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Frank Gehry's High-Tech Secret


It rises like an enormous steel flower in downtown Los Angeles. It's a symphony hall for modern times, with exposed steel beams, bolts and pipes, stone floors, and blond wood, all coming together at improbable angles. The building's brushed-steel skin gleams in the Southern California sun. At night, it falls ominously dark, a giant piece of industrial sculpture in the midst of perfunctory high-rise office buildings. Los Angeles boosters are already calling it the city's Eiffel Tower. And they can't help but hope that it might lead to the renaissance of a downtown long ago marginalized in the capital of suburban sprawl.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall, which opens on Oct. 23 and will be the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is more than just a trophy property for the City of Angels. It is also the culmination of a 16-year struggle for the building's architect, hometown hero Frank O. Gehry, an experience that has convinced him more than ever of the need for fundamental change in how buildings come to be. In almost any project, and especially in one of this consequence, the relationship among architects, contractors, and clients is difficult, if not downright contentious. The buildings usually take far longer to complete than expected and cost much more than calculated. There may be no other encounter of commerce and art that is as awkward. Frank Lloyd Wright, an imperious figure in cap and cape, was famous for building beautiful but unlivable homes. Gehry, widely regarded as one of the finest architects on the planet, is a pragmatic man. He thinks it doesn't have to be that way.

That's where the 74-year-old architect's new business, Gehry Technologies, comes in. The enterprise, which launches this month, builds on his firm's 13 years of experience with CATIA, a design software originally developed for the aerospace industry by Dassault Systemes of France. Years ago (but not long enough ago to have been of full use in designing the Disney Hall), James Glymph, a senior partner at Gehry's firm, was looking for a way to help contractors better understand the demands of Gehry's increasingly complicated designs. He chanced upon an aerospace engineer who recommended the CATIA software; the computer programmers on Gehry's 130-person staff have since modified it for architectural work. Now the software brings Gehry's curvy roofs and walls to life in three dimensions: After he designs his buildings, still using just cardboard, wood, and paper, a specially developed tool traces his models and translates them into 3-D images.

Perhaps more crucially for other architects, the software can also be used by contractors to produce exact measurements of the steel, wood, and other materials needed in a project. By linking dozens of such suppliers on a single software platform, the construction of complex buildings becomes vastly more efficient. "They have reconceived the process of construction," says William Mitchell, a longtime Gehry collaborator and dean of the school of architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which hired Gehry to design a computer center that is now under construction. Gehry Technologies was formed to provide training to architects who buy the software and related programs, and the firm will work with IBM to market CATIA. "We couldn't do what we do without it," says the architect, who doesn't actually use a computer himself.

While he's at it, Gehry would also like to see more cooperation between architects and contractors. In many cases, architects hand over designs to builders, who often prefer to have as little contact as possible with them thereafter. Some contracts even prohibit architects from going to construction sites. This, they say, is the best way to prevent the architects from trying to make expensive changes, the cost of which is borne by the construction company. Gehry, however, works with the builders and contractors to cement, so to speak, the design and budget early on. "We spend a lot more time with the subcontractors so when we get to the final drawings, we solve most of the technical problems," Gehry says. "You know where you are going before you start construction, so you minimize the surprise from the owner's standpoint. You get all the bad news up front."

LOOKING FOR A HERO

To most people, Gehry will always be known as the architect who found a way to spectacularly subvert the modernist box that is the foundation of most buildings, to combine the abstract with the ordinary in a way that is entirely functional. Until now, the Bilbao Guggenheim has been the most famous expression of this vision. But to Gehry, technophobe though he is, his innovations to the process itself are nearly as important. "I think it could have more of an impact," he says. "That's my lefty do-gooder side."

Gehry grew up in Depression-era Canada, playing with broken toasters and clocks in his grandfather's Toronto hardware store; he built imaginary cities with spare parts. His father, a struggling businessman seeking a better life, moved the family to Los Angeles when Gehry was 17. There, Gehry installed prefabricated breakfast nooks in houses by day and studied fine arts at the University of Southern California at night. But after observing the flamboyant California architect Raphael Soriano at a construction site, Gehry switched his focus to architecture. "I came from a very poor family. I didn't have any hope of anything," Gehry says. "You're always looking for a hero, and he was very heroic."

After graduating in 1954, Gehry made a modest living designing small office buildings, shopping centers, and other commercial structures. He came to appreciate the work of such modern artists as Robert Rauschenberg and Edward Kienholz, who assembled works out of objects they found on the street. In the late 1970s, he expanded his own simple Dutch Colonial home in Santa Monica using chain-link fencing, corrugated steel walls, and exposed wooden beams. His neighbors hated it -- one used to take his dog to relieve itself on the property. Even today, those who criticize Gehry's work contend that his buildings often clash with their surroundings. But the house generated plenty of international attention. "I wasn't trying to make a statement," Gehry says. "I had $50,000 to do it. We had a kid and we needed a bedroom." But the public reaction, both pro and con, inspired him. "I thought, 'There's an aesthetic leap here,"' he says. "Why not turn cheap construction into a positive?"

MANY MASTERS

In 1987, Lillian B. Disney donated $50 million for a new state-of-the-art home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Gehry competed for the project against 24 other architects. At the time, he seemed an unlikely choice: One civic leader told the selection committee that "we can't have a chain-link, plywood, corrugated-metal concert hall." But others familiar with the range of Gehry's work prevailed, and he was officially selected in December, 1988.

Disney Hall would prove to be a project with many masters. Los Angeles County, which owns the land, wanted the complex to include a parking garage (which it does) and a hotel (which it doesn't) to bring in more revenue. The Philharmonic pushed for more sophisticated acoustic features and more space: The walls and ceiling of the hall became sweeping and curved to create more "reverb points," and the backstage became wider to accommodate visiting orchestras and their equipment.

But an outside architect, hired to complete the final drawings since Gehry's small firm couldn't, had difficulty keeping up with Gehry's increasingly complex designs. Then the Northridge earthquake struck in early 1994, necessitating a complete redesign to meet new building-code standards. Each change brought higher cost estimates from the building's contractors. By December, the project, originally intended to be funded almost entirely by Lillian Disney's $50 million gift, had escalated to more than five times that. Disney Hall ground to a halt.

Then a funny thing happened. The Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, began attracting international acclaim even before it was finished. The swooping steel structure, begun after the Disney Hall and constructed with the latest CATIA software, was hailed as a triumph of modern architecture when it opened in 1997. It was completed on time and on its $100 million budget.

Los Angeles leaders, embarrassed that an unassuming city such as Bilbao could succeed where they hadn't, renewed their efforts to complete Gehry's building. Then-Mayor Richard J. Riordan enlisted the help of local businessman and philanthropist Eli Broad. More contributions came from the Disney family and Walt Disney Co., as well as other corporations and individuals. After learning that the committee in charge of the project wanted to hire another architect to finish the work because of all the delays, Gehry submitted a letter of resignation. In the end, Lillian Disney's daughter, Diane Disney Miller, insisted that Gehry stay on. When he returned to the project, Gehry and the contractors used CATIA to determine more accurately the cost of the steel, exterior metal, glass, and woodwork.

Today, at a final price of $274 million, Disney Hall is regarded as a masterpiece. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is the hottest ticket in town, and the building is already a destination for tourists. "Frank has done it again," says Mark Wigley, interim dean of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation at Columbia University. "He sings to us with metal and wood. Believe it or not, wonderful buildings can be built in the U.S."

Gehry has since been putting his software and collaborative process to good use on other big projects: the Peter B. Lewis building at Case Western Reserve University, which is home to the business school and opened a year ago, and the Ray & Maria Stata Center at MIT. The architect's detailed information on even the most complicated parts of the computer lab has kept the project within the final $300 million budget. L. William Zahner, president of the company that created the steel fabrication for the lab, says: "If I could buy stock in Mr. Gehry's firm, I'd do it." At Case Western, the general contractor, Hunt Construction Group Inc. of Phoenix, and the subcontractors all used CATIA to place their bids. As a result, even though the size of the business school increased during the design process, the building was finished on time and just 2% over the final budget of $62 million. Hunt is now using the software for a Gehry-designed science center that is under development at Princeton University.

The person who may have been most pleasantly surprised by the business school's speedy and economical construction could be Peter B. Lewis himself. Back in the 1980s, Lewis, then the chief executive of insurance giant Progressive Corp., hired Gehry to design an addition to his house. A decade later, Gehry and Lewis had instead conceived of an $80 million estate -- which Lewis eventually decided was too great an extravagance. He now lives on his yacht half the year. But Gehry's experiments with metal helped inform his design of the Bilbao museum (Lewis is chairman of the board of the Guggenheim), and they both jokingly refer to Gehry's $5 million tab for Lewis' place as his own genius award.

So it is with years of experience, some chagrin, and much satisfaction that Gehry says: "People don't want to go groping in the fog, they want to know what they're into. That's what we are trying to do." It's hard to imagine Frank Lloyd Wright saying that. By Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles


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