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Frank Gehry, project sketch of Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California (1991) (all images from Collection Frank Gehry, Los Angeles © 2016 Gehry Partners, LLP and courtesy Gehry Partners, LLP)

In an episode of the animated television series Arthur, Frank Gehry makes a surprise appearance, announcing that he’s been hired to design a new art gallery in the fictitious Elwood City. He holds up a drawing for all to see — a curious doodle, composed of frantic scribbles.

“That’s going to be a building?” Binky Barnes asks, incredulous.

“Well, it’s just a preliminary sketch,” Gehry replies with a smile. “But sure, why not? Who says a building has to look like a box?”

The scene captures the spirit of Gehry’s design process, a focus of a sprawling retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), simply titled Frank Gehry. While their physical results receive most of our attention (and awards), his designs on paper — of visions both realized and unrealized — are not only vital to understanding the architect’s practice but are also works of art in their own right. The exhibition traces Gehry from the early 1960s — after he opened his practice in 1962 — through the present, featuring over 200 of his drawings, many never before shown to the public, along with 65 three-dimensional models.

Frank Gehry, 8 Spruce Street Design, sketch and volume study, New York, New York (2007) (© 2016 Gehry Partners, LLP, courtesy Gehry Partners, LLP ) (click to enlarge)

Perhaps the most fascinating of these works are Gehry’s preliminary sketches, which do resemble the inscrutable one shown in “Arthur,” often consisting of fluid scrawls rendered in bank ink on Bristol board. Gestural and freeform, his lines depart from the precise, straight-edge-reliant drawings one usually sees in an architect’s portfolio. One can imagine Gehry brandishing his pen across a surface to create the rough beginnings of what may have become the smooth walls of a skyscraper; or circling the nib to create Cy Twombly-esque scribbles that may have manifested as overlapping structures. As curator Lauren Bergman described, Gehry’s disregard for specificity in the early stage of his design process is fundamental to his final visions — the energetic, abstract creations for which he is known.

“The sketches allow him to have the freedom of not being specific about every single architectural detail but to rather capture the energy and the spirit of the building,” Bergman told Hyperallergic. “I think sometimes architecture shows are really difficult for an audience because an audience doesn’t always know how to read a floor plan or understand an elevation — and you obviously can’t have the physical object in the room. How can you help them to understand that? What’s unique about Gehry is the sketches and models are so dynamic, so explosive and expressive, really, more than anything else. They’re so animated that I think it’s something viewers feel connected to in a really different way than with other architects.”

Gehry started working consistently with these black-and-white sketches in the 1980s, although plans from as early as the 1960s are also abstract and visually distant from their more conventional scale models. Some of these appear as fragments of spaces while others he made by playing with cubes, twisting and drawing out the shape. The gestural drawings are particularly challenging to read, Bergman said, because the meandering lines make it difficult to negotiate negative and positive space and distinguish between structural elements such as walls and windows. Within the jumble, though, lies a clear language.

“The more that you look at them, the more you understand that there is a lexicon — like you can start to read them, know sort of what he’s pointing at,” Bergman said. “But no matter whether you read that vocabulary or not, there’s such a spirit in them that you get the sense of the way the building is going to be expressed.”

In examining the successive sketches of buildings within each project, one notices changes that appear as simple scribbles but signify shifts in the progression of Gehry’s thinking. General outlines begin to appear that show what aspects of the building he is fixating on or how he is considering form over time. What initially appears as a bed of lettuce (Walt Disney Concert Hall), a slice of gooey lasagna (National Art Museum of China), or an iceberg slicing skywards from the ocean (Fondation Louis Vuitton) eventually evolves into explosive compositions with undulating walls and other architectural elements seemingly in flux.

“I think what makes Gehry unique in the broadest sense as a contemporary architect from other architects is this feeling that a building should be expressive, that it should provoke emotion, and that it should be saying something,” Bergman said. “I think what the sketches do is they show you the primacy of that practice — that really, at the crux, he is a humanist.”

Frank Gehry, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, design sketch of the riverfront elevation, Bilbao, Spain (c. 1991) (© 2016 Gehry Partners, LLP, courtesy Gehry Partners, LLP )

Frank Gehry, Ray and Maria Stata Center for Computer Information and Intelligence Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massacusetts, design sketch and volumetric study (1999) (© 2016 Gehry Partners, LLP, courtesy Gehry Partners, LLP )

Frank Gehry, design sketch and volume study for Walt Disney Concert Hall (1991) (© 2016 Gehry Partners, LLP, courtesy Gehry Partners, LLP )

Frank Gehry, design sketch and volume study of Fondation Louis Vuitton (2006) (© 2016 Gehry Partners, LLP, courtesy Gehry Partners, LLP )

Frank Gehry, design sketch and volume study of Quanzhou Museum of Contemporary Art (2012) (© 2016 Gehry Partners, LLP, courtesy Gehry Partners, LLP )

Frank Gehry continues at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (5905 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA) through March 20.

Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...