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October 2, 2014

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Frank Gehry’s approach to architecture ‘different’

In enlisting Frank Gehry to design a local Alzheimer's research center in his father's name, Las Vegas businessman Larry Ruvo landed an architectural whale.

It is difficult to imagine any other architect with the status and heft of Gehry - someone who, by the mere mention of his name, wins attention.

The reason is that his work cannot be ignored. It can be applauded or derided, but not ignored.

If his projects reflect a design theme, it is to reject the conventional use of exterior, hard-edged surfaces. Where they should be rigid, static, perpendicular and in proper order, they appear to tumble, sway or undulate, as if viewed through the prism of a fun house. To examine a Gehry building is to toy with the brain.

To some critics, Gehry's designs are contorted if not downright nonsensical; others find them fluid and thoughtful. The word "sensual" is frequently invoked.

Among his most recent projects to earn widespread acclaim are the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Experience Music Project in Seattle.

Might his Las Vegas project collect similar accolades?

Among those who thinks so is Ruvo, managing director of Southern Wine and Spirits of Nevada. In his father's memory, Ruvo has become a major contributor to the $50 million Lou Ruvo Alzheimer's Institute, to be built in the 61-acre Union Park.

Ruvo has watched the drawings and models progress toward today's final copy.

"Frank is very pleased. He told me he thinks this is some of his best work ever," Ruvo said.

Gehry, who turns 77 this month, is still in the thick of work. He is lead architect on a $1.8 billion project to remake Los Angeles' downtown Grand Avenue into a retail and residential district.

Gehry also is lead architect on a $3.5 billion project to redevelop a six-block-long site in Brooklyn, New York.

None of Gehry's work to date approaches the size and scope of either of the two urban projects now on his plate.

But in a sense, those jobs bring him full circle back to his childhood, when he gathered pieces of scrap wood and built pretend towns on the living room floor of the family home in Toronto.

When the family moved to Los Angeles when Gehry was a teenager, he found escape in the world of art. He toyed with furniture design but ultimately was seduced by raw, urban architecture.

His early efforts focused on living spaces, and after some missteps he won attention - and gasps - in 1978 when he remodeled his Santa Monica bungalow by virtually turning it inside out. The kitchen was paved in blacktop, interior support studs were left exposed, and glass, corrugated metal and chain link were added to the exterior.

My approach to architecture is different," he said at the time. "I'm confused as to what's ugly and what's pretty."

Some people were repulsed by his Santa Monica house, but others were intrigued by his experimentation and signed up as his clients.

New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberg, noting Gehry's reliance on harsh, unfinished materials and the juxtaposition of simple geometric forms, said his work "is vastly more intelligent and controlled than it sounds to the uninitiated."

In 1989 Gehry was awarded the Pritzker Prize, the top honor among architects. The jurors called his work "refreshingly original and totally American" and commended his "restless spirit that has made his buildings a unique expression of contemporary society and its ambivalent values."

Tom Gorman can be reached at 259-2310 or at [email protected]

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