Frank Gehry’s buildings appear to be dreams manifest into reality. Angular. Curvaceous. Sweeping. Sometimes cloudlike. Always otherworldly.
Unless you’ve visited one, you might not take them seriously. It’s easy to assume they’re all show and no substance.
When you finally find yourself standing at 1st and Grand in downtown Los Angeles or crossing the Puente de La Salve in Bilbao, you’ll need a minute to let your assumptions catch up with your eyes. And, when you finally step inside, more than a minute.
How are such places possible? More importantly, what does the process of creating them have to teach us? What can we learn from someone who seems to have a higher-than-conceivable batting average of achieving his dreams?
Here are ten things that Gehry teaches us about how to achieve our dreams.
When he was growing up, Frank Gehry’s grandmother, Leah Caplan, would buy bags of scrap wood and dump the irregularly shaped pieces on the kitchen floor. She would sit on the floor with young Frank, building imaginary bridges, buildings, and even whole cities.
Gehry has a childhood memory of going with his grandmother to the Kensington Market in Toronto every Thursday to buy a live carp for the gefilte fish she made for their weekly Sabbath dinner. Back at home, she would put the carp in the bathtub. Frank talks about being fascinated watching the carp swim.
Gehry acknowledges the numerous influences of art — or rather details in art — in his work. He teaches us to pay attention to influences no matter where you find them. To note them. To perhaps sketch or take a snapshot of them. His work seems surreal and yet familiar because of how evocatively it incorporates influences.
Dreams and vision can seem like magic, but imagination can more easily flourish and take form when you consciously furnish it. Make the effort to have a well-furnished imagination.
Scratch the surface on Gehry and you’re quickly aware he’s a prolific sketcher. His loopy, endless-line style appears far more evocative than accurate. But there’s more to his sketches than meets the eye.
Gehry’s sketches set and carry the visual vocabulary of his vision.
His vocabulary for each project draws on his influences. Some influences are fundamental and recurring, such as the childhood building blocks, evident in almost every sketch in how he roughs in the big spaces of a building. Others emerge across his career, and include various sculptors, periods of painting, even different materials.
Vocabulary — visual, verbal or both — keeps a dream from being ephemeral. Realizing a vision requires finding and creating its language.
Gehry’s clients seem surprised by a principle he brings to projects: compromise.
Equally surprising is that his approach to compromise is built around his sketching.
Gehry doesn’t do a sketch or two for a project. He’ll easily do hundreds of sketches in the course of a single project. His sketching is how he surfaces and solves the numerous issues that naturally arise in design-and-build projects. It’s his way of listening to, understanding, and respecting the needs of his clients — in a way they don’t expect.
All the sketches — and their manifestation in dozens and dozens of models — turn the vocabulary into a dialogue. The genius in this dialogue is how it helps prevent a team’s tendency towards mediocrity when faced with what are often solvable problems.
Encounter any Gehry building and what you experience is a space that is exquisitely fit for purpose — and yet well beyond functional. Gehry buildings seem to serve a greater role, on a personal level, a group level, a neighborhood or community level, and usually beyond.
Just the idea of functional usually reduces things to the narrowest, most simplistic values — practical, utilitarian, sensible. What typically gets discounted are more human aspects — emotion, interaction, and inspiration. Gehry uses sketches and models to create a vocabulary and establish a dialogue. What that approach does is enlarge the meaning of functional.
The dialogue he creates surfaces all-important questions: How should people flow and interact? What should it feel like? Yes, emotionally, but also tactilely? What should it be made from? What is its role in the neighborhood? What is its role in the community? For everyone involved — clients, the architectural team, collaborators including the community, engineers, fabricators and construction crews — these questions help them see that the dream is never one element, but the interconnection and relationship between many elements. The sketching, models, and dialogue enlarge what they expect and accept as functional.
Functional can reduce a dream to a single dimension. Enlarge the meaning of functional to ensure it stays remarkable.
Gehry’s work with Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management not only produced a remarkable addition to its campus, but a profound shift in the school’s curriculum.
For fifty years, Case Western, like all business schools, focused on teaching formulas for making choices among available alternatives — a decision attitude. What they experienced with Gehry and team was a process that offset this decision attitude by emphasizing a design attitude — a focus on creating entirely new, alternative choices.
A design attitude understands every project as an opportunity for invention. It questions basic assumptions and seeks to improve things in material and meaningful ways. Unlike the decision attitude, a design attitude doesn’t assume that the alternatives are limited and difficult to choose between.
Be honest: how much of your time goes towards deciding versus designing? To get beyond default solutions, spend more time designing.
Several clients who have worked with Gehry Partners all tell a similar story. Almost invariably it involves a major change late in the project. With both Guggenheim Bilbao and Case Western Reserve University, there was a need to significantly reduce the square footage late in the design process.
“We’ve proved we could do it, now we can think about how we want to do it.”
Matt Fineout, a former Gehry Partners project architect, worked with people from Case Western doing tracing paper sketches over existing floor plans, figuring out how to eliminate 4,500 square feet. When they’d gotten through the exercise, Matt shocked the group by ripping up the pages they’d just spent two days creating. “We’ve proved we could do it, now we can think about how we want to do it,” Matt told them.
First efforts prove you’re capable of doing something, but seldom produce your best work. Go beyond proving that something’s possible.
Disney Concert Hall took 16 years from first sketch to ribbon cutting. Numerous factors contributed to the delays, but uncertainty by fabricators and contractors played no small part. Dreaming in ocean waves, billowing sails, and draping fabric is one thing: the underlying engineering and ability to produce executable construction documents are entirely another.
To help get the concert hall built, Gehry Partners went well beyond where any architectural firm had gone, turning to CATIA — a three-dimensional computer-aided design program developed by Dassault Systèmes for use in design and manufacturing of fighter jets. Unlike architectural software at the time, CATIA understood double curves and could produce files that let computer-aided machines fabricate aircraft-precise parts.
Frank Gehry went on to create a technology company, advancing what was possible for his and other firms to create.
Integrative solutions are sometimes what it takes to make dreams possible. Finding them requires looking up and out, beyond your own fences, and bringing together what will make your dream possible.
Frank Gehry hasn’t built nearly as many buildings as some of his peers.
That is likely because if he senses at the outset that a client doesn’t share his dream, he walks away.
Producing something remarkable requires the kind of collaboration that comes from having a shared dream — not simply having a “starchitect” involved.
In March 1997 — ten years after Lillian Disney made a $50 million gift and Frank Gehry had beaten out 80 other architects — Disney Concert Hall was at a standstill.
Mayor Riordan and other civic leaders joined forces to save it, vowing to raise the $150 million needed.
The most unusual aspect of that effort was an ad that appeared in the Los Angeles Times. The ad was signed by nearly 250 architects — from Los Angeles, across the United States, and around the world — expressing their support for the visionary design of Frank Gehry.
Imagine: the value of your work to the community and beyond being so great that your competitors rally to advocate for it.
As the story goes, Gehry was contemplating the nearly finished Guggenheim Bilboa from across the Nervión River when a colleague asked him what he was thinking. “I am thinking it’s a miracle I ever got this built.”
There is no 100% approach for achieving a dream. And it sometimes seems like nothing short of a miracle when everything does come together. Maybe the most important thing Frank Gehry teaches us about how to achieve our most ambitious dreams is to persist.
When projects fall apart.
When things seem to take forever.
When you’re fired.
When few people believe your dream is possible.
How can Gehry's approach inspire new ways of working for you?
 Goldberger, Paul 2015 The Life and Work of Frank Gehry Alfred A. Knopf/Penguin Random House LLC
 Geary, Frank O. 2004 Reflections on Designing and Architectural Practice Edited by Boland, Richard J. and Collopy, Fred as part of Managing As Designing, Stanford Business Books/Stanford University Press