Architect Frank Gehry designed the landmark Cleveland Clinic building in downtown Las Vegas. (James F. Mattil/istock)

Last October, when a journalist at a news conference in Spain asked Frank Gehry whether his buildings were more about spectacle than function, the jet-lagged architect flipped him the bird.

Righteous snub or insolent posturing? That depends on whether you consider Gehry, now 86 years old, to be one of our greatest living artists or a purveyor of self-indulgent sculptural excess.

It was in Spain, of course, that Gehry unveiled his Bilbao Guggenheim in 1997 to white-hot acclaim (“I’ve been geniused to death,” the architect once lamented). But as cities around the world have sought their own Bilbao effect — 15 years later, the museum was still attracting a million visitors a year — the resulting wave of bespoke architecture has inspired a backlash. Critics have assailed Gehry and his fellow “starchitects” for producing preening buildings that exhibit little regard for their context and the unfortunate souls who have to use them.

Such criticism may be inevitable when your ambitions are as significant as Gehry’s. Paul Goldberger, in his new biography of the architect, defines the fundamental questions that have driven Gehry’s career as: “How much should architecture be considered a humane pursuit, an artistic enterprise, a cultural event, as opposed to a practical work of construction? And even when architecture is pursued with the highest aims, how much impact can it have?”

“Building Art” is a measured attempt to see Gehry’s work in this larger context — to understand the forces that shaped him, from the coterie of artists that he cozied up to in Los Angeles to the shifting movements within the profession of architecture itself, and to witness how, with each of his commissions, he responded to its unique set of requirements.

"Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry" by Paul Goldberger (Knopf)

Goldberger, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is an architecture critic by training, and his portrayal of Gehry’s childhood and life outside of his career is, for the most part, workmanlike. The son of Jewish immigrants in Toronto, the architect had a humble childhood, his family frequently on the verge of financial ruin. Even now, Gehry can’t say for sure how his parents paid for him to attend architecture school at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Modernist architecture was ascendant in California in the 1950s, but Gehry — who was, according to Goldberger, a pot-smoking, socially conscious liberal — soon rebelled against the prevailing aesthetic of cool, straight lines. In the early 1960s in Paris, when he worked for an architect named André Remondet (who later designed the French embassy in the District), Gehry got his first intimate look at the architecture of the Old World, and he had an epiphany: Great buildings could incorporate ornamentation. “When I walked into Chartres I was furious,” Gehry recalls. “I said, ‘Why why didn’t they tell us?’ ”

Inspired in part by the painter and graphic artist Robert Rauschenberg, Gehry started experimenting with industrial materials, developing a restrained, rough-hewn aesthetic. In attempting to mimic the texture of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel, Gehry used “tunnel mix,” intended for freeway underpasses and tunnels, to cover the exterior of his studio for Lou Danziger, a Los Angeles graphic artist. His Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md., with a huge trapezoidal roof, exposed steel joists and sides covered by unstained Douglas fir, was celebrated for its acoustics. The seminal house that he redesigned for his family in Santa Monica, Calif., a nondescript Dutch colonial that he transformed by wrapping it with corrugated metal and chain-link fencing, featured a series of colliding forms and textures that foreshadowed his signature buildings.

Bilbao would never have been possible, however, if not for the computer. In the early 1990s, by adapting French aerospace software, Gehry’s firm was able to translate his increasingly complex and undulating designs into detailed plans that enabled more efficient construction, and at a reasonable cost. At the time, Gehry was working on Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and as he adjusted to the technology, his design of the building’s billowing sails grew ever more dynamic. “The computer, Frank realized, could be the tool that freed him from limits.”

Gehry’s projects make for a kind of architectural Rorschach test. Consider, for instance, how classicists have eviscerated the architect for his proposed design for the Eisenhower Memorial in the District, which was likened to the fences around Nazi concentration camps. Goldberger dismisses such criticism in making the case for Gehry as a great artist, defending him against the claim that his work is inflexible or arbitrary, the accusation that the architect himself most despises.

But Goldberger is surprisingly reserved in offering his own critical take on Gehry’s portfolio, leaving largely unanswered the question of why certain buildings succeed in such brilliant fashion, while others fail to live up to the architect’s lofty standards. Gehry shouldn’t be blamed for the excesses that Bilbao inspired, the ego-fueled projects of our current Gilded Age. That doesn’t mean, however, that he didn’t step up to the plate now and again and fail to deliver.

In the midst of the Eisenhower standoff, Gehry had wondered why he had garnered so little support from his fellow architects. “It did not occur to him,” Goldberger writes, “that [they] might have simply viewed this one as a miss, as one of those moments when Babe Ruth strikes out.”

Eric Wills is a senior editor at Architect magazine.

BUILDING ART
The Life and Work of Frank Gehry

By Paul Goldberger

Knopf. 511 pp. $35