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Gehry's Take Two on LEED Architecture

Posted by: Michael Arndt on April 15, 2010

Frank Gehry asked me to call him. I thought it was to answer questions about how the Great Recession was affecting the next generation of architects. But before we could get to that, the founder of Gehry Partners and an instructor this term at the Yale School of Architecture said he wanted to clarify his comments about LEED building standards. (I posted this blog after Gehry spoke on that topic during a public appearance on April 6.)

Yes, he did say that efforts to win a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification can be a waste of time and money. But he told me on the phone that what he really meant to attack was the posturing around the LEED seal of approval. He’s all for energy-efficient buildings, he said, and has been since before there was an Earth Day, in the late 1960s.

Though he reiterated that he had never designed a building just to gain a LEED tag, he noted, in fact, that his Stata Center at MIT has been awarded a LEED silver from the U.S. Green Building Council.

“I’m not against LEEDs at all,” he said. “I think it’s wonderful. I think we’ve got to do this.” But then Gehry, who acknowledged that he is something of a cranky old man, got back on a soapbox to decry today’s automatic embrace of LEED certification. “It’s become ‘fetishized’ in my profession. It’s like if you wear the American flag on your lapel, you’re an American. That’s what I was trying to say. You get people who are holier than thou. I think architects can do a lot, but some of what gets done is marketing and doesn’t really serve to the extent that the PR says it does.”

With that off his chest, our conversation turned to other subjects including the job market for architects today, which is simply rotten. Gehry said he has 10 “superb” students in his graduate-school class. In previous years, he would have hired a few of them. But this year, with too little to do at his Los Angeles-based firm, he said he can’t. “Some of them will have trouble. And I don’t think they can all afford to have trouble.”

He said the students probably would work for less money, and some would be happy to be unpaid interns. But he said he insists on paying the prevailing salary for entry-level architects, and his partnership doesn’t have the work for more paid employees. For now, he said, the profession is in serious trouble, too. “You just hope it’s going to come back.”

Reader Comments

Steven Owen Paige

April 16, 2010 1:53 PM

Wearing an American flag (pin) on your lapel is "holier than thou"?

Didn't FOG recently design a silly hat for a celebrity? I mean, he is a starchitect rather than a famous architect.

Eric Johnson

April 16, 2010 2:20 PM

It's nice to be energy efficient, but don't forget about Energy Performance. If you add all kinds of whiz bang technology and then increase the actual energy load you don't reduce anything. We could gather all of the data on the buildings he's designed and compare them to certified LEED buildings, Leeds is a city in England by the way - not a green building rating system, or the Department of Energy CBECS building database. It would be interesting to see how "good" they really are. "Glass Boxes" stuffed with artificial lighting and over sized mechanical equipment don't tend to perform well. A final thought - If you design glass boxes you shouldn't throw stones.

Rob Watson

April 16, 2010 3:21 PM

Any architect who complains about LEED isn't a very good designer. A piano "only" has 88 keys and some people are only capable of rendering discordant garbage, but it's certainly not the fault of the piano.

Sure, starchitects can pretend they're creating monuments to art, but as long as they're destroying cathedrals of nature (usually off-site, like in titanium/coal/etc. mines) they're leaving the world a poorer place.

Now that LEED has people's attention it is beginning to focus much more on performance as confirmed by the large swing we've seen over the last couple of years to LEED EBOM.


April 16, 2010 4:10 PM

Good architects don't need a certificate or a seal mounted to their building to show that they took the time to care about creating a well design building. It comes naturally to many. I my self had my first building certified at the end of the construction process at the request of the building owner and we never set out to design a LEED building, but a well designed building.

Eric Johnson

April 17, 2010 4:26 AM

What is your buildings energy performance? (Site EUI) Just think how much better your building could have been if you would have taken the time to look at the LEED system and implemented some ideas you didn't think about or know about....Of course if you know everything and do everything perfectly then, no problem. However if you're like the rest of us you just might forget a thing or two during the building process. As the "Father of LEED" stated above the tool is only as good as the user. You can just meet the minimum or you can "swing for the fences". I like to swing for the fences in a cost effective, comprehensive manner with a tool that a bunch of smart, experienced built environment professionals spent lots of volunteer hours creating because they cared about making the world a better place. And it sure seems to help stop the owner from reducing the environmental goals of the project during the VE process.
Rob, Thank you for your excellent work, the world owes you a big thank you.


April 19, 2010 1:08 AM

wow, these comments really miss his point.

David Zilar

April 19, 2010 2:55 PM

The global Construction market is in much better shape than you may realize, the leaders in the industry are looking forward to 2011. The most prevalent area seeing resurgence is in the sustainable and renewable construction fields.
Regardless of which side of the "LEED" fence you are on, the fact remains that we will not build the same in 2015 as we did in 2005.
The market is changing, and it is the discriminating buyers of the future that will force the market to provide standards that utilize sustainable building practices.

Matthew Tangeman

April 20, 2010 2:41 PM

Eric Johnson,

You certainly are 'throwing the stones' at 'glass boxes'. Please justify and fully explain how glass boxes need more artificial light than non-glass boxes. How does that work? Additionally, how about you move your office into a windowless room and work in artificial light for your full career and let's see whose mood, productivity, and health is most or least affected.

Most likely you are just one of those ASHRAE Regime folks who want to dictate how architecture is done moving forward?

Bring it on Eric!!!!

Eric Johnson

April 22, 2010 10:51 AM

Show me a high energy performing glass box (25 kBtu/ft2) that didn't cost over $250 a square foot to build and we'll talk. Until then I'll try and keep the glare from the sun off my computer screen and out of my eyes.

Eric Johnson

April 22, 2010 10:59 AM

I like Alon's comment, only he should have added "energy hog" to his stararchitect comment.

Alon Levy Says:
April 8th, 2010 at 3:08 pm
I think every group of experts should stick to what it’s good at: economists should stick to economics, transportation engineers should stick to designing transit systems, and starchitects should stick to making high-cost eyesores.

Eric Johnson

April 22, 2010 12:17 PM

Matthew Tangeman
President at Custom Glass Machinery
Columbus, Ohio Area


April 23, 2010 10:40 PM

Can anything be less eco friendly than huge twisted piles of steel, wrapped in titanium, hundreds, if not thousands of dollars per square foot,with no concern for interior function. I am so confused as to the popularity of this style. Can somebody help? What happened to good taste, modesty, respect for the clients dollars? I'm sorry, we were talking about LEED, right?


April 30, 2010 12:50 AM

I think the point Ardnt was trying to make is that going after the "LEED" certificate, whether it be bronze, gold, silver or platinum can be a very costly process for just a certificate. It is a great idea however, to turn to the LEED standards and implement them in the design, however, for a client to actually have the LEED certificate is unnecessary, it's only to PROVE your building is "green", but you don't actually need it to have a "green" building. I personally think the process and expense tacked on by the USGBC to have the green label is irrelevant and unnecessary.

James Kalin

May 15, 2010 12:50 AM

LEED isn't an arbitrary list of design requirements developed by well meaning environmentalists. It's a continuously evolving set of design principles developed collaboratively by working architects, engineers, manufacturers, contractors, builders, tenants, designers, facilities managers, building owners, researchers, etc. Using LEED is like having thousands of unpaid mentors and consultants at your beck and call (often literally) helping focus and guide the design, construction and operation of building projects. Seeking LEED certification in a project also adds a level of sustainable design rigor that often eludes projects that attempt to implement LEED without formally seeking LEED status.
The build landscape is littered with starchitect buildings that are monuments to excess and ego, too many of them expensive to operate and crappy if not downright unhealthy to inhabit. More and more of the truly best buildings these days are LEED buildings designed and constructed by integrated design teams who leave their egos at the door and relish teamwork and collaboration, the architect only perhaps first among equals in the team. This democratization of design is at the heart of LEED, and explains I think why so many architects and other specialists find LEED constraining or threatening.

Stourley Kracklite

May 27, 2010 1:06 PM

"Frank Gehry asked me to call him."

And I replied, "Why don't you pick up the phone and dial my number yourself?"

If you want to talk about arrogance, look no further.

And by the way, Mr. Malaprop, it's "LEED", not "LEEDs".


June 15, 2010 4:27 AM

Unfortunately, it seems Eric is what is wrong with architecture today. Rather than promoting exploration and experimentation within the discipline, he is attempting to force Architecture to operate within the defined boundaries of a poorly design set of regiments.

Green building doesn't come from having features that make it green, but by sensible building in the first place. There is nothing greener than not building something in the first place.

LEED might have its heart in the right place, but the last thing we need is militant ideals. Gehrey is promoting the idea that as architects we take on the responsibility for our own designs and disassociate ourselves from imposed, untested ideals.

Larry Pottz

June 19, 2010 5:26 PM

Bravo for Gehry!

Big Wig Architecture University since the late 1960s is way-to--concerned about the Left-Wing Socialist agenda... attending one planning conference recently, I brought this up... an old-liner, known marxian, there chuckled (as always), "What socialist agenda?"

Architects and accountants are a think of the past... today, we have "builders" and smart women who know how to use Micrsoft Excell... So much for a liberal arts education!

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