March 05, 1979 12:00 PM

His Santa Monica home, says architect Frank Gehry, looks like “something that arrived in a packing crate that’s been only partly torn away.” But that’s just what the master of “Cheapscape” architecture intended. Freely mixing modern design and unconventional building materials, Gehry, 49, has stirred up a controversy among his peers and the public. “I try to rid myself of the burden of culture,” he explains. “I’m looking for new ways to approach the work.” His goal, Gehry sums up, is a new “no-rules architecture,” a creative revolution in which “there is no ugly or pretty, no right or wrong.”

Perhaps his major statements are the $4.5 million Concord (Calif.) Pavilion, an outdoor amphitheater, and the $60 million Santa Monica Place, an enclosed mall two city blocks long, but Gehry’s cause célèbre is his own $160,000 converted bungalow. The architect outraged his middle-class Santa Monica neighborhood by spending $60,000 to enlarge the existing pink-shingled eight-room house, surrounding it with a one-and-a-half-story corrugated metal jacket. “It’s antisocial,” says a neighbor. “It spoils the view from my picture window,” complains another. Some residents tried unsuccessfully to have the house condemned as a violation of local building codes. Even Gehry admits a certain uneasiness about living in the house at first: “It was more surreal than I thought it would be.” But those who don’t regard his home as an eyesore are intrigued. On Halloween Gehry noticed the parents of trick-or-treaters standing in front, looking curiously at his dream house, so he invited them in for a tour.

The unconventional interior seems like a house within a house—which is exactly what it is, since Gehry left three of the four original exterior walls standing. (One was removed to enlarge the living room.) “I became obsessed with keeping the integrity of the original house,” he explains, “but I wanted to build some more space into it.” As a result, the old windows and doors now open to an expanded dining area, a kitchen with poured asphalt floor (so it can be hosed down) and a laundry room.

It took about two months for Gehry, his handsome Panamanian-born second wife, Berta, and their 2-year-old son, Alejandro, to become accustomed to the new design. “There’s so much going on visually I discover something new every day,” says Berta. The house remains largely unfurnished. “We find ourselves looking for something suitable,” Berta notes, “and not being able to decide.” But the Gehrys insist they’re comfortable.

A Toronto-born graduate of USC who studied urban planning at Harvard, Gehry started his own architectural firm in Santa Monica in 1962. Within five years he found his designs veering away from conventional architectural boundaries, and his more hidebound clients took their business elsewhere. “Then I began to realize I was doing something somebody else wasn’t, and I got pretty excited,” Gehry grins. It was the birth of Cheapscape. His new designs debuted in 1972 at Blooming-dale’s in the form of furniture made of heavy-duty cardboard. The purpose then as now was to use inexpensive material in an unconventional way.

In designing buildings, Gehry says that he has taken Cheapscape a step further by “responding to the times by looking for ways to build less expensively.” His bid for the Santa Monica Place was one of the lowest. Although the project is a joint venture with two development firms, the building complex displays Gehry’s unmistakable style with such touches as vinyl-coated chain link on one of the two parking structures. When the Place is completed in August 1980 the “steel mesh,” as he calls it, will be bathed in light, creating the effect of a theatrical scrim at night.

The architectural community has mixed reactions to Gehry’s “no rules” breakthrough. Philip Johnson, the grand old (72) man of contemporary architecture, calls Gehry one of today’s most innovative designers: “He’s a great experimenter with pop materials. Gehry goes farthest out in inventing new shapes.” Some colleagues feel that Gehry’s work is “unrefined” or “controversial for controversy’s sake.” Observes Pete Walker, chairman of Harvard’s landscape architecture department: “Frank’s always been willing to step into what appear to be outlandish projects to prove a point, but actually he’s playing with new ideas. Every single one of his buildings has stretched the imagination a little.”

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