Artistic composition is the act of relating various forms to one another in order to create order and unity. Frank Gehry approaches architectural design in a similar way.
The Italian artist Morandi’s still-life studies of bottles, boxes, cups, and vases link strongly to Gehry’s one-room building concept, and particularly to the unique design of the Winton Guest House. As Gehry told author Barbara Isenberg during an interview for her 2009 book, Conversations with Frank Gehry:
When I discovered the pictures of Giorgio Morandi, I just went nuts because Morandi was drawing bottles which were essentially one-room buildings and creating villages of bottles. I liked that.
Gehry also recalls Philip Johnson saying that all the best buildings in history were one-room buildings like Chartres Cathedral. Gehry understood this concept as getting to the purest place in design, where artistic intention is given its simplest expression. The attention given to the diverse architectural elements in the guest house suggests an artistic sensibility in architecture that is intriguing from every angle.
The Wintons envisioned a space that their grandchildren would love to visit.
This gave Gehry the freedom to design the house with playfulness and joy in mind. With a robust budget and utmost confidence from his clients, Gehry first included a log cabin second story in the first model in honor of Mike Winton's generational family lumber business.
He then began to bring in forms of different shapes and materials, all rotating around a central tower, ultimately refining them into a sculptural object that from the terrace of the Johnson house reads as sculpture with no visible windows or doors.
Gehry addressed the challenge of building adjacent to a Philip Johnson masterpiece with great respect. The view of the guest house from the Johnson patio included no windows, emphasizing the building’s sculptural presence.
This visual connection between the houses was not always part of the plan, however. As Gehry said, “I didn’t want to mess around with Uncle Philip’s baby. I’m sure he was horrified when he heard I was doing it. So I decided to go on the other side of the hedge where we could create a separate zone.”
Gehry had landscape architect Peter Walker keep the hedge between the buildings ensuring that the guest house would look “inevitable” and that the clients would find “a little jewel on the other side of the hedge.”
But the existing fifteen-foot-tall by four-foot-wide hedge prevented the dialogue that the Wintons sought, so they decided to take it down. Mike initially wanted to remove only a portion of the hedge, but when the backhoe arrived on site in 1986 Penny told them to remove it all and retreated to the Johnson house. She came out after the hedge was gone and immediately recognized the powerful energy at work, calling up Gehry and saying, “The houses are singing to each other!”