Frank Gehry: Catalogue Raisonné of the Drawings, Volume 1, and Frank Gehry: The Masterpieces, both by the historian and critic Jean-Louis Cohen, come on the heels of at least 23 books previously devoted to the preeminent architect. The new titles offer distinct but not dissimilar outlooks on his formidable oeuvre.
The Catalogue Raisonné is an unusual undertaking: the first of eight volumes, the 7-½ pound, 552-page colossus includes every one of the architect’s buildings, exhibitions, models, and unbuilt projects for the hundreds of designs he produced within the designated time period (for Volume 1, 1954–1978). Innumerable construction and comparative photographs accompany the text, which is a model of descriptive analysis that includes the sources of Gehry’s inspiration, borrowings from his earlier designs, and his design and construction processes. Future volumes will follow the same structure, and each will also have a web-based version.
The Masterpieces follows a conventional monographic format: 38 of the architect’s works are presented, each with a brief essay, several stunning photographs, and a quote from Gehry. The title is surprising in relation to this habitually modest architect, but Cohen explains that he uses the term in the sense of the 13th-century Book of Trades: “a piece that qualifies an apprentice to be considered a master of his craft.” The Masterpieces is devoid of exhibitions, unbuilt projects, drawings, or models.
The contrast between the two books is clearly evidenced by the disparate treatments of Gehry’s own Santa Monica house of 1978. In The Masterpieces, it receives the standard one-page description. In the Catalogue Raisonné, the presentation includes five pages of text, 30 drawings, and numerous photographs. Cohen’s essay more than makes up for Gehry’s characteristic reluctance to write with contextual information, enriched by Gehry quotes cobbled together from previously published articles. For instance, the historian calls attention to the entrance’s tall vertical opening, which alludes to a similar opening at Robert Venturi’s house for his mother, and also to Gehry’s controversial use of chain-link in his three previous projects. Cohen points out that many modern architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, designed residences for themselves, but that those built by Rudolf Schindler, Richard Neutra, and Charles and Ray Eames “defined a spatial culture for Southern California.” The author also notes that Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts acquired 27 sketches of the house in 1994, acknowledging “the level of international recognition this pivotal project had received by then.”
The Catalogue is more detailed than many similar publications on other architects. Cohen follows the expansive models of Taschen’s Frank Lloyd Wright and Artemis’s Le Corbusier et Pierre Jeanneret: Oeuvre complète. He opines about the influence on Gehry of his studies at the University of Southern California, where he became aware of the Los Angeles architectural scene, and his first professional experience, when he worked for Victor Gruen Associates. He talks of the role played by C. Gregory Walsh, a school friend and eventual partner of Gehry’s, in the latter’s design process, and he describes the social, cultural, and political milieus in which the architect has lived. Among other useful commentary, the author notes that Gehry’s construction of a studio for Ron Davis (1972) began his longstanding friendships with and work for a number of California artists. Cohen also cites many instances in which the architect relied on fine art—from Michelangelo and Claus Sluter to Malevich and Morandi—to imagine certain shapes, which were then enabled by the sophisticated building technology he developed. Gehry’s interactions with professionals in the music world such as Ernest Fleischmann, executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, had a similar effect.
Indeed, it is Gehry’s cordial relationships with two of his clients—Bernard Arnault of Louis Vuitton, and Maja Hoffmann of the Luma Museum in Arles—that have made possible, through financial support, the daunting Catalogue Raisonné. The prestigious Cahiers d’Art imprint was founded in 1926 by Christian Zervos, a Greek art critic and collector, and the publisher of a successful journal of contemporary art. His most celebrated achievement was the 33-volume Picasso catalogue raisonné, which was published over a 46-year period. Staffan Ahrenberg, a Swedish art collector and film producer, relaunched the imprint in 2012. With a comparably high scholarly level, elegant design, and fine color printing, the Gehry project sets a new standard for the publication of architecture.