When the Walt Disney Concert Hall opens for its first public performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in October, its architect, Frank Gehry, should experience a final pang of bittersweet satisfaction. Glimmering on the intersection of First Street and Grand Avenue, Disney Hall is Gehry's homecoming; the first great public building he has made for the city that made him. It is arguably a more dramatic achievement even than his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao; indeed, its early designs predate the Bilbao building by several years, marking it out as perhaps the true blueprint of his mature style.

For 15 tormented years, Disney Hall has endured a storm of walkouts, personal betrayals, financial disasters, political recriminations and repeated redesigns. Now, however, it looks like a silver galleon under sail, its billowing steel sheets reflecting pink and orange light through the architectural desolation of downtown LA. It is an astonishing object, and it marks the first public acceptance of Gehry by Los Angeles, the home town he feels has been rejecting him for a lifetime.

Yet, while his greatest ambitions have at last come home to roost in America, his attention will continue to be fixed on Europe, where much of his most important work has developed. This month in Dundee, a more modest Gehry project will reach completion. His Maggie's Centre is a small but intensely personal building, a place where cancer patients undergoing treatment in the nearby oncology unit can come for refuge and counselling. It is Gehry's first British building, designed as a memorial to his friend, the Scottish designer Maggie Keswick Jencks, who died of cancer in 1995. He has envisaged it as a small lighthouse standing in the shadow of Ninewells Hospital and, albeit on a more intimate scale than Disney Hall, it too takes him back to his architectural roots.

Like no other living architect, Frank O Gehry embodies the idea of the contemporary masterpiece. His architecture springs from the high traditions of the 20th century, yet he has recast the elite impersonality of modernism into a joyous, accessible expressionism. He is the defining architect of the software age, yet he deeply mistrusts the cold touch of computer design. His Bilbao Guggenheim is one of most recognised structures in the world and a key reference in contemporary architecture, yet Gehry himself remains an oddly embattled figure. Almost every commission represents some kind of fight for him, and he does not take winning casually. When he talks, he has a habit of shrugging off his own stories, as if uncertain which would be the greater effort - to remember something or to forget it. He calls himself ''the luckiest guy on earth'' but has a habit of dwelling on setbacks: rivals who

have belittled his work, critics who have underrated him, problems with New York. At the age of 74, Gehry declares himself proud of still feeling ''unresolved''. It is a feeling he associates with creative activity. Every project represents an effort to forge a meaningful relationship with a client; if that relationship does not work, neither will the building.

I meet him in his new studio, a simple white warehouse space in an anonymous block of industrial parkland near the ocean in Los Angeles. His staff are clustered around models of buildings he has designed for Washington DC, Jerusalem, Ontario, Chicago, Venice, Panama and Massachusetts. In one corner, drawing no particular attention to itself, stands his Catia computer system, originally created to design ships and jets but used now by Gehry to construct complicated, bendy buildings at little more cost than ones made out of straight lines. The rest of the studio, however, is filled not with gizmos but with almost childlike building blocks. Every hand-built model goes through a painstaking series of redesigns, starting with frenetic, dreamlike drawings that are then translated into wood, metal and plastic and constantly reworked. Only at a late stage does the computer come into play: Gehry says

he finds it excruciating to look at computer simulations of his materials and textures, stripped of their sensuality.

Gehry's own office is an informal partition off the main studio. As I walk in, he looks up and hands me a letter. ''Whaddya think of that?'' he asks. The letter is co-signed by his big east-coast architectural rivals, Richard Meier and Peter Eisenman. ''Dear Frank,'' it begins. ''You are a prick.'' This turns out to be the latest volley in a skirmish that began over the competition to rebuild on Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Centre, in which Eisenman and Meier were co-participants. Gehry himself had put forward no proposal but, when asked by the New York Times what he thought of the designs, said the architects were being underpaid. The remark sparked outrage. All he meant, he says, was that the $40,000 on offer would not even have covered the basic costs of such complex proposals - but this became a new low in his relationship with New York and offered the city's architects the

perfect opportunity to tell an LA interloper to stay away from their turf.

Much of the animosity against Gehry dates back to the 1997 opening of the Bilbao Guggenheim. At around the same time, Meier's Getty Museum was being completed in Los Angeles. The Getty Museum had cost $1bn, the Guggenheim a rather more modest $100m - yet the former was largely ignored as art-lovers developed a sudden mania for trips to northern Spain. Ever since, bitterness has marked relations between the two architects.

Gehry says he has become weary of his fights with New York. Three years ago, he walked out on a competition he was set to win to build new offices for the New York Times; more recently the plug has been pulled on plans for another Guggenheim in Manhattan. He tells me that, contrary to accusations of his lack of concern, he had in fact put together some ideas of his own for the World Trade Centre site, though he never submitted them. He had taken some students to visit the Hagia Sofia mosque in Istanbul, in which Christian and Muslim symbols mingle together; this inspired an idea for a vast area of interior parkland.

He will not say what he thinks about the Daniel Libeskind plans that won the commission, but does express discomfort with the idea of architectural memorial. ''In 100 years' time, even the Vietnam War memorial [in Washington] will not have the same amount of people visiting it,'' he says. ''A memorial of a great thinker or a president can have meaning over many years, but a memorial of war or disaster doesn't have the same longevity.'' Gehry and Libeskind have much in common - they both lost family in the Holocaust; they have both found acceptance late in their careers; they both produce eccentrically sculpted buildings - but Gehry recoils from Libeskind's tragic worldview. ''My tendency is to make architecture that expresses joy,'' he has said. ''Architecture that expresses anger or hatred is alien to me.''

In the furore over his Ground Zero remark, what really got to Gehry was the accusation that he was only interested in money. What in fact interests him is the client. Gehry's definition of a good client is one who engages with him creatively: the cash has to be there, of course, but the energy and intricacies of the relationship always take precedence. In 1998, Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas billionaire, offered him a $1bn commission for a hotel and casino complex in Atlantic City. ''I'm happy,'' Wynn reportedly said. ''I've found my architect.'' Gehry replied: ''Steve, I don't think I've found my client.'' And if Gehry can turn down a man with a billion dollars on the table, he is also capable of working for no fee at all - which is what he has done with his Maggie's Centre in Dundee.

Maggie Keswick Jencks, the wife of the architect and critic Charles Jencks, struggled with cancer for seven years before her death in 1995. Towards the end of her life, she began fundraising for a series of cancer centres that would offer refuge from the grim corridors of the NHS. In a remarkable manifesto entitled A View from the Front Line, she described her experience of dying and analysed institutional approaches to her disease in America and Britain. The problem in Britain, she found, was not the treatment of the disease but the treatment of patients, who are herded through the system like bewildered sheep at the dip. She imagined a supplementary service: a series of small, almost domestic centres on hospital grounds, where the dying and convalescing could get detailed technical information, complementary treatments and a human response to their condition. ''What matters,'' she wrote,

''is not to lose the joy of living in the fear of dying.''

Gehry got to know Maggie in the late 1970s. He was already friends with Charles, her husband, but developed an even deeper friendship with her. Charles has a breezy explanation for the emotional attachment his wife inspired in Gehry: ''Frank often has intense relationships with women where he rather puts them on a pedestal, and especially with Maggie because she came from a background which he found interesting.'' Gehry, a Canadian Jew from a tough, working-class background - ''little Frankie Toronto'', as Charles Jencks refers to him in our conversation - was bewitched by this aristocratic British lady, who had been brought up in Scotland and the far east in a fabulously wealthy trading family and called herself a Catholic Buddhist. She moved effortlessly into his circle of Californian artists and architects and opened up a different world for him.

Gehry himself is not shy about expressing his attraction to Maggie. ''Here's this fancy lady from Britain,'' he says, ''with family titles and all that stuff, which I was susceptible to because of my upbringing, right? Maggie was a lady: she was kind, and she had a way of making you feel a part of '' His sentence trails off. Feeling part of things does not come instinctively to Gehry.

What Gehry in turn showed Maggie was artistic freedom. Before being exposed to his LA scene, she was a fairly conventional painter and designer, but the connection to LA inspired her to throw off her aesthetic conservatism. When she met Gehry, he was on the brink of achieving major breakthroughs in his own style; by 1989 he had found the perfect client, a fabulously wealthy, freewheeling Cleveland businessman called Peter Lewis who was willing to provide Gehry with the money and time to experiment freely with designs for Lewis's own home. Many other leading American architects were invited to participate in the project and, in the early 1990s, Gehry asked Maggie to design the garden. He was just beginning to use computer-assisted design, and the multiform shapes this allowed him to produce were like nothing the architectural world had seen before. Maggie joked that the bizarre structure of

the Lewis house resembled a series of internal organs. What she came up with in response were a series of red and blue fibreoptic rills that would act like veins and arteries into the stomach of Gehry's design.

The eventual cost of the building would have been $82m, and the project was abandoned - but it became a laboratory of ideas for Gehry. The moulding of the skin of those lurid designs led to some of the large-scale sculpting he would later put into Disney Hall and the Bilbao Guggenheim.

Maggie had already suffered her first bout of cancer by the time she came to work on the Lewis house, but it was only after her death that Gehry was approached by Marcia Blakenham, Maggie's partner on the cancer care programme. The first Maggie's Centre was completed in the grounds of Edinburgh's Western General Hospital in 1996; more recently, another has opened in Glasgow. With Charles Jencks pulling in contacts for further designs, the programme of Maggie's Centres has developed a remarkable list of international architects, with Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind and Richard Rogers creating them on various British sites. This is not merely celebrity gloss on a fundraising process. The centres address an acute kind of architectural puzzle: how to express intimate humanity in a building.

When Jencks saw the initial designs for Gehry's Maggie's Centre, he was stunned. ''This is going to be your Ronchamp,'' he said. It was, perhaps, the wrong thing to say. Le Corbusier's legendary French chapel at Ronchamp is the most revered work of fine-scale concrete architecture in the world; for Gehry, the notion that he might be aiming at that pitch of intellectual and artistic ambition set alarm bells ringing. Furthermore, though Jencks had latterly become a champion of his work, in the early days he was one of those critics Gehry felt had not taken him seriously. Possibly old feelings of rejection were playing their role: Gehry threw out the designs. As Jencks says, with a sigh: ''Every time I put Frank on a pedestal, he jumps off it.''

Gehry went into a long period of struggle over the building, but in the middle of his crisis he had a dream about Maggie. ''Which is what I often do,'' he explains. ''I did the same thing tearing down the interiors of my own house; I think one works it out in one's psyche. So Maggie came to me in a dream and said, 'Frank, it's a bit over the top. Calm it down.''' Gehry had identified Maggie as his partner on the building. ''I don't believe in the supernatural. But I do believe in the client,'' he says with a smile. He went on to produce model after model, fixing on two key images: at one corner, an entranceway like a lighthouse and, for the roof, a series of corrugations based on a shawl worn by a woman in a Vermeer portrait who reminded him of Maggie.

When the Bilbao Guggenheim was completed in 1997, Frank Gehry found himself in a position held by no architect since Michelangelo: celebrated as not only the world's master builder but its master artist. This was disturbingly close to the ideal he first nurtured as a young, commercial architect in LA, where he started his own studio in 1962, building offices and malls. In pursuit of greater fulfilment, he took refuge in the city's small, somewhat introverted art scene, emulating and envying its creative freedom. Few of his friends expected him to emerge as the biggest name in the city; when he did, some felt exploited by him.

Indeed, it is his idea of architecture as a form of personal expression that enrages his critics today. Hal Foster, an art professor at Princeton University in New Jersey, has denounced what he calls the excess of ''signature'' in Gehry buildings as an abuse of the nature of architecture, but that fails to take into account the context out of which Gehry's architecture grew: the linear sprawl of LA. On a grand scale, the city is shaped by a superstructural grid of roads and freeways, but it is otherwise characterised by a wild variety of forms. Down on the boardwalk of Venice Beach is a building Gehry once called his ''pride and joy'': a little three-storey house built in the early 1980s with a cabin at the front on a single stilt, overlooking the ocean like a lifeguard's watchtower. Venice is peppered with early Gehry buildings and they all seem to say: in this place, you can get away with


He views his hometown not simply as an arena of licence but as a specific architectural problem: and it is a sufficiently universal problem for him to tackle it everywhere he builds. He describes LA as the ''frontline of a democratic city, with all the freedoms that democracy allows, which has created a chaotic mess''. His buildings, then, are best understood as an attempt to articulate and synthesise the chaos of the democratic city.

His own explanation for them, however, only deepens the disdain of his critics: he describes them as ''fish''. The skin of a fish neither articulates nor implies the shape of its internal organs; it serves, however, to keep the organism dynamically coherent. Furthermore, a fish can be beautiful, and is certainly perfectly adapted to fit its environment. The analogy is also an expression of his anger at the pointless historical references of postmodernism: why just go back to Greek temples, he asks, when you can go back to fish, which are 100 million years old?

The fish idea also stands as a neat cryptogram of Gehry's childhood. He was born in Canada in 1929 and spent his early years in a working-class neighbourhood of Toronto. Later, the family moved to a place called Timmins in eastern Ontario, which was then a goldmining town; his father, Irving, supplied local bars with slot machines. The family name was not Gehry but Goldberg, and Frank Owen Goldberg was the only Jewish boy in his school. There he acquired the nicknames Fishhead and Fishface and was beaten up regularly. In what has become the most emblematic anecdote about his childhood, his maternal grandmother would keep live carp in the bathtub for gefilte fish on Fridays. It was with her that he would build little houses and cities out of scraps from his grandfather's hardware store. In 1997, Gehry told the New Yorker: ''That's what I remembered, years later, when I was struggling to find

out what I wanted to do in life.''

The family moved back to Toronto when slot machines were made illegal and Irving Goldberg set up a furniture business. In 1947, in the midst of a violent argument with Frank, he suffered a non-fatal heart attack. When the furniture business went bust, the Goldbergs moved to LA; Frank spent seven years as a truck driver, putting himself through architecture school at the University of Southern California. When he married his first wife, Anita, she was unhappy with the name Goldberg and, in 1954, just before graduating at the top of his class, Frank changed his surname to the less obviously Jewish Gehry, a name chosen by Anita and her mother. But he got to keep the initials he liked: FOG.

In the early 1970s, Gehry's marriage to Anita, with whom he had two children, broke down and ended in divorce. When a beautiful and witty Panamanian woman, Berta Aguilera, came to work as a secretary in his office, they fell in love and married. Gehry was initially wary of having more children but his analyst, Milton Wexler, brokered a deal with Berta in which Gehry agreed to have two children as long as she took responsibility for their upbringing.

It was Berta who pushed Gehry to undertake his most famous experiment in domestic architecture. In 1978 he took his Santa Monica house and, leaving the frame, surrounded it with a new building constructed from the materials he could see in the block around him. Locals - themselves living in often tasteless pastiches of various architectural periods - were at first outraged at Gehry's chain-link, plywood and corrugated metal hybrid. Now, however, visitors come on pilgrimage to the oddly harmonious construction, still inhabited by Frank and Berta.

None of Gehry's battles, though, has been as tough as that over Disney Hall. For a start, it very nearly wasn't his building at all. Richard Koshalek, chairman of the committee charged with finding an architect for the project, was approached by a civic leader the day before the final selection in 1988. ''He said, 'Whatever you do, you can't select Frank Gehry, because we can't have a chain-link, plywood, corrugated metal concert hall,''' Koshalek says. Gehry was only selected after the committee threatened to go public if their decision was not honoured.

The project had been made possible by an initial donation of $50m from Walt Disney's widow, Lillian - the largest single gift for a cultural building in US history. But by 1994, financial crises, arguments within the client committee (which included the LA Philharmonic and the county of LA), political atrophy and mistakes in the drawings meant Disney Hall was no more than a huge hole that had cost $80m. It was Gehry's ultimate nightmare: dealing with a multiheaded client with whom he could not form a creative partnership. He had also fallen out with his old friend Dan Dworsky, whose practice he had commissioned to produce working drawings, after Dworsky publicly declared Gehry's vision impossible to build.

Salvation came in 1996 from the LA real estate billionaire and art collector Eli Broad, who went to see the Bilbao Guggenheim and declared it a masterpiece. The LA press was also beginning to argue that Disney Hall must not be abandoned and that Gehry's was the right design; simultaneously, Koshalek was organising an exhibition of Gehry's models and drawings for Disney Hall, to rustle up support. Broad got together with LA mayor Richard Riordan to raise the extra $170m needed to get Disney Hall back on track - but then took the decision to bring in other firms to complete the design. Gehry threatened to resign from the project; it was at this point that the Disney family made another crucial intervention. Lillian's daughter, Diane Disney Miller, was furious that her mother's faith in Gehry was being traduced, and arranged for dedicated funds from the family to pay his office to complete the

working drawings. ''We promised LA a Frank Gehry building,'' she said. ''And that is what we intend to deliver.''

For Richard Koshalek, any alternative would have been unthinkable. ''Los Angeles,'' he says, ''is the metropolis of the 21st century. But deep down the leadership of the city never believed that: they always found it to be inferior to New York, London, Paris. They never saw its uniqueness as something to build on. Architects like Gehry see it differently. They have always felt that there was something in the psyche of LA that gave greater freedom, greater room for experimentation, greater room for the individual. Frank Gehry's Disney Hall is probably the most important public building in the history of Los Angeles. This is no longer about suburban culture: it is no longer in private residences where innovation is going to happen. Architects like Gehry are starting to do buildings that have to do with public spaces and public functions.''

Whether or not Disney Hall, clad in its 15,000 angel-hair steel plates, will help transform LA is questionable; what is less so is its success as a work of architecture. Just down the road from it is the new cathedral designed by the Spanish architect Jose Rafael Moneo. The contrast between the two buildings is instructive: from the outside, the cathedral resembles a concrete bunker, as if it were embarrassed to be in such an undistinguished environment. By contrast, Gehry's building, with its viewing platforms, gardens and multiple openings, embraces downtown LA, with all its skyscrapers, concrete detritus and hideous hotels. ''The Disney Hall has responsibility to the buildings around it, even though I don't like them,'' says Gehry. ''Democracy creates a chaotic city form, but I accept it in an optimistic way.''

If Disney Hall is settling Gehry's accounts with LA, other buildings are making similar settlements for him around the world. Having long borne the embarrassment of changing his name to make it sound less Jewish, Gehry says the construction of his Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem is allowing him to give open expression to his Jewishness. In Panama, his Museum of Biodiversity is under way; and the Art Gallery of Ontario overlooks some of his own childhood haunts in central Toronto. In each case, what is indisputable is the scale of his imaginative engagement with the buildings, places and people that are important to him: from a galleon in the vast suburban tide of Los Angeles to a tender tribute in Scotland built for his friend, Maggie. n

Frank Gehry will officially open the Maggie's Centre in Dundee on September 25. A day-long symposium about Maggie's Centres takes place at Dundee Contemporary Arts on September 26; among the speakers are Gehry and Charles Jencks. For information visit www.dca.org.uk or call Jane Cumberlidge on 01382 348060. To make a donation to Maggie's, visit www.maggiescentres.org or call 01382 496384. This is an edited version of an article which appeared in the August issue of Prospect magazine: www.prospect-magazine.co.uk