Frank Gehry’s designs for his own residence

Architect Frank Gehry lives in Santa Monica, California, where, in 1977, his wife Berta had bought a modest pink bungalow in a bourgeois neighbourhood. Shortly thereafter, Gehry had decided to redesign what he considered “a dumb little house with charm” and to try “to make it more important.” At that point, Gehry was not yet a celebrated architect. The architectural forms of the house after this first renovation, however, marked his budding ascent as a protagonist of deconstructivism. In addition, the renovation of the house represented a considerable social critique. In the middle of a post-war urbanised context, filled with freestanding dwellings on small lots, Gehry exhibited the clash between suburbia’s conflicting ideals of community and independence. The extent of this social critique was underscored by the fact that the house was even shot at. Yet, Gehry had not broken any of the tight rules of urban planning. But through its collage-like appearance, the ‘dumb’ house gained an iconic status.

In 1993, when Gehry’s sons were steadily growing up, the house was in need of another renovation, although Gehry had a hard time designing this one. The executed extension broke up the unity of the vernacular forms the old renovation had exhibited. Although Gehry acknowledged that he had “lost the old house,” he was still convinced of a social mission. His own city had recently been convulsed by social unrest and he consequently designed the renovation in the belief that even small adjustments of form could alter the conditions of social reality. In the meantime, Gehry’s deconstructivist forms had become widely known and his own house had become a touristic attraction. Thus, the house had become a psychological burden to the architect. He confessed to being “emotionally trapped because it was this icon.”

Designing a house for oneself is a precarious project for an architect. It is the place where his life and work fuse. Like all his designs, it is a representation of his own values, but in this case the artist is his own commissioner as well and is therefore harshly confronted with his own limitations. An architect designing his own house is thus engaging in an act both extremely public and extremely reflective.

In December 2004, the models for Frank Gehry’s new residence were published. During the four previous years, Gehry had been designing a series of pavilions – private enclaves – in Venice, California. In light of the building history of his old house, the recent designs are bewildering, and Gehry admits is was a struggle. The higher social ideals have completely evaporated. “The whole design is set up so that you can break it back down into its individual lots,” Gehry stated, “so when we’re gone, the kids can sell off parts of it if they want to […].”

Gehry’s loss of critical value now coincides with his inability to design a conceptual entity. By the sheer exploitation of the vernacular forms of the 1978 renovation ever since, as a mannerism at best, the forms have lost their meaning. Gehry’s deconstructivism has become an empty shell. After the warning in 1993, when he was already struggling with the problem of unifying form and critique, he is once again being confronted with the emptiness of his forms. His creative bubble of the seventies has literally burst.

Martijn van Beek

Frank Gehry, Santa Monica Residence, original state (1977)

Frank Gehry, Santa Monica Residence, first renovation (1978)

Frank Gehry, Santa Monica Residence, second renovation (1993)

Frank Gehry, Venice Residence, project (2004)

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This website is the outcome of the course Critical Issues in the Cultural Industries, supervised by prof. Wouter Davidts within the context of the Visual Arts, Media & Architecture MPhil program at VU University Amsterdam. Contributors to the site are the first and second year students of the research master enrolled in the course.
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