Two pages into “Building Art,” Paul Goldberger’s biography of Frank Gehry, you know you are in for an encounter with an architect who is ambitious, cocky and clever — and that your guide will present him with a wry and trenchant perspective. In his preface, Goldberger provides the essential information that although their acquaintance spans more than four decades and he had Gehry’s cooperation on the book, Gehry was not permitted “editorial control over the text”; with that, you are off and running on an informative, startling journey into the inner sanctums of modern architecture’s power structure.
“Gehry” was “Goldberg” before Frank changed it. His childhood was marked by both the values of many Eastern European Jewish immigrants to the New World and a keen awareness of the anti-Semitism that prevailed in the society where he hoped to flourish. His upbringing in a close family that emphasized hard work and Talmudic knowledge is the familiar stuff of many life stories. But his youth in the Jewish quarter of Toronto had some remarkable quirks. Frank’s grandfather gave him the role of “Shabbos goy” — the non-Jew who did all the work forbidden on the Sabbath. Rather than resent it, the future architect enjoyed running the family hardware store while the others kept observant; that energy and sanctioned irreverence would stay with him forever after.
“Nothing was sacred,” Gehry told his biographer. Having been a keen student of the Torah who aced his bar mitzvah reading, he quickly became a teenage atheist, sought out non-Jewish friends and went his own way. Like Steven Millhauser’s superb “Martin Dressler,” Goldberger’s big, colorful biography is a tale of moxie and success in the New World. […]