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Gehry shows his golden touch

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Frank O Gehry was due in Whitehall yesterday evening to pick up his Royal Gold Medal. The AJ traces his impact

One afternoon back in January this year, Lord Foster of Thamesbank, Marco Goldschmied, Richard MacCormac, Amanda Levete, Professor Peter Cook, Piers Gough and David Rock all crammed themselves into the president's office at Portland Place with some serious sifting to do.

Their task was to decide which one of the 30 or so nominated names in front of them they would take to Buckingham Palace for the Queen to approve as the millennium year's recipient of the Royal Gold Medal.

The name they chose, familiar to any member of the public who has heard of Bilbao, had cropped up in previous years but now, felt the judges, his time had come.

Last night Frank O Gehry, the one-off, 'sculptor architect, ' 'master architect', and city icon-builder extraordinaire, was due at the Banqueting Hall in London's Whitehall to receive his Royal Gold Medal and deliver a commemorative lecture.

David Rock was, as RIBA past president, one of the judges who whittled the original 30 or so names down to four - then they devoured books, magazines and slides on the shortlisted architects' work before declaring Gehry the winner. So why did he win?

'It's because of his body of work, which we could see had a strong progression of fresh and lateral thinking, ' said Rock. 'He still keeps his freshness, perhaps even more so now.' For Rock, Gehry's work is almost 'beyond the edge of what a lot of people think is architecture.He's a sculptor architect and a leader in thinking, ' he said.

Goldschmied, whose Richard Rogers Partnership colleagues Mike Davies and Chris Dawson - now working on Heathrow's Terminal 5 - worked on cardboard models in Gehry's office, agrees.'He's breaking boundaries, ' he said. Gehry has also, added Goldschmied, caused architecture to 'break out of its '60s straightjacket of rectilinear boxes'. And technology has now caught up with his groundbreaking, complicated flowing designs.'The curve is now no more expensive than the line, ' Goldschmied added. 'It's enabling an architecture of a different kind'.

The award is for Gehry's work, beyond the Guggenheim; and beyond the Seattle's Experience Music Project or Dundee's cancer care centre. It is also for his progressive construction techniques.

These are, Rock feels, 'unencumbered by traditional thinking'.

No-one's entire ouevre can be an unqualified success, however - Rock singles out Gehry's 'awful' 1996 'Fred and Ginger' office building in Prague as one which has not quite cut the mustard.

In his citation for the award, which Goldschmied was set to read out last night Professor Peter Cook branded Gehry a 'master architect'.'No one who believes in the power of architecture as a creative and artistic force can deny the contribution which has already been made by this master architect who, at the age of 71, is still at the height of his powers as a designer, ' he wrote.

Gehry, born Frank Owen Goldberg in Toronto, trained at the University of Southern California and later at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

He worked in the office of Victor Gruen, generally credited with the early development of the out-of-town shopping centre. He then rapidly became a close friend of many artists, working with Ron Davis on a hillside studio and also with Claes Oldenburg and Billy Al Bengston.

By the late 1970s, Gehry had 'already displayed his control over the Modernist vocabulary, with buildings such as the 'classic' Danziger studio in West Hollywood.

'Then he seemed to go crazy: scattering pieces around space, scrambling geometries and indulging in 'throw-away'materials such as chainlink fencing and corrugated sheeting.' This he applied to a small Santa Monica villa, his family home.

Gehry's method of achieving his sculptural forms is famously by making numerous models out of a host of materials - cardboard, styrofoam, you name it - which he tweaks, pulls about and adds to, just like his sculptor friends. The models are traced by computer-linked sensors, producing complex forms with accuracy, and this was how Bilbao, 'the most original, powerful and most discussed icon of architecture which closed the twentieth century', came about. 'In this one building, Gehry displays extraordinary virtuosity in the manipulation of space, but also the ability to compose a subtle composition of experiences, some of which can also be calm and haunting.'

Future Systems' Amanda Levete says her practice's distinctive Birmingham Selfridges store had an easier ride through planning and public acceptance thanks to Gehry and Bilbao. 'He's an individualist and an artistic architect, ' she said.'The value of Bilbao has been calculable in a dribble effect for restaurants and shops and even the selling of postcards.'

Levete adds that Gehry has made a massive impact on the way cities now strive for landmarks, but that he has been selective in the works he now does, careful to avoid simply scattering 'diluted' Bilbao's around the globe. His work, including libraries, museums, university buildings, headquarters buildings, social housing and private houses (such as the Schnabel House in Brentwood, Los Angeles), may be wilful, but it is, Levete said, 'highly calculated wilfulness'. For Cook and the RIBA it 'will remain a unique reminder that the twentieth century has been rich in the development of an architectural language'.

Although just 57 of the 150 Royal Gold Medals awarded since their inception have been to fore igners , the last to w in from these shores was Colin Rowe in 1995, while the last architects to win were Michael and Patty Hopkins in 1994.

So the time is perhaps right for Brits for next year's gong. Two names come instantly to mind. For Rock it is Nicholas Grimshaw (an especially good bet since the Eden project will be finished next year), and the now more 'acceptable'Terry Farrell, in the light of his urban design work. But, he adds, there are also Richard MacCormac, Will Alsop, Frank Duffy, Peter Cook (or Archigram), Tony Hunt and Edward Cu l l inan to cons ider, with Chris Wilkinson further off. Possible foreign recipients next year include Australian Glen Murcutt and Imperial War Museum - North designer Daniel Libeskind (profiled on page 24-25). But, for now, architect-sculptor Gehry is king. And he is a popular choice.

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