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Architect Frank Gehry departs after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday.

Andrew Harnik/AP

Barack Obama expressed praise for the individual work of Frank Gehry and Lorne Michaels on Tuesday as he presented the Canadians with America's highest civilian honour: the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The Toronto natives were among 21 new honourees recognized by the U.S. president at the White House, with Obama describing the star-studded list of recipients as "a particularly impressive class."

Gehry is a world-renowned architect whose best-known buildings include the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the Dancing House in Prague and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. He was also behind the redesign of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

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Michaels is a 13-time Emmy winner best known for creating and producing the legendary sketch comedy series "Saturday Night Live." He has also produced "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," "Late Night with Seth Meyers" and the acclaimed sitcom "30 Rock.

Obama said Gehry had inspired the next generation through his advocacy for arts education, and that the architect had "never let popular acclaim reverse his impulse to defy convention."

"He spent his life rethinking shapes and mediums, seemingly the force of gravity itself," Obama said. "The idea of what architecture could be, he decided to upend; constantly repurposing every material available from titanium to paper towel tube.... Frank's work teaches us that while buildings may be sturdy and fixed to the ground, like all great art they can lift our spirits. They can soar, they can broaden our horizons."

The commander-in-chief received many laughs from the assembled audience as he turned his attention to Michaels, praising his work in launching the influential "SNL."

"On 'Saturday Night Live,' he's created a world where a band of no-names become comedy's biggest stars; where our friends the Coneheads and cheerleaders and land sharks and basement deadbeats and motivational speakers and an unfrozen caveman lawyer show up," said Obama.

"After four decades, even in this fractured media culture that we've got, 'SNL' remains appointment-viewing."

Following the president's remarks, citations were read for each individual honouree, with Gehry described as an "exemplar scholar of American innovation," and Michaels hailed as "one of the most transformative entertainment figures of our time."

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Other honourees included retired NBA legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan, philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, Oscar winners Robert De Niro and Tom Hanks, screen legends Robert Redford and Cicely Tyson, rocker Bruce Springsteen, talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, and music icon Diana Ross.

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