1997 was a great year for Frank O Gehry. As it closed, his Bilbao Guggenheim Museum seemed only to attract superlatives and his long-stalled Walt Disney Concert Hall, LA - a competition win in 1989 - was back on track after Disney's $25 million donation.
Gehry was born in Toronto in 1929 but his name instantly evokes California, where he studied, worked for several large practices and, in 1962, eventually opened his own office. After a number of domestic and retail projects, it was with his own house extension at Santa Monica (1978-79) that he really made his mark. Commonplace materials (plywood, chain-link fencing, corrugated metal) were assembled in a three-dimensional collage, breaking the boundaries of the existing building as they signalled Gehry's longstanding interest in contemporary art.
In the 1980s came larger civic and commercial projects - the California Aerospace Museum (1982), for instance, and the Chiat Day Headquarters, Venice, Cal. (1989). There was also a commission in Europe, for the Vitra Design Museum at Weil am Rhein - modest in size but highly expressive (soaring, swooping, jutting out) in form. Yet the wilfulness and apparent arbitrariness of Gehry's forms can be misleading. As critic James Steele remarks: 'a capricious mask can conceal an ultra-pragmatic interior'.
While the scale of Gehry's projects increased in the 1980s, and his international reputation grew, he didn't neglect domestic commissions, albeit lavish ones. The Schnabel House, LA (1990), which swiftly became the subject of a Phaidon Press monograph, was a particular success - a strongly sculptural ensemble, likened to a village in miniature, and rich in references (among them, to Frank Lloyd Wright).
The 1990s brought more work in Europe: the (since-vacated) American Centre, Paris (1994) and the 'Fred and Ginger' building in Prague (1995). But the Bilbao Guggenheim is in a different league. For all the drama and spectacle of the museum, the critical response so far suggests (surprisingly) that it more enhances the work on show than overwhelms it. And while it is the apt apotheosis of Gehry's love of art, it is the fruit too of advanced technology in its application of computers to design. As Annette LeCuyer explains in the Architectural Review (Dec 1997), Gehry has been at the forefront of such uses, 'to rationalise and make buildable highly intuitive concepts'.
Many mavericks are honoured in the end. Gehry received the Pritzker Prize in 1989, the Praemium Imperiale in 1992. Can a Royal Gold Medal be far away?