Ten Things Frank Gehry Teaches Us

About How to Achieve Our Most Ambitious Dreams
by Tod Martin

Frank Gehry’s buildings appear to be dreams manifest into reality. Angular. Curvaceous. Sweeping. Sometimes cloudlike. Always otherworldly.

Unless you’ve visited one, you might not take them seriously. It’s easy to assume they’re all show and no substance.

When you finally find yourself standing at 1st and Grand in downtown Los Angeles or crossing the Puente de La Salve in Bilbao, you’ll need a minute to let your assumptions catch up with your eyes. And, when you finally step inside, more than a minute.

How are such places possible? More importantly, what does the process of creating them have to teach us? What can we learn from someone who seems to have a higher-than-conceivable batting average of achieving his dreams? Here are ten things that Gehry teaches us about how to achieve our dreams.    

Let influences in.

When he was growing up, Frank Gehry’s grandmother, Leah Caplan, would buy bags of scrap wood and dump the irregularly shaped pieces on the kitchen floor. She would sit on the floor with young Frank, building imaginary bridges, buildings, and even whole cities. [1]

When he was growing up, Frank Gehry’s grandmother, Leah Caplan, would buy bags of scrap wood and dump the irregularly shaped pieces on the kitchen floor. She would sit on the floor with young Frank, building imaginary bridges, buildings, and even whole cities.

Gehry has a childhood memory of going with his grandmother to the Kensington Market in Toronto every Thursday to buy a live carp for the gefilte fish she made for their weekly Sabbath dinner. Back at home, she would put the carp in the bathtub. Frank talks about being fascinated watching the carp swim.


From the Fishdance Restaurant in Kobe, Japan to various fish lamp collections, to the pavilion at Port Olìmpic harbor in Barcelona, Spain, Gehry’s childhood fascination with fish has informed his use of double curve forms in his work.



Gehry acknowledges the numerous influences of art — or rather details in art — in his work. He teaches us to pay attention to influences no matter where you find them. To note them. To perhaps sketch or take a snapshot of them. His work seems surreal and yet familiar because of how evocatively it incorporates influences.


Gehry notes influences on this work like Claus Sluter’s Sarcophagus of Philip the Bold for the drape of the titanium conference room at DZ Bank in Berlin, Germany.


…and a pile of scrap cardboard outside his Santa Monica, California studio for his Beaver and Wiggle chairs

Gehry notes influences on this work like Claus Sluter’s Sarcophagus of Philip the Bold for the drape of the titanium conference room at DZ Bank in Berlin, Germany.




Dreams and vision can seem like magic, but imagination can more easily flourish and take form when you consciously furnish it. Make the effort to have a well-furnished imagination.

Establish an inspiring vocabulary.

Scratch the surface on Gehry and you’re quickly aware he’s a prolific sketcher. His loopy, endless-line style appears far more evocative than accurate.

But there’s more to his sketches than meets the eye. Gehry’s sketches set and carry the visual vocabulary of his vision.

Acommodate compromise in a way that elevates.

Gehry’s clients seem surprised by a principle he brings to projects: compromise.

Equally surprising is that his approach to compromise is built around his sketching.

Gehry doesn’t do a sketch or two for a project. He’ll easily do hundreds of sketches in the course of a single project. His sketching is how he surfaces and solves the numerous issues that naturally arise in design-and-build projects. It’s his way of listening to, understanding, and respecting the needs of his clients — in a way they don’t expect.



All the sketches — and their manifestation in dozens and dozens of models — turn the vocabulary into a dialogue. The genius in this dialogue is how it helps prevent a team’s tendency towards mediocrity when faced with what are often solvable problems.



Gehry’s team — his firm, Gehry Partners — is as prolific at model-making as he is at sketching. Unlike almost any other architectural firm, they’ll develop dozens of models during a project. First as rough and simple as the sketches, then increasingly larger and more detailed.


"Some architects sell buildings that are irrational and irreverent about how people use a building. That wouldn't happen to me. I do listen. I compromise. I don't think I compromise my level of where I want to be [with a project]. So, I think the word compromise is not so pure. I listen... and I make the building more interesting as a result."

Enlarge the meaning of functional.

Encounter any Gehry building and what you experience is a space that is exquisitely fit for purpose — and yet well beyond functional. Gehry buildings seem to serve a greater role, on a personal level, a group level, a neighborhood or community level, and usually beyond.

Just the idea of functional usually reduces things to the narrowest, most simplistic values — practical, utilitarian, sensible. What typically gets discounted are more human aspects — emotion, interaction, and inspiration. Gehry uses sketches and models to create a vocabulary and establish a dialogue. What that approach does is enlarge the meaning of functional.

The dialogue he creates surfaces all-important questions: How should people flow and interact? What should it feel like? Yes, emotionally, but also tactilely? What should it be made from? What is its role in the neighborhood? What is its role in the community? For everyone involved — clients, the architectural team, collaborators including the community, engineers, fabricators and construction crews — these questions help them see that the dream is never one element, but the interconnection and relationship between many elements. The sketching, models, and dialogue enlarge what they expect and accept as functional.

Functional can reduce a dream to a single dimension. Enlarge the meaning of functional to ensure it stays remarkable.

Balance deciding with designing.

Gehry’s work with Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management not only produced a remarkable addition to its campus, but a profound shift in the school’s curriculum.

For fifty years, Case Western, like all business schools, focused on teaching formulas for making choices among available alternatives — a decision attitude.[2]  What they experienced with Gehry and team was a process that offset this decision attitude by emphasizing a design attitude — a focus on creating entirely new, alternative choices.

A design attitude understands every project as an opportunity for invention. It questions basic assumptions and seeks to improve things in material and meaningful ways. Unlike the decision attitude, a design attitude doesn’t assume that the alternatives are limited and difficult to choose between.  


Building the Peter B. Lewis Building changed how management is taught at Case Western Reserve’s Weatherhead School.




Be honest: how much of your time goes towards deciding versus designing? To get beyond default solutions, spend more time designing.

Go beyond just proving something's possible.

Several clients who have worked with Gehry Partners all tell a similar story. Almost invariably it involves a major change late in the project.

With both Guggenheim Bilbao and Case Western Reserve University, there was a need to significantly reduce the square footage late in the design process.

Matt Fineout, a former Gehry Partners project architect, worked with people from Case Western doing tracing paper sketches over existing floor plans, figuring out how to eliminate 4,500 square feet. When they’d gotten through the exercise, Matt shocked the group by ripping up the pages they’d just spent two days creating. “We’ve proved we could do it, now we can think about how we want to do it,” Matt told them.

First efforts prove you’re capable of doing something, but seldom produce your best work. Go beyond proving that something’s possible.

Be willing to expand your own capabilities.

Disney Concert Hall took 16 years from first sketch to ribbon cutting. Numerous factors contributed to the delays, but uncertainty by fabricators and contractors played no small part.

Dreaming in ocean waves, billowing sails, and draping fabric is one thing: the underlying engineering and ability to produce executable construction documents are entirely another.

To help get the concert hall built, Gehry Partners went well beyond where any architectural firm had gone, turning to CATIA — a three-dimensional computer-aided design program developed by Dassault Systèmes for use in design and manufacturing of fighter jets. Unlike architectural software at the time, CATIA understood double curves and could produce files that let computer-aided machines fabricate aircraft-precise parts.

Abandon unshared dreams.

Frank Gehry hasn’t built nearly as many buildings as some of his peers.

That is likely because if he senses at the outset that a client doesn’t share his dream, he walks away.


Gehry has walked away from several significant projects, like the new headquarters for The New York Times.



Producing something remarkable requires the kind of collaboration that comes from having a shared dream — not simply having a “starchitect” involved.

Pursue advocacy-worthy projects.

In March 1997 — ten years after Lillian Disney made a $50 million gift and Frank Gehry had beaten out 80 other architects — Disney Concert Hall was at a standstill.

Mayor Riordan and other civic leaders joined forces to save it, vowing to raise the $150 million needed.

The most unusual aspect of that effort was an ad that appeared in the Los Angeles Times. The ad was signed by nearly 250 architects — from Los Angeles, across the United States, and around the world — expressing their support for the visionary design of Frank Gehry.

Imagine: the value of your work to the community and beyond being so great that your competitors rally to advocate for it.

Achieving what you envision is never a given.

As the story goes, Gehry was contemplating the nearly finished Guggenheim Bilboa from across the Nervión River when a colleague asked him what he was thinking. “I am thinking it’s a miracle I ever got this built.”

Mayor Riordan and There is no 100% approach for achieving a dream. And it sometimes seems like nothing short of a miracle when everything does come together. Maybe the most important thing Frank Gehry teaches us about how to achieve our most ambitious dreams is to persist.other civic leaders joined forces to save it, vowing to raise the $150 million needed.

When projects fall apart.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the Guggenheim Lower East Side project that Gehry had been commissioned to design fell apart.
When few people believe your dream is possible.

Gehry is currently working on a masterplan for the Los Angeles River — a concrete channel which flows through Los Angeles County. Speculation is it will take longer than Disney Concert Hall to get the approvals, cooperation, and funding needed.

When things seem to take forever.

Eleven years after winning the commission to design the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C., ground was finally broken in 2017 and completion is scheduled in 2021, when Gehry will be 92 years old.
When you're fired.

At the age of 82, Gehry was fired from the Atlantic Yards project in New York City by developer Bruce Ratner.


"Some architects sell buildings that are irrational and irreverent about how people use a building. That wouldn't happen to me. I do listen. I compromise. I don't think I compromise my level of where I want to be [with a project]. So, I think the word compromise is not so pure. I listen... and I make the building more interesting as a result."

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