his celebrated structures.

For more than half a century Frank O. Gehry has explored, confronted and exceeded the boundaries of contemporary architecture, inspiring a new wave in structural artistry and a generation of successors to Gehry’s exalted crown, from Zaha Hadid to Daniel Libeskind. Combining creativity with technology to achieve curvilinear forms that defy structural principles, although computer illiterate by his own confession, the Frank O. Gehry studio has taken construction to new levels through the use of CATIA (Computer Aided Three Dimensional Interactive Application), a multi-platform software suite that allows architects to “virtually build” in 3D. Originally created for the aviation industry, Gehry was able to curb budgets on notoriously costly projects. “It’s a way of demystifying the construction of anything. It’s precise to seven decimal points of accuracy,” he explains. “It’s very realistic and a responsible way of working, but it’s nothing to do with style. The shapes that I use are something that I feel and make a relationship to what I do and that’s my personal way of dealing with it. If you don’t like it that’s okay; sometimes even I don’t like it.”

Off-site, Gehry’s contribution to architecture is no less impressive. Throughout his career he has held professorial posts within the leading institutions, from Columbia University, to Yale School of Architecture, playing a fundamental role in informing future architecture, but after more than half a century, how does Gehry rate the next generation of architects? “What I see are the coming generations of people who are alive and not willing to submit to their elder’s work, that they are willing to go beyond and question us, question the work. That’s what I did when I was their age. That’s what you must do.”

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