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Architect Gehry on LEED Buildings: Humbug

Posted by: Michael Arndt on April 07, 2010

Frank Gehry has never designed a structure that’s achieved LEED certification, and I’d wager that he never will, based on his gruff remarks during a public Q&A on April 6 in Chicago. The 81-year-old also jabbed a thumb, somewhat in jest, in the eye of fellow architect Renzo Piano and museum directors in general, and he described the early stages of creating a design.

Gehry, whose most famous work is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, was interviewed in the Harold Washington Library by Thomas Pritzker, chairman of the Pritzker Foundation, which awards the annual Pritzker Architecture Prize, and Hyatt Hotels Corp. His family also wrote the check for the Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago’s Millennium Park. (Hyatt itself recently won a LEED silver designation for a new hotel in Seattle.)

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and was created by the U.S. Green Building Council to promote the construction of buildings that are healthier for the earth as well as occupants inside. Developers seems to be tripping over one another to win LEED status these days.

What would you think, Pritzker asked him as they sat in hard-backed chairs on an auditorium stage, if a client said he wanted a LEED-certified building? “Oh, great,” Gehry answered in a high, mock-excited voice, as the audience laughed. Then, back in his regular voice, he dismissed environmental concerns as largely political concerns. “A lot of LEEDs are given for bogus stuff. A lot of the things they do really don’t save energy.”

He also said the expense of building to LEED standards often outweighs the benefits. On smaller projects, he said, “the costs of incorporating those kind of things don’t pay back in your lifetime.”

He seemed eager to resume another fight when the conversation turned to Millennium Park, whose new neighbors include the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing, designed by Piano and opened last year largely to acclaim.

Gehry recalled daring Piano to relocate the addition so it would directly face Millennium Park and the Pritzker Pavilion. “Renzo, come get me, baby,” Gehry said he told him. Piano did move the annex, which is now linked by a pedestrian bridge to the park. So how do you think it turned out? Pritzker asked.

Gehry replied that from inside the Modern Wing galleries, visitors can’t help but see the stainless-steel ribbons that adorn his pavilion. “He’s gotten better,” he faint-praised Piano, again to laughter. “You know the sibling rivalry between architects. We love each other, but we’re insanely competitive. Even at 81, I still do it. I can’t help myself.”

He suggested that something bold, like his Bilbao museum, would have been a better. But he said right after that building opened, the world’s top museum directors got together in London and, according to a friend who was there, voted never to commission another like it. “I think museum curators and directors like the predictable, so it’s all easy,” Gehry said. “A little bit of laziness, maybe.”

Pritzker recalled being a family vacation with Gehry in India and watched him sketch plans for a new building. Pritzker said the drawings looked like “scribbling.” Gehry said there’s more to building design than that, though he confessed: “I’ve always wanted to figure out to just do the sketch, get paid, and get out of there.”

He said his first step is to build a site model of roughly 10 blocks around the site, to see how his new building night fit in. Then he does a bigger-scale model of two or three blocks. He also walks around the area to understand the community. “It’s a pretty well-informed mind that starts to sketch,” he said. “I maybe do 20 or 30 of these drawings that look like scribbles. But when the buildings are finished and you look at the drawings, a lot of them look like the buildings.”

Gehry said he’s kept these sketches over his career and now has a file cabinet with perhaps 4,000 drawings. I’m sure even one of those stick-in-the-mud museum curators would love to put them on display.

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Reader Comments

Maria Cruz

April 8, 2010 10:56 AM

Hey here's an article from my event the other night. It ties in to what you were saying about Green LEED buildings. Thought you would find this interesting.

Tristan Roberts

April 8, 2010 01:13 PM

Gehry's aesthetic is amazing, but unfortunately he doesn't seem to know where his expertise stops. The Stata building at MIT is known for durability issues, not "green" or financially sound by any measure. See the Fast Company article with engineer Joe Lstiburek reviewing the problems there.

At LEEDuser, we've analyzed LEED credit by credit and found that the cost of LEED really depends on which strategies you choose. The payoff can be immediate.

– Tristan Roberts


April 8, 2010 01:28 PM

FOG should continue creating and move on...his comments give a bad taste of titanium in the mouth.

J Sines

April 8, 2010 02:18 PM

Mr. Arndt, I will take you up on that wager.

Mike B.

April 8, 2010 02:21 PM

Wow. Does BusinessWeek not have a proofreader anymore? I see better editing in amateur blogs.

Sue Lani Madsen

April 8, 2010 02:48 PM

I've never been a fan of Gehry's design as architecture (it's sculpture, not architecture) but I sure do agree with his opinion on LEED. The attitude and ethic of seeking to save energy and design sustainably is not the problem, the gamesmanship of counting credits is.

Tim B.

April 8, 2010 03:28 PM

It disgusts me that "starchitects" like Gehry are the de facto voice for our profession when it comes to the public eye. I think Gehry hasn't designed a LEED building or even a "more sustainable" building because he wouldn't have the faintest idea how to do so. He had one original idea in his career, and has been beating it to death ever since.

Vincent Colangelo

April 8, 2010 03:57 PM

If one is going to approach architecture as sculpture than one better be sure one's a good sculptor.....and Gehry (and his anal protege Liebeskind) never was.They both toss Ruskins seven lamps out the window without a care!
Gehry deludes himself by assuming he's in the same class as Renzo Piano.

David Lawrence

April 8, 2010 04:42 PM

Gehry is right. Thanks to him for saying it. The emperor has no clothes. I've been through the LEEDS book as well as taken coursework in it and he's right: it doesn't work for small projects and a lot of it doesn't work period.

LEED Hater

April 8, 2010 05:45 PM

I agree. LEED is a bandwagon. Too bad it is such a lousy band.


April 8, 2010 06:19 PM

In the case of the Modern Wing, the LEED measures have already saved AIC huge operating costs. And yes, it's a big project - the type that starchitects like Gehry and Piano get.

The fact that Gehry isn't interested in LEED is neither good or bad - that just isn't part of his legacy as it is for Piano. He's an innovator of form...not to mention a bit of a provocateur. At 81, he can say what he thinks. How refreshing.


April 8, 2010 06:20 PM

really - can you stop calling it "LEEDS", it just shows how little you know. I am really turned off by Gehry's response to the original question, "if a client said he wanted a LEED-certified building?". "Oh great!" What about bringing that level of complexity to your work first off? It is like a client asking for a beautiful building or something? Gehry lives a delusion that he is solely an artist, so maybe not an architect. It would seem an architect would have more ethics than to scorch earth? How about making the work not only a piece of art, but an integrated organism within the city. I don't find any genius in his work...and this article makes it seem even less worthy. I wonder if Mr. Pritzker was happy with the conversation?

Doug Humphries

April 9, 2010 01:52 AM

I agree with Gehry. It's about time that someone with access to top consultants and Computer energy modeling said something. Yes, there are new products that are more energy efficient like Low E tint but they then become excuses to throw out design practices like using Roof overhangs and paying attention to the Building's orientation. The term 'sustainable' is probably the larger bogeyman though because the things that are being called sustainable currently are no more so than probably almost every building material if someone can figure out a way to recycle them and make a profit.
And why does DENIM insulation cost more than Fibre glass if the material is supposedly free scrap that was headed for the landfill? We need to look through the Bull.... before jumping on every bandwagon. Face it,in the end most Energy efficiency is sacrificed for aesthetics until a product can be invented/used as a band aid for truly efficient design.

james willis

April 9, 2010 03:05 AM

FrankO has finally said/done something I can agree with. Leeds is the current rally cry. Ten years ago it was semicircular head windows. And don't try to pass his stuff off as sculpture. It's all just a masturbatory folly.

Marko Alexandrovich Ramius

April 9, 2010 04:37 PM

Well, to all LEED AP's, here's the voice from the Masterchitect himself. Besides, LEED accreditation is just a way of saying "Hey, I'm trendy too. Look at me!". Unfortunately, all trends expire. And Environmental concerns today will become like the issues in Eugenics during Hitler's time. He promoted the so-called science of it to pursue his solution to the Jewish problem.

Eric Johnson

April 10, 2010 05:03 AM

How much extra does Mr. Gehry's "adventurous, surrealist style" cost extra to construct?
Much more than good orientation, a glazing factor less than 40%, and right sized HVAC equipment.
Of course, we can't let anything get in the way of the "Master" and his art, especially an unimportant factor like the environment or a sensible, comprehensive list of good design factors that LEED encapsulates.


April 16, 2010 06:20 PM

Put aside whether LEED standards result in meaningful savings, Gehry's an artist. Architecture is just one of the mediums which he works in. It's aesthetic appeal that causes people to marvel at his buildings. I want to see him do what he does best and if LEED certification doesn't make sense to him, that's fine.


April 19, 2010 03:18 PM

It's a shame that Gehry is so dismissive and inarticulate about this topic. Does the LEED system guarantee a better building? No. But it drives important market change and gets topics on the design table that give architects an opportunity to do good.

I get the sense that his remarks are a defense mechanism against a topic that may challenge his current process. I wish he (and others) would use sustainable design as a means to *enrich* and *inspire* their process instead of viewing it as a series of restrictions. And yes, sometimes that requires a slightly more humble approach that considers context and climate before style.


April 22, 2010 12:30 PM

And here I thought the former location of the Goodman Theatre (i.e., the only space available to the Art Institute) dictated the location of the Modern Wing, when actually it was because Renzo Piano was afraid of his superior, the genius Frank Gehry.

Thanks for clearly that up, Frank.

Maxwell Bartleby

April 27, 2010 06:17 AM

Did Frank Gehry of all people just criticize LEED as a trend and a bandwagon?

Now I am a LEED AP who is not convinced that LEED is always the best path for a sustainable building--LEED should give more credits for building reuse and site placement, and simplify credit methodology for energy conservation to make it more accessible to small projects. But Frank Gehry calling LEED a bandwagon is laughable and sad. LEED is an important step forward in broadening social and business interest in energy-and-earth-saving design and building methods. Finally, while the LEED system has its good and bad points, those who laugh off the concept of sustainability really show their ignorance. Shame on them and Frank Gehry.


April 30, 2010 02:21 PM

Not all of his comments are on the mark, but Gehry make a few good points. To a limited extent, LEED is a bandwagon when clients, and professionals alike, talk about it without understanding that LEED goes beyond the built environment. For example, how many clients and designers will consider an urban site near mass transit rather than give up their car and reserved parking space (keep in mind that this is being written in CT, not NYC)? How many times have we heard "I want my buiding to be as green as possible but I don't want to spend the extra money to have it certified"? All too often I've seen LEED certification and accreditation used as a marketing tactic. I'm completely in favor of energy-efficient and ecologically-conscientious design, but the rhetoric gets me a bit riled. And I'm nowhere near 81 years old...

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