Sketchbook: Chaos theory

The man who transformed Bilbao with his wildly curvy Guggenheim Museum is finally about to make his mark in Britain. Nonie Niesewand reveals how Frank Gehry starts with a scribble and ends with a masterpiece

hen architect Frank Gehry hits town, the place is never the same again. Not only does the skyline change. Fame and fortune follow in his slipstream, even in nowheresville. Take Weil-am-Rhein near the Swiss border in Germany. His chair museum next to the Vitra chair factory pulls four architectural tour parties every day, 10 years after it opened. Or Bilbao, where Gehry turned a down-at-heel town into an international destination. More curvaceous than a supermodel and taking as many photocalls, the Guggenheim, sculpted in tensile titanium, made Frank Gehry a household name, even in Britain where we have been slow to recognise his pulling power. Not for want of trying, on Gehry's part - he is still grouchy about losing the commission to design a millennium bridge over the Thames to Norman Foster, and the new Tate Gallery at Bankside to the Swiss duo of Herzog & de Meuron.

Now the architect who can command silly money for his signature on a building has waived his fees to design his first in Britain, a small, low-budget cancer care centre in Dundee, in honour of his friend, Maggie Keswick Jencks, who died of cancer in 1996. The first Maggie's Centre cancer care unit, by architect Richard Murphy, opened in Edinburgh in 1997, inspired by her vision of better quality care and support for patients and their families as they dealt with the disease. Neither hospice nor hospital, these centres are designed to complement orthodox treatments - symbolised in Dundee by a Gehry bridge over a man-made lake, linking the Maggie's Centre to Ninewells Hospital.

At the Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre (also designed by Murphy), sketches and models of the cancer centre are on show, along with profiles of other Gehry landmarks. Gehry's first sketches for his buildings are deceptively like doodles. He then likes to flesh out his ideas with building blocks - the legacy of a childhood spent playing with them on his grandmother's verandah in Toronto. Sketches become piles of blocks which are stacked, skewed, split and coloured on tracing-paper sites. Then his studio assembles models, which constantly change size, in paper and cellophane, or in spiralling balsa wood. These models are tools, not iconic objects. Finally they are transferred to a computer. Bits of chain-mail, perforated wire mesh and titanium lying about the exhibition illustrate Gehry's fascination with finding the right membrane to contain his genius.

'Frank O Gehry: The Architect's Studio' is at the Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre, 152 Nethergate, Dundee, until 29 August

Maggie's Centre, Dundee

The Maggie's Cancer Care Centre in Dundee will be built next year. A first-floor living room has views of ancient woodlands, depicted as wild squiggles on either side of this sketch. Imploding boxes on the first floor represent different rooms: for alternative therapies, exercise and counselling, a kitchen, an Internet facility and library. The circle is the man-made lake crossed with a bridge to the Ninewells Hospital, since all the treatments offered at Maggie's Centre are complementary to existing orthodox medicine, not alternative to it.

DG Bank, Pariser Platz, Berlin

No ambitious retail store or bank can be built without an atrium these days, but Gehry invades the designer accessory of the Nineties with a giant fish-like structure landing seven storeys high on top of his DG Bank HQ. This building, which also features 39 apartments, is in Berlin's fashionable new diplomatic quarter on the former site of the Berlin Wall, opposite the Reichstag. Gehry responds to the site in dramatic style. Fifty feet below the atrium roof he suspends director's conference rooms in a steel-framed, concrete-clad shape, which is actually called the "Horse's Skull". Inside it is lined with Douglas fir. This head-turning exercise in turn hovers menacingly above a 100-seat auditorium. It was Gehry's reaction to the outmoded planning regulations that still operate in Berlin, meaning that the exterior of the building had to match the existing 18th- century stone facades, even to the extent of windows.

Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles

LA's search for civic identity was helped by a pounds 50m donation by Walt Disney's widow, Lilian, to the LA Philharmonia for a new music hall. Frank Gehry was signed up to deliver a 2,400-seat concert auditorium, chamber music hall, large foyer and underground car park. The "best acoustics in a visionary building" was the goal, with the added ambition "to reflect the diverse cultural population". But the brief changed. Frank's original idea was for a sculptural and layered limestone building which could tilt on an axis, with a large glass-covered garden foyer designed to be the "living room of the city". But the great civic space was scaled down, and acoustics finally determined the overall design. Now the billowing arc of the ceiling and its high, bowed walls are resolved in the finished building as three helmets rising high above the city. Far corners considered acoustically dead were ultimately cut. Skylights set into these billowed arcs at either end of the chambers incline upwards, following the path travelled by the music, their convex surfaces acoustically dispersing the concert hall sound.

Nationale-Nederland Building, Prague

These twin towers are known as Fred and Ginger, and they certainly lean into one another as gracefully as any dancers. Rather than clashing blocks, this couple interlock. Fred is the opaque cylindrical tower in precast concrete panels, with a shaped swirl known as The Wave across his features. Ginger is the tapering curtain glass one leaning into Fred, a voluminous swirl of skirts at the base set upon slender columns like legs skating the block. Transparent Ginger is clad in two layers of glass-curtain wall: the interior layer is the actual internal wall of the building and the outer one like a gown sweeping the street. Prada couldn't have done it more fashionably. The towers turn a corner in historic Prague - Gehry's facades stretch the scale and rhythm of the row of adjacent houses. n

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