Buildings by Frank Gehry have the quality of appearing to be a dream manifest into reality. Angular. Curvaceous. Sweeping. Sometimes cloudlike. Always otherworldly.
Unless you’ve visited one of Gehry’s buildings, it’s possible not to take them seriously. Easy to think they are 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 Bilboa, or approaching any of Gehry’s buildings, you’ll need a minute to let your head 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 dream?
To study Frank Gehry at all is to quickly become aware that he’s a prolific sketcher, constantly sketching during projects. He has a unique loopy, endless-line style that seems more evocative than accurate. Dig deeper and you discover there’s more to the sketches than meets the eye. They’re carriers of vocabulary; they’re dialogue and compromise; they’re both the endless effort and perhaps ultimate solution to getting to – or as close to – the dream as possible.
Here are ten things that Gehry teaches us about achieving our dreams.
Growing up, Frank Gehry’s maternal grandmother Leah Caplan had formative if unintended influence on him. Leah would buy bags of scrap wood and dump the irregularly shaped pieces on the kitchen floor. She would then sit with young Frank on the floor, building imaginary buildings, bridges, and even whole cities.
Projects like Bilbao begin with simple basswood block models, with often irregularly shaped blocks representing the main spaces.
Gehry, whose born name was Goldberg, talks about his childhood memory of going with his grandmother to the Kensington Market in Toronto every Thursday to buy a live carp from which she made gelfilte fish for their weekly Sabbath dinner. She would put the carp in water in the bathtub and Frank has recalled his fascination with watching the carp swim.
From the Fishdance Restaurant in Kobe, Japan to various fish lamps collections, to the pavilion at Port Olìmpic habor in Barcelona, Spain, Gehry’s childhood fascination with fish has informed his use of double curves in his work.
Gehry acknowledges the numerous influences of art – or rather details in art – in his work. He teaches us to pay attention to influences wherever you find them. To note them. Perhaps sketch or take a snapshot of them. His work sometimes seems surreal and yet familiar because of how evocatively they incorporate influences.
Gehry notes influences ranging from Claus Sluter’s Sarcophagus of Philip the Bold for the drape of the titanium conference room at DZ Bank Brandenburg, Germany to Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring for the folds in the roof of Maggie’s Centre at Ninewells Hospital.
Gehry’s sketches are deceptively whimsical and dreamlike. If we didn’t know that some of the most remarkable buildings in the world have resulted from them, it would be easy not to take them seriously.
The likeness between his sketches and the resulting buildings are too similar not to make you wonder Is his force of will simply so strong that he manages to get his way? Is his personality so charming and ingratiating that normal conflicts and compromises yield?
Sketching is a paradoxical act for Gehry. He is, at once, both dreaming and problem solving. He is exploring his imagination for influences, establishing the design vocabulary for a project. At the same time, he is solving practical design issues, working out site context and space needs.
There are hundreds of sketches done in the course of developing a project — not as part of some quixotic quest, but as a core part of an approach that Gehry has developed that brings the dream into focus while sorting out details, at least at a high level. He seems to succeed at closing the gap between inspiration and reality through his determination to not allow a problem to be closed prematurely. Closing problems prematurely, Gehry believes, leads to mediocrity.
His sketching informs his team’s model making — which is as prolific as his sketching. Unlike almost any other architect, Gehry Partners develops hundreds of models during a project. First as rough and simple as the sketches, then increasingly larger and more detailed. Modeling — like sketching — is just a physical form of thinking.
The whole process trusts inspiration, even while harnessing practical refinements to bring the dream into clearer focus.
Gehry’s sketching and modeling approach to project development is part of a principle he brings to his work that surprises many clients: compromise.
To be clear, Gehry doesn’t compromise on the dream. He acknowledges that he gets a sort of model in his head of what he’s going to do, and that he sticks with that. The sketching and models are part of an open dialogue. He uses them to demonstrate listening. He uses them to understand and solve functional problems. But the sketches and models are in the visual vocabulary he develops for the project.
What results from Gehry’s process of listening and compromising is an expansion of what is thought of as functional.
Far too often, functional is reduced to its narrowest, most simplistic meaning — something that is highly practical and utilitarian. In commercial architecture, for example, the forces that tend to shape what is thought of as functional are maximum rentable square footage and low loss factor, which is the percentage of a building that is usable common space, but not rentable tenant space. In management, as another example, functional has been shaped for most of the last century by scientific management or Taylorism. These were the theories of Frederick Taylor, developed on the cusp of the 20th century, that focused on the productivity of labor, and the efficiency and standardization of processes.
To approach and enter any Gehry building is to encounter a space that is exquisitely fit for purpose, but beyond utilitarian. It speaks to human emotion — from how people flow and interact, to how it feels, to how it inspires and delights. It speaks to ecological sustainability, often drawing on Gehry’s tendency to use found and high durability/low maintenance materials. It speaks to historical context and community, of being a good neighbor in every sense of the phrase. It expands how we can understand functional.
Three architects were invited by the Executive Committee of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Foundation to compete: Arata Isozaki from Japan, Frank Gehry from America, and the team of Wolf Prix and Helmut Swiczinsky, known as Coop Himmeublau, from Vienna representing Europe. The committee set no restrictions on the terms of presentation: “Whatever they thought would communicate their concept for the building” would suffice. They were given two weeks to make their submissions.
The Guggenheim Museum published a book in 1998, written by Cooje van Bruggen, that records the design and construction of the Bilbao museum. Across nearly one hundred pages of the book, van Bruggen unfolds Gehry’s day by day steps over those two weeks.
It takes us from his initial sketch on stationery from Hoel López de Haro in Bilbao, through refinements done in planes and conferences rooms while traveling on other projects, into Gehry Partners Santa Monica, California studio.
The picture painted is of a harried process, where dozens of sketches are being rendered into rough models, with a master model being updated as various elements begin to work.
In the midst of this, Gehry puts the theme song from Rawhide on the office sound system. The lyrics — “Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’. Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’. Keep movin’, movin’ movin’.” — speak perfectly to the fluidity with which they’re working.
Dozens of prototypes are in play at all times, each working out refinements that are establishing the design vocabulary and expanding functional. Continuous improvement, not the context of perfecting efficiency, but pursuing the dream.
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 its curriculum.
In working with Gehry on the design and development of the Peter B. Lewis Building, Richard Boland and Fred Collopy, both professors at the Weatherhead School, recognized something that made them question how the school was teaching management. For fifty years they, like all business schools, had embraced formulas for approaching organizational problems. The focus was on making choices among the alternatives presented, not designing new alternatives. Management, as a result, rarely gets beyond default solutions.
What they experienced working with Gehry and team was a process that balanced what they deemed a decision attitude with design attitude. A design attitude views every project as an opportunity for invention that includes questioning basic assumptions and a resolve to improve things in material and meaningful ways. The decision attitude assumes alternatives are limited, but difficult to choose among them, so it emphasizes analytical tools.
Honestly, how much of your time and energy go toward deciding versus designing? Boland and Collopy pulled together a workshop that changed how management is taught at Case Western Reserve’s Weatherhead School.
Several clients who have worked with Gehry Partners tell a similar story. It often begins with a significant change late in their project. For example, with both Guggenheim Bilbao and the Peter B. Lewis Building at Case Western Reserve, there was a decision to reduce the square footage of the project late in the design process.
What clients describe are intense, often multiple day work sessions in which reasonable solutions were created for reducing the footprint of the project. And, in every case, the project architect from the Gehry Partners team would literally rip up the team’s work.
“We’ve proved we could do it, now we can think about how we want to do it.”
Matt Fineout, the Gehry Partners project architect on the Lewis Building, worked for two days with people from Case Western doing onionskin paper sketches over existing floorplans in order to find ways to reduce the space by 4,500 square feet. When they’d gotten through the exercise, Matt ripped up the onionskin sheets they’d created, and said, “We’ve proved we could do it, now we can think about how we want to do it.”
First efforts prove you’re capable of doing something, but seldom produce your best work. Go beyond proving that something’s possible.
Frank Gehry walks away from projects where he sensed that the dream is not shared. This means that Gehry hasn’t built nearly as many buildings as some of his peers. It many also be why his peers regard some of his buildings — Bilboa, in particular — as the greatest work of their generation.
Gehry has walked away from projects like the new headquarters for The New York Times.
None other than Phillip Johnson, who reigned as the godfather of modern architecture until his death in 2005 at the age of 90, declared Gehry “the greatest architect we have today,” and Bilboa “the greatest building of our time.” Johnson reportedly burst into tears of joy on first visiting Bilbao.
In a poll of 90 of the world’s leading architects and critics regarding the five most important buildings in the world, Bilboa was voted the most important by a margin of 3:1 over any other building in the world.
[I’ve been emailing with someone at Morphosis, an architecture firm in L.A., about getting a copy of an ad from their archives. The ad is signed by over 100 peers in the international architectural community in support of Disney Concert Hall, which had hit development snags. I pinged her again today, and hope to hear back; she’s been supportive and helpful about trying to find a digital file of the ad.]
As the story goes, Gehry was contemplating the nearly finished Guggenheim Bilboa from across the Nervion River when a colleague asked him what he was thinking. “I am thinking it’s a miracle I ever got this built.”
Achieving what you envision is not a given.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the Guggenheim Lower East Side project that Gehry had been commissioned to design fell apart.
At the age of 82, Frank Gehry was fired from the Atlantic Yards project in New York City by developer Bruce Ratner.
Eleven years after winning the commission to design the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C. ground was finally broken in 2017 and completion is scheduled in 2021, when Gehry will be 92 years old.
Gehry is currently working on a masterplan for the L.A. River — a concrete channel which flows through L.A. County.
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 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
 Van Bruggen, Coosje 1998 Frank O. Gehry: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Guggenheim Museum Publications/The Solomon R. Guggenheum Foundation
 Boland, Richard J. and Collopy, Fred 2004 Design Matters for Management as part of Managing As Designing, Stanford Business Books/Stanford University Press