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ARCHITECTURE inspired by ART. Frank Gehry's highly original designs are showcased in an offbeat, touring exhibition

TO describe Frank Gehry as an architect is a little like calling Charles Eames a designer, or Leonard Bernstein a conductor. Such simple labels don't do full justice to a broad career. For Gehry is an artist in a profession filled with draftsmen. Unlike nearly all his fellow practitioners, Gehry finds his design sources not by mining the veins of architectural history, but rather in the rich lode abstract art provides.

His closest friends have always been painters and sculptors, and they continue to provide his inspiration. Make no mistake, however. Despite his heavily artistic bent, Gehry is first and foremost an architect, as he proudly and persistently proclaims.

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That said, Gehry's buildings can be off-putting because they are so unlike what we have come to recognize as architecture.

Although he has long championed the ordinary - materials such as raw plywood, exposed studs, chain-link fence, and corrugated metal predominate - the results are extraordinary.

What may at first appear to be bizarre shapes turn, upon closer examination, into delightful, flowing interiors suffused with natural light. Gehry's work may indeed be unorthodox, but, as the superb exhibition mounted by the Walker Art Center here (through Nov. 30) ably and amply demonstrates, his unique and intensely personal vision is worthy of more than a passing look.

Gehry was born in Toronto but moved with his parents to Los Angeles in 1947. He not only designs buildings, but also creates sculptural art objects.

Several years ago he was asked by a maker of plastic laminate to fashion an object for the firm's design collection. Frustrated at one point, he threw a large sheet of the material on the floor, where it splintered. The little pieces, he thought, resembled scales, and turning the chips into fish was the logical next step.

Subsequently, the fish, which sold for upwards of $14,000 each, metamorphosed into snakes, and now both are finding their way into his architecture.

Gehry also designs furniture and, in keeping with his somewhat eccentric taste in materials, has used corrugated cardboard laminated in sheets to form chairs and tables. Later, he used thick blocks of corrugated cardboard to create the equivalent of an overstuffed armchair. Gehry also designed a 23-foot-tall fish with scales made of glass plates bound by silicone over a wood and metal frame. All these objects offer an unusual perspective to a show about an architect.

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For years, such exhibits have relied on photographs, renderings, plans, and small models. While the objects add to the Gehry oeuvre, Mildred Friedman, curator of design for the Walker Art Center and the organizer of this show, sought a new approach, one that would permit the museumgoer to be able to experience Gehry's ideas. The solution lay in the architect himself. Gehry, who has designed installations for a number of art exhibitions, created five structures that give a sense of his spaces and demonstrate the materials that fill his palette. Each of these mini-Gehry forms serves as a backdrop for display of the architect's larger work.

A ziggurat, covered with an elegant Finnish plywood that Gehry used on the exterior of the chapel in his award-winning design for the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, offers an allusion to a coiled snake. Two large shapes, one a long curve and the other rectangular, are derived from the design of a guest house now under construction on an estate in nearby Wayzata, Minn. These forms, which stem from the architect's current interest in volumetric objects gathered together, are sheathed in bright copper and lead-coated copper, the latter a material used at the guest house.

A series of angled, unpainted plywood box-beams resembling stylized tree branches - a scheme Gehry used at Rebecca's, a new restaurant he designed near his studio in Venice, Calif. - line the steps to a second gallery. There, an open room walled in large, corrugated cardboard blocks holds furniture Gehry designed out of the same material.

Lastly, a gigantic, headless and tailless fish - constructed like a boat with laminated wood beams and purlins and covered with hexagonal sheets of lead that resemble scales - serves as a gallery for Gehry's plastic fish and snakes. Each animal is lit from within. The darkened room amplifies their eerie glow.

The show also makes prominent use of handsome architectural models. Among them are a townhouse in Beverly Hills that looks like a collection of children's building blocks set on the roof of a nondescript apartment building; the California Aerospace Museum in Los Angeles, which resembles a huge Mark di Suvero sculpture, complete with a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter jet perched in midair on the fa,cade; and one of Gehry's latest, the Frances Howard Goldwyn Regional Branch Library, a series of glazed boxes set around a water-filled court. This surprising oasis is one block from the illustrious corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street.

Given Gehry's interests, it should come as no surprise that he welcomes the idea of collaborating with artists on projects.

Pop sculptor Claes Oldenburg and his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, joined with Gehry to design a camp in the Santa Monica Mountains for children diagnosed as terminally ill.

The team proposed a variety of small structures that looked as if they had been washed up and left on the hillside, the detritus of a tidal wave. The camp kitchen, for example, was in the form of a huge milk can, while the dining hall porch resembled an inverted ship's hull. While the project unfortunately came to naught - the Camp Good Times's board decided on a more rustic Huckleberry- Finn look (and the project was never built) - another collaboration by the same trio is in the works.

For an office building in Venice, Calif., a pair of binoculars four stories high will serve as the entrance.

As this show and its excellent catalog (published by the Walker with Rizzoli International) reveal, Gehry has successfully bridged the gap betwen art and architecture in ways few others have dared. His popular and critical success has resulted in work now reaching beyond its previous Southern California bounds to cities like Boston, New Haven, Cleveland, and Dallas.

The latest: a restaurant in Kobe, Japan, that will feature a 75-foot-tall fish, with scales created from panels of chain link fence. Clearly, Gehry's joy and fascination continue to build, and one can hardly imagine what to expect next from this masterful architect.

After closing at the Walker Art Center, the show travels to the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, the Art Gallery at Harbourfront in Toronto, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Carleton Knight III reports regularly on architecture for the Monitor.

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