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U.S. Architect Changes the Face of Building Design - 2003-03-14

Our next story is about a man who some say is changing the face of architecture. Frank Gehry buildings have amazed people around the world with their shimmering surfaces, sensuous curves and unconventional forms. VOA-TV’s Craig Fitzpatrick visited the architect at his studio in California and has this report.

When Frank Gehry sits down to design one of his major buildings, he tries to convey a sense of movement and chaos. This is the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain; this the Experimental Music Project in Seattle, Washington. And this is the almost completed Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California.

Massive buildings, like sculptures occupying whole city blocks. Frank Gehry is an architect who has created his own vocabulary.

“It’s a personal signature and it differentiates you from other personal signatures. I’ve just sort of intuitively let it happen.”

And what intuitively happens are shapes never before seen in buildings. Mr. Gehry says his designs grow out of the building’s interior requirements and how the building relates to the surrounding environment. Ultimately he comes up with forms he says that are intensely individual.

“You can’t escape being yourself. Like Beethoven couldn’t be Bach, he had to be Beethoven. And every time you hear Beethoven you can recognize it. I think the great artists of the world establish a kind of language and then they evolve with it, play with it. And I certainly guess I’m emulating them.”

What evolved after nearly 40 years of play and experimentation was the Guggenheim-Bilbao, unveiled in 1997, clad with brilliant titanium panels. This is the building that put Frank Gehry on the map.

“In the case of Bilbao, we used it because of what it did with the light, in a city that doesn’t get a lot of sunlight. The titanium turned golden in the rain.”

For the exterior of the Disney Concert Hall, he chose stainless steel to mirror the California sun and sky.

But all these waves and ships’ bows and organic shapes would be impossible without highly sophisticated computer software. Dennis Shelden is Frank Gehry’s chief technologist.

“One of the strategies this firm uses is to work with shapes that are based on the way that sheets of paper behave. So there are certain shapes that this piece of paper can assume. As the designers work with these sheets of paper we have a corresponding digital process that captures that paper-like quality of the forms.”

But these forms still originate with the master, who works in a more traditional way.

“I work still in the old fashion way, with sketches. That’s how I think, and I don’t think I’m going to change in my lifetime but the young kids now are starting to work directly on computers, which I can’t do.”

Sometimes Mr. Gehry prefers to go low-tech, as in this hilltop dwelling, where he used only basic building materials. He wrapped his own house, originally a pink bungalow, in corrugated sheet metal and chainlink fencing.

He says it’s material that’s easy to get, inexpensive and populist. He says he still identifies with his own middle class roots.

But most of his residential buildings are designed for the more elite, like this beach house, with a whimsical lifeguard tower.

Mr. Gehry’s commissions extend to all types of buildings, like the California Aerospace Museum and the Loyola University Law School. Here he used various shapes, materials and colors to present what he calls a “Village of Forms.”

Even an indoor ice rink, a utilitarian building, has Gehry’s distinctive curvilinear shapes.

At 74, Frank Gehry continues to experiment and reinvent, using the latest technology to create his kinetic designs, to further blur the lines between architecture and sculpture, persuading a whole new generation that a building should not only be viewed but experienced.