Skip to main content

Opinions are opinions, but facts can be a bit like fish: slippery, elusive and prone to contortion.

Frank Gehry wasn't shy this week when he offered The Globe his opinion of the condominium set to replace the row house of his Toronto childhood. "Awful," "not very original," "a riff on a lot of work I've seen," he called it.

As for facts, Mr. Gehry straightened some of those out, too, starting with the fish tale that so often surfaces in stories of the celebrated architect's early years at 15 Beverley St.

It goes like this. His grandmother, Lillian Caplan, kept live carp in the bathtub, a sight that informed the shimmering, shape-shifting designs that made Mr. Gehry the best-known building designer in the world.

This notion of ichthyological inspiration has been amplified in City of Toronto heritage reports on the nondescript row house. Officials even hoped to retrieve the old tub and plate it with titanium as a Gehry tribute, until they learned it had been lost to a previous renovation.

They needn't have bothered.

While it's true Mrs. Caplan kept live carp to make gefilte fish for Sabbath suppers - and that "every Jewish kid had that story" at the time - Mr. Gehry said his famed designs had "nothing to do with that house, nothing to do with the fish in the bathtub."

Rather, they evolved from a talk he gave in the 1980s criticizing postmodernist architecture for its over-reliance on the past.

"And I said, 'Well, if you need to go back, why don't you go back 300 million years before man, to fish?' " he recalled. "And then I started drawing fish in my notebook, and then slowly the drawings lent themselves to making fish-scale lamps, and it was all circumstantial."

This led Mr. Gehry to build large-scale fish figures, including a 12-metre-long commission in Italy "which was really kitsch," he said, "but if you stood beside it, you felt the movement, and that was something I was looking for [in building design]"

He certainly found it. Undulating surfaces under metallic, scale-like skins became an architectural signature for Mr. Gehry, most famously in 1997 with the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. It was recently named the world's greatest modern building in a Vanity Fair survey of architectural experts.

"That was what led to playing with those kind of forms and those kind of shapes and being able to build them," he said. "So it doesn't come from the fish in the bathtub, although ... I mean, it didn't hurt."

Another bit of misinformation, repeated by writers and the aforementioned city heritage officials, involves Mr. Gehry's birth name.

"People keep referring to me as Ephraim Goldberg," he said, laughing. "The Goldberg's right … but I was called Frank Goldberg, not Ephraim."

Ephraim was the Hebrew name his grandfather gave him, but aside from his bar mitzvah at the Chudleigh House - a former rental hall, kitty-corner to the Gehry-redesigned Art Gallery of Ontario - "Nobody ever used that name," he said. "So would you correct that?"

As for change from Goldberg to Gehry, "That's a long story that I've written about many times," he said. "You can Google it."

Interact with The Globe