Over his fifty years of practice, Frank Gehry has been creating unique shapes with growing assurance and on an ever larger scale. In the two decades since he won the commission to design Walt Disney Concert Hall and was awarded the Pritzker Prize, he has gone from outsider to principal player, courted by cities, corporations, and visionary individuals. Everyone, from Las Vegas to Sydney, wants a touch of the Bilbao magic. Books and awards proliferate, and the architect who long struggled for solvency and respect can now work for clients who share his values. Some things have not changed. Each project, humble or ambitious, is a fresh challenge. At age 81, he is still exploring new forms of expression and collaborating fruitfully with his design partners. Clues to his way of working are piled up in his office, a cluttered room with windows overlooking a large open workspace. Half command post, half cabinet of curiosities, it’s a retreat in plain view where he can conduct business and find inspiration. There are model fish and boats (Gehry is a passionate weekend sailor), shards of glass, study models, and friends’ artwork, alongside such mementoes as a Golden Lion from Venice and a figure of Mickey Mouse. Furnishings include the architect’s lamps and shaggy cardboard armchairs. Beyond the glass, design teams cluster around models that grow in size and complexity as each project achieves its final form. Ideas sparked by raw materials, the folds of a medieval sculpture, or the manipulation of a sheet of paper are explored, manipulated, refined, and digitized to generate working drawings. Creating a world from wood shavings was a childhood pursuit, and modeling has always been the essential core of the creative process, for Gehry and his associates. It starts with blocks that define spaces and the way they relate to each other, and sometimes that early iteration emerges in the final design, as in the pyramid of rectilinear galleries in the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim project. More often, it flowers into a dynamic cluster of shapes and planes, orthogonal and curvilinear, modeled and plain. Alternative solutions are proposed to define a wide range of possibilities, and each is analyzed by computer software to establish a cost. Once a direction has been set, Frank and a design partner may tweak a model, playing with shapes, simplifying a wall or trying something new. You can observe the process in Sydney Pollack’s brilliant documentary, Sketches of Frank Gehry. In one scene, design partner Craig Webb tears, folds, and tapes silver paper in a search for the ideal form for a small museum in Mississipi. Communication between the two architects is intuitive, almost non-verbal, based on a long association. Anand Devarajan, a senior design associate, likens the approach to a dance: “Frank is leading, of course, but at some points he lets me lead because I’m more intimately involved in certain aspects of the design.” Charles Eames worked in a similar fashion with his associates, striving to stay open to every possibility until he felt his team had got it right. Gehry is more hands-on and personally involved than Eames was. “We try to avoid anything that’s too easy or some kind of a cliché,” he told Pollack. “Going back and forth between the planning and the models, you start to see opportunities. It’s a give and take. I always work on two or three scales at once; it keeps me thinking of the real building and I don’t get enamored of the object.” It would be easy to fetishize the models that line shelves and are stacked up on tables all around the office. Some are small enough to hold in your hand, others are large enough to walk into. The diversity of scale and invention is dazzling - there may be more than thirty variants for a single project. Commissions that were shelved - like a hotel in Moscow or an airport terminal in Venice - may inspire a future building, as the potential of ideas and materials is pushed to their limits. Software specialist Jim Glymph explains the role of the computer: “Everything begins with the model, but the world runs on paper, so we had to devise ways of scanning models into the computers of building inspectors and contractors so that they can go directly to two-dimensional drawings…What was critical was to bring the technology into Frank’s process so that it didn’t change him and allowed him to be more sculptural, with more confidence.” At the start of “Sketches of Frank Gehry”, there’s a familiar voice-over. “Is starting hard? You know it is. I’m always scared I’m not going to know what to do. It’s a terrifying moment. And then, when I start, I’m always amazed. Well, that wasn’t so bad.” It’s the fear of the artist, making a first mark on a blank canvas or cutting into a block of stone. Philip Johnson, who was the godfather of modernism in America, once praised Gehry’s “passion for using strange shapes and giving you a gut reaction that no-one else succeeds in doing. His buildings are shocking [and] they give you a mysterious feeling of delight.” Some of ther shock has since worn off, but not the delight. Younger architects are creating stranger shapes, though often without much regard for utility. With Gehry, poetry and purpose are inseparable, and the forms grow out of need and context. The largest project currently is the 42,000 sq m Abu Dhabi Guggenheim, one of four landmark museums on an island linked to the shore, which should be completed by 2013. Galleries for a permanent collection, Middle Eastern art and traveling exhibitions are linked horizontally and vertically, and are clustered around a central courtyard in a stepped mass. Access ramps enclosed in a conical wood trellis and a skin of blue glass scales rise from the waterfront. Gehry has abstracted the Islamic tradition of wind towers, domes, and fretted screens casting lacy patterns of shadow. The trellis of massive timbers, knitted together by hollow steel joints, has a tactile surface, and the cones provide passive cooling by venting hot air at the top. Locals, accustomed to fierce heat, prefer a shaded outdoor space, in contrast to the climate-controlled galleries. The trellis was inspired by Leonardo’s sketch of a bridge and by Indian tepees, and it drew on the structural frame of the Serpentine Pavilion in London and Gehry’s studies for his own unrealized house in Venice, California. He describes the combination of shingles and beams as “going primitive, and avoiding the slickness of designers who rely on the computer.” The 75-story Beekman Tower in lower Manhattan is Gehry’s first high-rise. It’s a prize that has long eluded him, and this project nearly foundered as the developer encountered financial difficulties, but it is scheduled for completion next year. It’s located east of City Hall Park, between the historic Woolworth building and the Brooklyn Bridge, and the architect looked hard at the city’s towers to gain a feeling for the context. A shaft of 900 rental units, clad in stainless steel, is set back from a brick podium that respects the traditional architecture of the street and contains a school and offices. The developer wanted a signature building that would maximize revenue; the architects sought an elegant and distinctive profile. As Craig Webb recalls, they explored fifty iterations: including cylindrical, cruciform, even rotated forms, which posed problems of lining up plumbing connections in a residential complex. Eventually, they settled on a slender T-plan tower with a rippling steel skin and bay windows in place of the conventional brick veneer or glass curtain wall. The folds deepen towards the top of the tower, but there are enough shallow and flat plates to keep the cost within a tight budget. The surface geometry was mapped by Digital Project, a software program developed by Gehry Technologies, and the steel should serve, like the crown of the Chrysler building, as an ever-changing mirror of the sky. In contrast to this constrained urban setting, the 8,900 sq m Louis Vuitton Foundation is designed as a shimmering glass cloud that will appear to float over the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. The open-sided carapace of curved glass planes is loosely wrapped around a complex of educational facilities for children, art galleries, and spaces tailored to commissioned works. The goal is to reflect light and dematerialize the mass, while revealing the activity within and opening the circulation areas to views over the park. Gehry notes that France still clings to the Beaux Arts tradition in which an architect presents a design for the client’s acceptance and then makes it work for the program. However, the client agreed to a more flexible approach that allowed the initial proposal to evolve in a more organic fashion from the inside out. As a result, Gehry was able to use glass in a much more fluid way than in the tightly sealed volumes of the IAC building in New York and the Novartis Research Building in Basel. Completion is scheduled for 2012. “The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum is one of the projects I love the most, small-scale and contextual,” says Craig Webb. It’s located in Biloxi, Mississipi, and will feature the work of maverick potter George E. Ohr, African-American art, and a range of community activities. The half-finished buildings were devastated by Hurricane Katrina, but the first three of five should open in November. Artist friends of Gehry collected Ohr ceramics; friends in New Orleans introduced him to the mayor of Biloxi who showed him the grove of live oaks where they wanted to build. “We’re going to have to dance with the trees,” said the architect, and he created a village-like layout that incorporated two existing houses (which were rebuilt after the storm). Gehry found the first iteration too sculptural-a caricature of Ohr’s pottery-and he simplified the forms to put visitors at ease. In its final form it has the character of a still-life by Giorgio Morandi, one of Gehry’s favorite artists-as does Abu Dhabi on a vastly greater scale. The Puenta de Vida Museo in a park on the outskirts of Panama City has been a long time coming. Gehry’s wife, Berta, is from Panama, and the museum illustrates the architect’s love of play. It is designed to tell the story of biodiversity in a peninsula that separates two oceans and links two continents, and it serves as a beacon to passengers entering the Canal. The colorful plaster blocks and powder-coated metal roofs take their cues from the Caribbean vernacular, and the simple forms are intended to evoke geological formations and the tree canopy. The building is half complete but may not open until 2013. Senior design associate David Nam worked on the final design of the Luma Foundation in Arles, which was unveiled in Paris in July. The client acquired a decommissioned railroad maintenance yard immediately behind the historic town, a UNESCO word heritage site, to develop as a year-round arts center growing out of an annual photography show. She saw the lava rock models made for an unrealized state archive in Andorra and said “if you can’t build it there, I want it here.” The project began as a ten-story tower of lodgings linked to a six-story block of seminar rooms. The rock has mutated into slabs of foamed aluminum, a lightweight, rough-edged material that is principally used as anti-blast protection on buildings and military vehicles. Craggy forms enclose cave-like rooms and play off generic industrial sheds. These are being remodeled to house a film school, public cinemas, artists studios, archives and exhibition areas. Gehry has added a trio of glass buildings and likens the contrast between his additions to Michelangelo’s Slaves, where polished surfaces are juxtaposed to raw marble. Finally, a newly completed building in an unlikely location: the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas. The long title celebrates an alliance between a respected medical institution, and the philanthropic gesture of Larry Ruvo in memory of his father, whom he lost to Alzheimer’s Disease. Gehry had avoided building in a city where serious architecture is submerged in a tsunami of kitsch or fatally compromised by commercial imperatives. Ruvo won him over by offering him a worthy cause, unlimited creative freedom, and a generous budget. A four-story stack of offset white stucco blocks and boxy windows houses the clinical facilities and top-floor offices. A steel trellis is draped over a courtyard, shading it from the fierce desert sun, and linking it to an events space designed to draw attention and generate income from rentals. An exuberant, freeform carapace of stainless steel establishes the identity of the Ruvo Center and creates a sense of place in a newly developed area that has none. The interior evokes a spectral forest clearing: a soaring white canopy of foliage with two hundred square windows and skylights to admit natural light, partially supported by square trunks and angular branches. In the first model, the roof of this space seemed as light as a handkerchief checked in mid-fall. Structure and surface are fused in the completed building and are bathed in sunlight from above and, after dark, from uplights.