Since childhood, this world famous architect has had a fascination with the piscine form. It shows in his designs.
The well-known expression “think outside the box” aptly describes architect Frank Gehry’s defiantly un-square buildings. Except Gehry doesn’t just think outside the box. He takes the box apart, cutting out sections, stripping away surfaces, and showing the corrugated innards. And that’s just his early work. In later work, he goes even further, sending the box into hyperspace and warping it into a fantastical array of curves which challenge established ideas of space and solidity. With the completion of his monumental Guggenheim Bilbao, these curves become the signature of the man many consider the world’s greatest living architect.
Fish deserve some credit for Gehry’s liberation from the almighty cube. Within the arcing dynamism of fish forms, specifically the forms of carp, Gehry finds inspiration. Their shapes are a recurring motif in his work, sometimes appearing recognizably, sometimes in very abstract forms.
Why carp in particular? The story begins in a bathtub. During Gehry’s childhood years, in the 30s and 40s, his Grandmother would come home from the market with live carp to make Gefilte Fish, a traditional Jewish delicacy. The carp would go in the bathtub, where young Frank played with them and watched them swim. These swirling shapes made a powerful imprint, which stayed in Gehry’s memory and went on to play a major part in defining his architectural style.
When Frank was seventeen, the Gehrys moved to Los Angeles– a city whose architecture combines the ultra-modern and trendy with vestiges of Mediterranean and Spanish styles. After getting a BA in architecture at USC and studying city planning at Harvard, Gehry returned to his hometown and opened his own firm. He started with small, residential projects in the area. The image of a carp makes its first appearance in the plans to one of these homes.
“I first found the form in sketches for the renovation of the Smith residence,” says Fiona Ragheb, Associate Curator of the recent exhibit, Frank Gehry: Architect, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. “In these sketches, Gehry uses fish as placeholders for something he’s yet to do. For example, if he’s thinking of putting a colonnade in the design but isn’t entirely sure about it, he’ll sketch a fish there instead.”
In these early drawings, carp serve simply as playful graphic notes, not elements of the actual design. This changed in the early 80s, when Gehry fashioned a series of fish-shaped lamps. The design idea for these came about through a lucky accident.
Gehry was experimenting with a new material, colorcore, creating models from this translucent, glasslike plastic. One of his models fell, shattering on the floor of his studio. Gehry noticed the fragments looked like fish scales, and was inspired to create the ghostly, glowing fish and snake lamps.
Up to this point, Gehry’s buildings stand out more for offbeat construction materials and methods than the organic curves which mark his mature projects. In fun, sometimes even wacky home designs, Gehry was leaving struts and frames partially exposed, wrapping walls with chain-link fencing and rough-cut aluminum; bold, playful design moves conveying constant change, upward movement, and a process-in-action which leaves the final touches for the viewer’s own imagination.
In the mid-80s, Gehry’s style began to shift. His fascination with fish continued to develop. While once the fish-lamps had been an interesting side project, now the piscine form began merging with his broader design sense.
“I was watching the beauty of carp swimming in a pool in Japan and thinking about how elegant and architectural they were,” Gehry told The Sun Herald. “It inspired a beginning of a study of these forms… That study took a few years. It then became a language that I guess became Bilbao and a few other projects.”
Gehry looked at fish in art and photographs, sketched them, and watched them intensely. He paid careful attention to how they moved in water, observing the flow and twist of their swimming bodies. Their motion compelled him to go further than simple representations.
“All architects sketch,” says Ragheb. “But most don’t sketch in as freeform a way as Gehry. His sketches are very gestural.”
Gehry’s dynamic and free-flowing drawings fly around the page- inspiring and inciting, quickening his thoughts. Rather than representing actual buildings, their inconsistency and flux, like the flowing curves of a swimming fish, create vitality. They add energy and passion to his first ideas about forms.
Yet in architecture, ideas are only the beginning of the process. Buildings must be built. To be livable, they must work as structures. Gehry’s beautiful concepts could only become real with the help of technology. CATIA is a program used mostly by aerospace and European car companies. This computer assisted design software models complex surfaces such as exotic cars, jet airplanes and, of course, carp. Basically, if Gehry crumpled paper into a shape, CATIA could figure out how to build it. Instead of crumpled paper, Gehry first used CATIA to create an abstract, woven copper fish sculpture for the Vila Olympica in Barcelona.
Though it represents a high point in melding design and execution, Gehry still famously called the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, a “sketch.” Fish forms, while not explicit, can be discerned in this “sketch,” which others call one of the most important buildings of the 20th Century.
“The long horizontal gallery can certainly be read as a fish. During construction, it was known as both ‘the boat gallery’ and ‘the fish gallery,’” explains Ragheb. “…The titanium paneling [on the outside of the Museum] can be read as scales.”
Located at a bend in the Nervion River, the Bilbao Guggenheim responds to the river’s curves, as well as the steep hills in the distance beyond the city.
In the book Gehry Talks, the architect said simply, “Bilbao is water.”
If Bilbao is water, then there are fish in that water; the fish which have been swimming through Gehry’s mind since he was a child. These primal forms emerged as fish lamps built of glass-like scales, then rose to the surface in wildly creative freeform sketches, finally bursting into the open air as the shining, twisting silver vision of Bilbao.