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Architect Frank Gehry was at a press conference at the AGO in Toronto on October 1, 2012. He was there with David Mirvish to speak about a new development along King Street west in Toronto, that Gehry is designing for Mirvish.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

He was an unlikely media star: a rumpled, white-haired sexagenarian wearing an all-black outfit and a lopsided grin. When the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao opened in 1997, Frank Gehry didn't stride onto the world stage so much as amble in.

Yet the building was a stunner: a technical tour de force, a composition dramatic enough to be called "the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe," a new example for city building. How did it emerge from the mind of this warm, unpretentious artist?

Within a few pages of Building Art, critic Paul Goldberger provides the answer: Uncle Frank is a myth. His "'aw-shucks' air" is a facade, quickly demolished. "Though Gehry was ridden with angst throughout his life," Goldberger writes, "his manner came off as relaxed, low-key and amiable, and his steely determination … was hidden behind an easygoing exterior."

Yet Gehry's most famous buildings, such as Bilbao, give the opposite impression: They appear challenging, even shocking, but under the surface they are straightforward and easy to like.

So how does the personality explain the work? And how did this iconoclastic, stubborn Canadian-Californian become the world's most famous architect? This, the first full-length biography of Gehry, implies some answers but never really delivers them. Marilyn Monroe remains a mystery as Goldberger gives us Frank.

Frank Owen Goldberg, to start, was born at Toronto General Hospital in February 1929. He was shy – self-conscious about the tumour on his left leg – yet also, in Goldberger's account, "headstrong and determined." Jewish Toronto in the Depression was haimish; Gehry's family and neighbours felt embattled by anti-Semitism, but were tight-knit and ambitious. They were assimilating, but still invested in their European ancestral folk ways. Gehry's grandmother would buy live carp, bring them home to the bathtub and serve them at Friday night dinner.

The dominant force here is Irving Goldberg, Frank's father: voluble and abusive, a man of the left and an entrepreneur who bounced from running a hardware store to running slot machines. "His talent" – as Saul Bellow wrote of his own, similar father – "was for failure." Gehry grew up determined to follow his mother Thelma and her parents, the Caplans, with whom he read the Talmud, but he remained hungry for Irving's approval.

Gehry, who spent decades in psychoanalysis, has been clear enough on these matters. Goldberger, working with memories from Frank's sister Doreen, colours in the outlines. (His depiction of Toronto is clearly second-hand, dotted with small factual errors.)

When Gehry was 17, he had a fistfight with his father ("for the first time, I hit him") that induced a heart attack, and Irving's ill health sent the family for a permanent convalescence in sunny Southern California. You can imagine this as the turning point in a biopic: as Gehry steps off the train in Los Angeles's Union Station, the screen brightens, the colours grow richer. "He had been in Kansas," Goldberger writes, "and this was Oz."

But the Goldbergs were poor, and Frank knew nothing about architecture. Goldberger presents his transition from kitchen cabinet installer to trained architect in a quick montage. Through college and architecture school he absorbs the ethos of Southern California modernism – informed by Japanese tradition, European expatriates such as Rudolf Schindler, and an engagement with the natural world.

This is also the moment when architecture is engaged in expanding the welfare state, and the liberal son of the working class is happy to absorb some professional idealism: "You don't want to design rich guys' houses," one mentor tells him.

By 1957, he has changed his last name to the Gentile-sounding Gehry. He is married with two daughters, has been in and out of the army (bad soldier, good designer) and is studying city planning at Harvard. When he doesn't deliver the dry theoretical work that is expected of him, he is publicly scolded by the dean; Gehry tells him, "Go fuck yourself."

That wasn't the last time that Gehry displayed a problem with authority – and not surprisingly, he has had few bosses. He spent several years in and out of top Los Angeles firms, and worked for a Paris architect in 1960, but from that point on, Gehry ran his own ship.

His first notoriety came in the late 1970s with the house he built for his second wife and two young sons – wrapping a Dutch colonial in a sharply angled structure of plywood, corrugated metal and chain-link fence. This was Gehry's way of taking the stuff of Los Angeles's everyday building culture and transforming it into art. Chain-link was everywhere; people chose to ignore it. Instead, why not celebrate it? "I think architecture should deal with the mess," Gehry would later say.

He borrowed that ethos in part from artist friends in L.A. and New York, who were his closest colleagues in the 1960s. Robert Rauschenberg's "Combines" – three-dimensional works that blended painting and collage, incorporating trash and castoff objects – were touchstones for his architecture.

But Gehry is not a painter or a sculptor; like any architect, he needed clients with capital in order to express himself. He found "rich guys" to be his patrons, most notably the insurance billionaire Peter Lewis. He developed a mature style that carried forward into small museums and then an office building in Prague nicknamed Fred and Ginger – the work becoming increasingly curvy and at times representational, evoking familiar forms such as fish. These explorations drove Gehry and his colleagues to embrace computers; their adaptation of software from the aerospace industry was a milestone for architecture, making Bilbao and L.A.'s Disney Hall economical.

And while Goldberger sedulously catalogues the business and managerial aspects of Gehry's career, the details run together. The motif is clear enough: Gehry is an anxious, ambitious perfectionist who loves being the underdog but really hates to lose. His self-sabotaging tendencies come out as he repeatedly courts powerful clients, then fires them or drives them off with relentless tinkering over his work. The wreckage of his personal life – a nasty divorce, strained relationships with his first two children, broken friendships and business relationships – is revealed with seeming candour.

But what does this teach us about architecture? Not a lot. Gehry's work is intuitive but, he insists, not personal; when his analyst suggests that his use of chain-link has something to do with his bitterness in his doomed first marriage, he angrily rejects that reading. Goldberger, reporting on this, takes him at his word. So, fine: biography is cheap. Then why write a chronological life in the first place?

With Gehry, whose work is personal and expressive, it almost makes sense, but still a critic has to go deep and wide. How does this most idiosyncratic of architects, and his sizable staff, actually design buildings? And what weather has Gehry been reacting to?

The answers are complex, because Gehry is full of contradictions. The ultimate artist-architect, he insists on seeing himself as a pragmatic craftsman. Resolutely avant-garde, he has always been intuitive and untheoretical. While he flirted in the 1970s with the arch historicism of postmodern architecture, he has mostly followed his own path.

Goldberger – after 40 years of thoughtful writing on architecture, most recently for Vanity Fair – knows all this, but doesn't have the distance to resolve it. The two men have a warm relationship, and Goldberger is clearly struggling to marshal a mountain of Gehryiana.

Goldberger writes in the past tense, finding a near-ending in the shower of glory at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris last year. Yet Gehry's story is not yet finished. At 86, he continues to play against type. Working with trusted staff, including his son, Alejo, he has struggled with politics while designing a Washington, D.C. monument to Dwight Eisenhower; this year the firm completed an underwhelming office building for Facebook in Silicon Valley; and Gehry was recently revealed as the lead designer of a reclamation of the Los Angeles River. That is a bizarre miscasting, but shows Gehry striving to do city-scaled work, and expand his range. "I'm using what I learned at Harvard," he said in a recent radio interview. No profanities required, this time.

He also has several major buildings in the works, including the Mirvish Gehry project in Toronto, which if completed will be the largest thing he has ever built. It finds him back in the city of his idealized youth, which has changed beyond recognition. "I remember those warehouses," he told me last year. "I remember those streets." With enough time and good fortune, he'll leave a mark on the city that is 92 storeys high. It's easy now to imagine what Frankie Goldberg might have felt about this. It'll take another book to unpack what Frank Gehry has to say.

Alex Bozikovic covers architecture and urbanism for The Globe and Mail.

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