In his six-decade career, Frank Gehry revolutionized architecture’s aesthetics and techniques and recast its relationship with cities as one of the modern era’s early advocates of design’s inherent social responsibility.
For his pioneering work, the Department of Architecture honored Gehry Feb. 5 with the Richard Neutra Award for Professional Excellence in a ceremony in the J. Paul Getty Center’s Museum Lecture Hall. The hour-long program featured a live discussion with architect and Archinect senior editor Orhan Ayucce and a Q&A session with audience members.
The Neutra medal recognizes the contributions that Neutra, an acclaimed modernist architect and former Cal Poly Pomona lecturer, made to architecture in the areas of research and design as well as to honor individuals who have dedicated their careers to researching and developing new environments in which we live, work and play. Past recipients of the award include former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, Pritzker Architecture Prize winners Tadao Ando and Thom Mayne, and SCI-Arc founding member Michael Rotondi.
Gehry is the recipient of architecture’s highest honors, among them the 1989 Pritzker Prize, the 1998 National Medal of Arts; the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal (1999), the 2000 Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects; the 2002 American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal; and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.
At the Neutra ceremony, Gehry was lauded as an icon and iconoclast in an invitation-only audience of architecture and art patrons, educators, handpicked students and supporters such as Austrian Consul General Andreas Launer – a nod to Neutra’s Austrian roots.
In his introduction, department chair Professor George Proctor sought to connect Gehry’s early beginnings with the hopeful trajectories of the program’s students.
“Frank Gehry’s personal story offers a fantastic inspiration to the young architects watching today,” Proctor said. “The activities and journey of his youth, his educational path to architecture, and his first steps into the profession, parallel those of many Cal Poly students of architecture.”
Canadian born Gehry attended LA Community College and USC, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture, Proctor added.
Ayucce’s interview with Gehry began with a presentation of a student-fabricated commemorative plaque by Maria Mercado and Kleon Tran, the presidents of the Tau Sigma Delta Honors Society and the Cal Poly Pomona chapter of the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS), respectively.
“The heart of this year’s Neutra Award program was a scintillating hour of questions and answers with our architecture students and faculty getting ‘up front and personal’ with one of the world’s greatest living architects,” said Michael Woo, dean of the College of Environmental Design. Ayucce thanked Gehry before beginning the segment.
“I always wanted to tell you this,” he said. “For me and for my colleagues, you were responsible for liberating us, liberating architecture…As if architecture was rock ‘n roll, you were the Woodstock for us.”
Gehry’s most famous commissions are a study in boundary-pushing techniques and tools – geometrically complex aerodynamic silhouettes modeled and constructed with CATIA (computer-aided three-dimensional interactive application), a 3D software traditionally used for designing French fighter jets that popularized the practice of Building Information Modeling.
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, breathed new life into the ailing port district, positioning it as an economic and cultural center. The stylistic ostentatiousness of the asymmetric Dancing House, the Nationale-Netherlanden Building, in Prague sought to represent the Czech Republic’s embrace of democratic beliefs after the fall of communism.
In downtown Los Angeles, Walt Disney Concert Hall “says something about the role that architecture can play as a civic symbol in a city like Los Angeles that is very hungry for symbols,” Woo said.
Gehry spoke about his projects and philanthropy, architecture and design education, and at his most revelatory, the “healthy insecurity” that continues to drives him. At 89, he is still active in Gehry Partners, a practice he established in 1962.
“You’ve got to stay hungry, stay searching,” Gehry said. “I mean it’s nice to have accolades, it’s nice for people to say nice things, and I certainly am not immune to it. I love it too. But when I’m working, it’s not sure if I am going to get there on each project. I sort of feel comfortable in that space and as soon I feel like I know what I am doing, I change the game.”
As he has been frequently quoted, Gehry said, “It is most important to do work you love and that is true to yourself.”
Gehry has connections to Cal Poly Pomona. His sister, Professor Emeritus Doreen Gehry Nelson, founded the Design Based Learning (DBL) Program in the College of Education and Integrative Studies. In his student days at USC, Gehry crossed paths with Raphael Soriano, one of the pioneering figures in mid-century modern architecture and former lecturer at the College of Environmental Design.
To see the full list of past Neutra medalists, visit https://env.cpp.edu/arc/neutra-award.
View Gehry’s Neutra Award interview and ceremony at https://vimeo.com/316033654.