ARCHITECTURE's most prestigious honor, the Pritzker Architecture Prize, will be awarded Frank O. Gehry at the historic Japanese national treasure, Todai-ji Temple, in Nara, Japan, May 18. The California architect is the sixth American to receive the prize, which consists of a $100,000 grant, a medallion, and formal certificate. Gehry joins such giants of architecture and such Pritzker laureates as Philip Johnson, Luis Barragan, Ieoh Ming Pei, James Sterling, and Kenzo Tange.
Gehry, who was told of the honor while he was in Amsterdam, said, ``I didn't expect it. I was in total shock!''
The call from Bill Lacy, secretary to the Pritzker jury, came in the middle of the night. ``I sleepily answered the phone in my hotel room,'' Gehry explained; ``then I heard the news and was wide awake the rest of the night!''
During the past few months, Gehry's overdue recognition hasn't come by ripples but by waves. Four months ago he was awarded one of his important commissions, the $100 million Walt Disney Concert Hall for the Los Angeles Music Center.
The Pritzker Prize, often described as the ``Nobel of Architecture,'' was established by the Hyatt Foundation in 1979. According to Jay A. Pritzker, president of the foundation, ``At the time the prize was suggested, we were in a receptive frame of mind regarding architecture, because we were so heavily involved with the planning, design, and construction of hotels around the world. We became keenly aware of just how little regard there was for the art of architectue.''
To Gehry, the honor is especially meaningful. He has long considered himself ignored. ``I have suffered the agony of not even getting into the room. I'd make a presentation, and someone would always say, `Too far out.' Then I began to take, not throwaway projects, but ones the classy architects wouldn't consider. I'd begin with a funny little store, and by use of cheap materials, detailed planning, turn it around.''
No one can ignore Gehry's impact in southern California, where he lives. His commissions, past and present, span the continent - from the Merriweather Post Pavilion of Music in Columbia, Md., to the Aerospace Museum in Exposition Park in Los Angeles. Gehry's work also circles the world, from a much-discussed restaurant shaped like a giant fish, the Fish-Dance Restaurant in Kobe, Japan, to a furniture and manufacturing facility and museum in Well am Rhein, West Germany, to a major shopping mall, Santa Monica Place, a short distance from his Santa Monica home.
Gehry said, ``I'm tired of the Tower of Babel, with everyone talking a different language. I would like to see more interaction between architects, more discussions, exchange of ideas. I think of the enclave of the Abstract Expressionists; they talked with each other, discussed problems, then went their way and did their own paintings.''
Friendly and outspoken, Gehry never dodges a question or an issue. He frequently makes use of materials such as chain-link fencing. ``Years ago, I designed the Merriweather Post Pavilion, then they began to have rock concerts, and circled it with double chain-link fence. I hated it. Then, I thought if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, and discovered artistic ways to use the material.''
The Santa Monica Place shopping mall has one outside wall, nearly 300 feet long and six stories tall, hung with a curtain of chain link. Then a second layer over it, in a contrasting color, spells out its name. He has used corrugated metal in unorthodox ways, and even made furniture from cardboard.
The furniture designs may be a flashback to his father's furniture store in his native Toronto, Calif., where he was born Frank Goldberg. His family moved to California in 1947 when the business failed. There wasn't any chance teen-age Frank could go to college. But, filled with curiosity and energy, he drove a truck during the day and took night courses at college.
Such dedication was evident, for he graduated from the University of Southern California in 1954. Next came the Army, then the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Gehry worked for Victor Gruen & Associates, and briefly for Pereira & Luckman. He also worked for a year in Paris in the office of Andr'e Remondet. By 1962, he returned to Los Angeles and set up his own office. He has two daughters by his first marriage, and two sons, Alejandro and Sammy, by his wife, Berta, a native of Panama.
When the prize was announced, Jay Pritzker said, ``The great body of work of architect Frank Gehry, which includes residences, museums, libraries, schools, shops, concert halls, restaurants, all manner of public buildings, and even a hay barn, demonstrates a range of styles that defies classification, but certainly warrants recognition for his contributions to the art of architecture.''
To Frank Gehry, the Pritzker crowns a list of honors that includes more than 25 national and regional American Institute of Architects awards, the Brunner Prize, and three honorary doctorates from colleges. And in 1986, a retrospective of his works was organized as a major exhibition that traveled to museums across the United States.
In addition to architecture, Gehry is widely known for designing museum exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. These include the Art Treasures of Japan and the Treasures of Tutankhamun, as well as the works of contemporary artists.
Frank Gehry, the 12th Pritzker laureate, is contemporary, challenging, controversial, and, to quote him, ``obsessed with architecture.''
``My personal philosophy,'' he explained, ``is to make things for people. Deal with the world, don't sugarcoat it. Accept the city as it is, you'll be surrounded by buildings, OK, play off this. Instead of fighting, take what is there and work with it. It's inclusive, not exclusive, and allows more freedom to explore.''