August 30, 2001
The secret to architect Frank Gehry’s genius? Grandma’s gefilte fish.
Frank Gehry is poised to make his first grand Jewish statement.
Avoiding the press after a slew of praise, Gehry is now completing a number of projects in his Santa Monica offices, including a schematic design for the $130 million Winnick Institute in Jerusalem, a project of the Simon Wiesenthal Center to promote mutual understanding and respect among the world's communities.
It is Gehry's first formal work of public Jewish architecture in his nearly 50-year career, and it has unlocked a host of memories and associations.
"Frank is delving into his Jewish background in a way I don't think he's really done in the past," says Craig Webb, Gehry Associates project designer. Gehry has looked to both the Star of David and the octagonal format of Islamic architecture for inspiration. "We hope this building in any small way can contribute to the resolution of the conflict in Israel and the Middle East."
Considering Gehry's celebrity and Israel's sinking tourism and morale, the project couldn't have come at a better time. The architect's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, single-handedly put the small regional capital of the Basques on the map. A riot of titanium-clad sails and surfaces, the museum was nearly universally extolled when it opened in 1997 as one of the greatest buildings of the 20th century. Already awarded the Pritzker Prize (considered his profession's Nobel) in 1989, Gehry has become the world's most famous living architect.
But few people know that Gehry was once Goldberg, and memories of his grandmother's gefilte fish and an ingrained sense of his place as an outsider from his schoolboy days in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood have had a serious impact on his design.
Frank Gehry was born in Toronto in 1929; his father was a native New Yorker, his mother from Poland. The family moved to Los Angeles in 1947, and Gehry adopted a new name immediately upon earning an undergraduate degree in architecture from USC in 1954. After establishing his own office in 1962, Gehry became a curious practitioner of California modernism, first drawing attention with the 1977-78 renovations of his house in Santa Monica. Rethinking the potential of simple materials to transcend the box, Gehry enshrouded the original small two-story pink bungalow (purchased after his marriage to his second wife Berta, a Panamanian Catholic) in plywood, chain link fence and corrugated sheet metal: an eyesore to most, a work of genius to a few.
Renegade, punk, irreverent, antithetical, witty are all adjectives used by the critic James Steele to describe Gehry and his work. "His spaces are never comprehended at once, they are open-ended yet finished, in a state of flux, perhaps on the brink of further mutation," Steele has written.
Gehry is admired for his meticulous research and attentive process, working with clients on dozens of revisions of his initial ideas, usually nothing more than scribbles on paper. Because Gehry designs from the outside in, some peers dismiss his work as superficial eye candy. Indeed, many of Gehry's buildings resemble stage sets from "Guys and Dolls," or whimsical childlike building blocks, as in the Winton Guest House in Wayzata, Minn. (1983-87). Gehry's jumbled collections of smaller blocks and quirky cones, lookout towers, spheres and pyramids, eventually emerged into swirling, complex planes and angles, as first seen in his 1989 breakthrough Vitra Design Museum in southwestern Germany.
Never truly accepted by the architectural mainstream in the '60s and '70s, Gehry became friends with artists who were more eager to accept his dissonant vision. In a 1981 collaborative project with the sculptor Richard Serra at the Architectural League in New York, a fish first appeared in Gehry's work, emerging from the Hudson in a fantastical plan to anchor cables connecting New York skyscrapers.
Since then, the fish, and to a lesser degree, the snake, have inspired Gehry to achieve balance through motion, like the hockey players he so adores. He continually returns to the fish form to experiment with new material and structural properties. In steel, wood, mesh and plastic, Gehry has used the fish for restaurants in Venice, Calif., (no longer in existence) and Kobe, Japan; in an outdoor 14-foot-tall sculpture commissioned for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; in a quirky set of lamps. A massive steel fish, 160-feet-long and 100-feet-tall, swims over the Vila Olimpia in Barcelona.
Gehry has frequently recounted to the media the psychological origins of the fish form as dating back to trips with his grandmother to buy live carp at the Jewish market in Toronto. She put it in the bathtub, and Gehry played with the fish for a day until she killed it to make gefilte fish.
"That's an amusing story that has been told 4,000 times," laughs Mildred Friedman, guest curator of New York's Guggenheim retrospective. She believes the fish motif represents his break from classical architecture rather than an expression of Jewishness. Indeed, many critics have stumbled in deriving meaning from Gehry's background.
In a 1996 article in The New York Times Magazine discussing why most of the nation's top architects are Jewish, architecture critic Herbert Muschamp found ample evidence to add Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Moshe Safdie and the late Louis Kahn to the Jewish canon. But his analysis faltered on Frank Gehry, looking only at his then most recent building, a riverside flowing glass and concrete office building dubbed "Fred and Ginger," as a symbol of the liberation of Prague "from a totalitarian regime."
Gehry's fish, mythologized by repetition, can be seen as a symbol, if not an origin, of Gehry's iconoclasm and Jewishness. For the Chiat/Day offices in Toronto, Gehry even made his tail concrete, suspending a lead fish in a white bathtub in an indoor alcove.
"His interests are intellectual, not religious," says Friedman, who has known Gehry since she organized his first retrospective in 1986 at the Walker Art Center. Though he submitted a plan to the Vatican's "Church of the Year 2000" competition and has built a small addition for his wife's church, Gehry has not completed any churches or synagogues. Instead, he designs temples of arts and music, including the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, the newly opened Experience Music Project in Seattle and the soon-to-be-built Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
The Winnick Institute-Jerusalem is going to have to be a new look, says Webb. "It's going to have to respond to the city because it's in a different context than we've ever worked in."
About eight blocks from Jaffa Gate, the two-building institute, composed of a separate conference center and theater connected by a bridge over Hillel Street, is years away from completion.
For the Winnick Institute, Gehry must comply with the city's regulations that a major portion of all structures be built in Jerusalem stone.
But some of Gehry's best work has risen from tight restrictions. In Berlin, Gehry subverted the site's conservative zoning by embedding a huge, steel-skinned horsehead-shaped conference room in the sober square exterior of the new DG Bank headquarters (1995-2001). Of all the famous architects enlisted to rebuild the German capital, architecture historian Michael Wise says that Gehry "most effectively worked with the system and tweaked his nose at it at the same time."