In 1977, as he surveyed the gambrel-roofed Dutch Colonial bungalow that he would remodel into his seminal Santa Monica, Calif., house, Frank Gehry made a list of the property's pros and cons. Among the positives: the green asphalt shingle roof, the pink asbestos shingles, the plywood walls in the den, the corner lot location, the row of tall Lebanon cedars along the property's north line, and a giant euphorbia cactus in the backyard. He noted only one downside: “The block is filling up with apartments.”
Gehry dubbed the structure, which he purchased with his wife, Berta, “a dumb little house with charm,” and then proceeded to wrap it with the sort of corrugated aluminum associated with airplane hangars, accentuating the corners of an addition with convex wood-framed skylights. And he used chain-link fencing to connect the new metal sheath on the exterior of the second story to the old pink shingles, the effect of which was somewhere between a batting cage, a chicken coop, and Stalag-17.
The newly transformed house, the only two-story structure on the block, seemed out of place and out of time. It was like finding a runway dress by Pierre Cardin on the rack at J.C. Penney. While the critics gushed—“Perhaps the most significant new house in Southern California in some years,” wrote Paul Goldberger in The New York Times—the neighbors bristled. Gehry tried to explain that his industrial aesthetic was no different from that of the campers and boats that sat in front of their houses. His efforts were to no avail. One neighbor threatened to sue. Another vowed to have Gehry jailed by the city's building department.
Paul Lubowicki, then a 23-year-old project designer fresh out of Cooper Union, was on site one day when a car pulled up. As he recalls, “This guy stopped me and said, ‘Are you working on this house?' I said, ‘Yeah.' He said, ‘It looks like a Tijuana sausage factory.' And he drove off. It was so demoralizing.”
The Santa Monica house was the first project Lubowicki worked on when he arrived in 1977 at Frank O. Gehry & Associates, and for three months he was the only person collaborating on it with Gehry. “He gave me the famous sketch on yellow paper that showed the elevation,” he says, referring to Gehry's initial rendering. “So I made the model from the sketch. The first thing Frank did was take a knife and cut the entryway. All of a sudden I got tons of sketches from him. … It was the most kamikaze stuff.”
But it was the pace of Gehry's sketching that seemed radical to Lubowicki, not the use of industrial materials. “It was just part of the vocabulary,” he says. Gehry had gained fluency in this workmanlike dialect by designing three unrealized residences in the mid-'70s, collectively known, due to their appearance of being under construction, as his “sketches in wood.” The Gunther House, situated on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, was conceived with chain-link segments euphemistically called “shadow mesh.” The Wagner House, perched on a Malibu hillside, featured a corrugated metal envelope. And the Familian House comprised two stucco structures skewered by a partially exposed wood walkway.
Such rawness arises from Gehry's belief that “a structure in process is always more poetic than a finished work.” And so, with his own house, he stripped the interior walls to their wood studs and joists, exposed the electrical wiring and light bulbs, and retained the asphalt floors in the kitchen-cum-dining room, where the driveway had been. “It was a problem when it was hot,” Lubowicki says, referring to the asphalt. “But refining things is not his style.” When Gehry wanted a skylight in the upstairs bathroom, he hammered a hole in the roof, then covered it with a glass pane and sealant.
The tension between the unrefined addition and the quaint bungalow led critics to classify it as an early work of deconstructivism. Philip Johnson included Gehry in an exhibition of such projects that he organized at the Museum of Modern Art in 1988, but Gehry resisted the label.
Ironically, one of Gehry's earliest inspirations for his houses came from a lecture by Johnson that focused on a pure architecture that might be called the antithesis of deconstructivism. The world's greatest structures, Johnson said, were single rooms: the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and Chartres Cathedral south of Paris. A solitary chamber was the closest an architect could come to the purity of an artist's blank canvas.
The house did prove to be an ideal canvas for Gehry, and a closer approximation of Johnson's idealized single room than the house-within-a-house structure would imply. The chain-link fencing, sitting atop the metal façade like the ramparts of a castle, functions as a “bridge,” Lubowicki says. Inside, in the second-story master bedroom, the glass top of a table doubles as a kitchen skylight. “There's no privacy there,” he says. “Basically, the whole house is a big room.”
At the center is the living room, which doubles as a sort of art gallery. A glass cube by Larry Bell, 6 feet on each side, once dominated the space. Two pieces of Gehry's Easy Edges furniture, a chair and a table, flank a rarely used white brick fireplace, and above it hangs Ed Ruscha's photograph of the back of the Hollywood sign. People tended to congregate in the kitchen and dining room, Lubowicki recalls. The living room “wasn't comfortable,” he says. “But it was a really interesting space to be in.”
The house bears a painterly influence—no surprise, given how Gehry socialized with the Los Angeles art scene. The architect acknowledges Robert Rauschenberg's collages as an influence on his integration of materials. He sought to evoke the multiple perspectives of Marcel Duchamp's “Nude Descending a Staircase” in his designs for a corner skylight, which seems to “twist” as you walk around it. When he first saw the original house's kitchen window, he recognized “the ghost of cubism” trying to escape.
Indeed, the implied motion conveyed by cubism is an apt metaphor for a house that has always been fluid in its development—dynamic and unfinished. Gehry has often referred to the house as his architectural “laboratory,” and he has constantly tinkered with it, most significantly in a 1991–93 remodeling in which he created separate bedrooms for his growing sons, installed a lap pool, covered the exposed ceiling beams with tidy wood battens, and renovated the garage into a guesthouse.
Gehry's approach to architecture has changed with the house, so much so that one writer dubbed it “the house that built Gehry.” In his introduction to the book Experimental Architecture in Los Angeles, Gehry writes that “young designers have to choose between being subsumed into the system”—designing large commercial projects—“or surviving on such crumbs as garage remodeling.” When he began remodeling his house, his portfolio was a schizophrenic mixture of both—a bland mega shopping center, a trapezoidal artist's studio.
In 1978, Gehry had one of his commercial clients, Matt DeVito, the president of the Rouse Company, over for dinner. DeVito marveled at how an architect could be interested in his project—Gehry was designing a shopping center for Rouse—and own such an avant-garde house. Gehry responded, “I have to earn a living.” DeVito said he didn't think Gehry should take on work that didn't interest him, and the two agreed to part ways. The following Monday, Gehry scaled back the size of his firm. Glorious international commissions followed, though not immediately. His Pritzker Prize was still years away.
I ask Lubowicki whether the Santa Monica house was the turning point of Gehry's career. He pauses. “There were a lot of turning points,” he says. “The cardboard furniture, the Davis house, the Whitten house, Bilbao. He's like Matisse.”
Despite the house's iconic stature, Lubowicki stresses its intimacy. “It was a very casual place,” he says, recalling how he spent time there entertaining clients and dropping off Gehry's older son, Alejandro, after school.
When I spoke to Paul Goldberger, he told me that the house has a “way of being both dramatically different and yet not disturbing. It's surprisingly comfortable and civilized and serene, even though you couldn't call it conventional.”
As the house's rawness has waned, so too has Gehry's tempestuous relationship with his neighbors. Long ago he stopped yelling at them and instead began trying to explain his intentions. “It's sort of childish not to,” he admitted in one interview.
And what were those intentions? In his submission portfolio to the AIA, Gehry writes, “I agonized about the symbols of the middle class to which I belonged. … I dug deep into my own history and education for cues and clues and then followed my intuitions.” In light of his history—he attended night school and held a job as a truck-driver—the house seems a quirky homage to blue-collar life. His comments about the “smugness of middle-class neighborhoods” simultaneously makes it seem like an iconoclastic mockery of suburban America.
Thirty-four years after its first remodeling, the house seems to present both perspectives at the same time, not unlike a cubist painting. A house imbued with such complexity and paradox must be a hard thing to build. And a hard thing to explain to your neighbors.