Skip to main content

More from Gehry at Aspen: On meeting budgets, taking more responsibility, and engaging the client

Beyond Frank Gehry's dust-up with Fred Kent of the Project for Public Spaces , some other passages in Gehry's Aspen Ideas Festival interview earlier this month have resonance for Atlantic Yards watchers, notably the architect's insistence, as he has said before, that he works "close to the bone."

In other words, I think it buttresses my argument that dropping Gehry from the Atlantic Yards project was not simply because the cost of the arena had risen significantly. Rather, it would be impossible to design an arena wrapped within four towers if developer Forest City Ratner could stretch its original four-year timetable for the towers to 12 years; only after that would a penalty kick in (and the developer could get away with building only three towers).

Meeting the budget

At about 27:50, interviewer Thomas Pritzker asked, "I have a very close friend in the audience who’s a developer. And I know there’s a series of questions he’d like to ask you, and I’m going to ask on his behalf. Can you design a building to a budget, and can you meet that budget?

Some in the crowd laughed.

Gehry took it in good-natured stride: "See, they don’t think I can."

"We’ll take a vote before and after you answer the question," Pritzker responded.

"Well, I pride myself on meeting budgets and some of the toughest developers in the world that I work with will attest to that," Gehry continued, in a thoughtful tone. "Architects can’t control the markets, the commodities, the labor force, and all of that. So you’re not really as in charge of budgets as clients might think you are. And the construction people aren’t either."

He went on to enumerate issues: "It’s political. It’s the recession now, prices have come down. If there’s inflation, who knows. No architect can be held responsible for that kind of stuff. What we do is manage the process so that there’s not a lot of fat in the design, so that if the shit hits the fan, there’s not much you can take out. So if you want that kind of building, and it comes in too high, you either decide not to build it or bite the bullet. But there isn’t much you can do to change it. And I try my damnedest to stay in that realm. There is no--I call it working close to the bone, so there isn’t a lot of stuff."
(Emphases added)

Gehry does have a record of coming in at budget, but also one of cost overruns. The increase in the announced arena price tag, from $637.2 million in December 2006 to $950 million in March 2008 vastly exceeded inflation, and apparently was based in part on the cost of security glass.

The new arena, by Ellerbe Becket, is projected to cost $772 million. Why hasn't the price come down any more?

Curves versus right angles

Pritzker followed up: "It’s counterintuitive, because your designs have lots of curves and are sculpture, that’s what they read. If you look at some of the other great architects, if I use Renzo [Piano], his is lines, it's rectilinear. Is it more challenging to bring yours in onto a budget than someone who uses what I’ll call more conventional drawing, more conventional lines?"

"If you look at [the Guggenheim Museum in] Bilbao," Gehry said, "[People] assume it was a very expensive building compared to a rectilinear program of the same program. In ‘97, the building was built for 300 dollars a square foot, pretty cheap. Shortly after, I think, I did a building in Berlin that was all rectilinear, Pariser Platz, and it’s elegantly detailed, and it cost 600 dollars a square foot. So I think what happens is that I don’t fuss the details. I sort of go with the flow on what the construction is--I do bring my cheapskate architecture experience into play there... I let the forms be the thing."

"And the reason to do it--the reason to do those kind of forms, in my mind," Gehry explained, "was to replace decoration, to get passion and feeling into the building without resorting to 19th century models. I thought about movement, because certainly we live in an age of movement. My precedents for movement go back to Phidias and the Parthenon, who was able to convey a sense of movement with the shields of warriors pushing into the stone. When you see, at the British museum, you feel the pressure, and it’s an amazing thing he was able to do. And then the Shiva, the dancing figures... you look at the them and you look back and you’re sure they move, right? So that was my inspiration..."

"And there are some fish stories that go along with it," he said with a smile. "When the postmodern stuff happened, when my colleagues started going back to Greek temples, I got pissed off and I said, if you’re going to go back, why not go back 300 million years before man, to fish? And I started drawing fish, and it started to have a life of its own, and it became fish lamps and other things... I started looking at the fish drawings by Hiroshige, and I started... watching the carp and the koi fish in the ponds.

"They’re very architectural, and I started to explore those shapes. And I made a terrible one--a 35-foot-long wooden fish, for a fashion company, at the Pitti Palace in Florence. And it was very, very kitsch, I mean really, superkitsch, but it had that sense of movement. I looked at it--and everybody got it. And I tried to cut off the tail, cut off the head, cut off the fins, started to abstract it, and see how far I could go before I lost it. And I did a room for the Walker Art Museum for a show, and I did a thing for Jay Chiat. From that, I learned to build with those kind of forms and capture that kind of feeling. So that was the evolution.

Designing on the computer

At about 34:30, Pritzker delved into Gehry's methods; "You use that Catia system... I've watched Frank work, and have listened to the way he thinks. Of the various architects that we know, he is the most economically oriented, the most budget-oriented, and sort of views that as a major part of the challenge and the exercise. Talk about the computer system you use and what role that's played, in freeing you up to both do designs and to address the budget issues."

"Well, the reason I got into it," Gehry explained, "I was doing a building in Switzerland and I couldn't, with normal descriptive geometry that I'd learned in school, could not articulate this curve, so the contractor could build it. That led us to the aircraft industry and Dassault, and their software, which we started using some thirty years ago. The culture of architecture is: Architect's hired; client likes architect. Architect, client love each other, do a building, they love the building. It goes out to bid. It’s too expensive. Always."

Gehry laughed, as did the crowd.

"Client can’t afford expensive building. They need the damn thing. They get the contractor in. Architect is marginalized. Infantilized." He paused. "That’s the normal thing. I mean, I’ve managed to do stuff in that system and try to get on top of it, but... the culture of architecture, the AIA [American Institute of Architects], creates a overprotective world for the architect, with its documents, with its processes. And so I’ve always believed the only way to become the master builder, like the old days, where you really carried your role parentally through the end of the project... is to take more responsibility. That involves insurance companies and lawyers and all kinds of stuff, and really changing the culture of how these things are done."

Changing the culture

Gehry then describe a process of control that, it seems, eluded him with the Atlantic Yards project: "And so, when I started with the computer, I realized that having, in more control, more information than anybody in the game, I could remain in charge. The contractor loved it, when you gave him--I remember showing the contractor in L.A. the model of Disney Hall, he said, 'Oh, you can't build that.' When I showed him the mock-up... already built... he was able to understand it and price it in real time, without a premium... Bilbao--the steel bids came in one percent spread on six contractors, that means the documents are really clear and it was eighteen percent under budget... when you get subcontractors eighteen percent under budget... you won’t take the low bidder... in this case a one percent spread, you could take any one of them."

"It's that kind of experience that I've had that eggs me on," he continued. "The ideal, what I’m shooting for, is a paperless process, and I think it's inevitable. Dassault did the 777 airplane paperless... If they can do that, we can build a building, paperless. What that means is the construction guys in the field have a laptop, instead of 600 pages of drawings... It means that the building department can be connected online, and the approval process can be shorter."

"This is a hard one because of the bureaucracies of the cities. Bloomberg was willing to try it," he said, personalizing New York into the office of the mayor. "L.A. is willing to try it. But we haven’t had an opportunity yet to do it, to really do it, but we’re going to continue."

Gehry's wish list

At about 45:10, Pritzker asked, "Now you’ve had a long career. Is there a building you haven’t done that you’d like to do?"

"A Hyatt hotel," Gehry quipped, referencing Pritzker's family business. The crowd laughed.

"There are things I’d like to do," Gehry continued, "but I don’t-- I’m very superstitious, so I don’t yearn after things, I know I’ll get all hung up.... So I take stuff as it comes, more, and it’s a better place to be, because people come to you, they want you, you’re in a better relationship to do better work, I think, and create a partnership."

Actually, the Atlantic Yards arena was to be his first arena, thus engaging him. And Gehry said at the first press conference, on 12/10/03, that Atlantic Yards was an "extraordinary opportunity... to build a neighborhood practically from scratch."

The perfect client

Pritzker continued to ask about the role of the client, referencing a meeting with architect Philip Johnson, who had a client who gave him an unlimited budget and complete freedom.

"No. That’s the worst client, I think," Gehry observed. "It’s like the sound of one hand clapping. If I were to just keep doing it, I’d just repeat myself. What makes the fun is to engage a client, engage in a process. I see it partly I’m a teacher to them and partly they’re a teacher to me. If you’re open to that, it evolves, so that the building then feels like something they want, they're part of it, they're in it, they understand the choice-- they’ve had the opportunity to make choices along the way, as my ideas are put on the table, they can steer it."

"The only scary thing to a client, I think, from me, is that I don’t have a preconceived thing,"  he said. "So I like to work intuitively, so I'm responding to them, space, time, and everything, intuitively, and that must seem mysterious and a little bit scary, from the other side. They don’t know exactly how this is going to come out. If they can get over that fear, and play, they're going come out better, because they're going to be more in control than they realized and more part of it. And it leads to a better and newer ideas, and better buildings."

Or, in the case of Atlantic Yards, a severed relationship.


Popular posts from this blog

Forest City acknowledges unspecified delays in Pacific Park, cites $300 million "impairment" in project value; what about affordable housing pledge?

Updated Monday Nov. 7 am: Note follow-up coverage of stock price drop and investor conference call and pending questions.

Pacific Park Brooklyn is seriously delayed, Forest City Realty Trust said yesterday in a news release, which further acknowledged that the project has caused a $300 million impairment, or write-down of the asset, as the expected revenues no longer exceed the carrying cost.

The Cleveland-based developer, parent of Brooklyn-based Forest City Ratner, which is a 30% investor in Pacific Park along with 70% partner/overseer Greenland USA, blamed the "significant impairment" on an oversupply of market-rate apartments, the uncertain fate of the 421-a tax break, and a continued increase in construction costs.

While the delay essentially confirms the obvious, given that two major buildings have not launched despite plans to do so, it raises significant questions about the future of the project, including:
if market-rate construction is delayed, will the affordable h…

Revising official figures, new report reveals Nets averaged just 11,622 home fans last season, Islanders drew 11,200 (and have option to leave in 2018)

The Brooklyn Nets drew an average of only 11,622 fans per home game in their most recent (and lousy) season, more than 23% below the announced official attendance figure, and little more than 65% of the Barclays Center's capacity.

The New York Islanders also drew some 19.4% below announced attendance, or 11,200 fans per home game.

The surprising numbers were disclosed in a consultant's report attached to the Preliminary Official Statement for the refinancing of some $462 million in tax-exempt bonds for the Barclays Center (plus another $20 million in taxable bonds). The refinancing should lower costs to Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the arena operating company, by and average of $3.4 million a year through 2044 in paying off arena construction.

According to official figures, the Brooklyn Nets attendance averaged 17,187 in the debut season, 2012-13, 17,251 in 2013-14, 17,037 in 2014-15, and 15,125 in the most recent season, 2015-16. For hoops, the arena holds 17,732.

But official…

At 550 Vanderbilt, big chunk of apartments pitched to Chinese buyers as "international units"

One key to sales at the 550 Vanderbilt condo is the connection to China, thanks to Shanghai-based developer Greenland Holdings.

It's the parent of Greenland USA, which as part of Greenland Forest City Partners owns 70% of Pacific Park (except 461 Dean and the arena).

And sales in China may help explain how the developer was able to claim early momentum.
"Since 550 Vanderbilt launched pre-sales in June [2015], more than 80 residences have gone into contract, representing over 30% of the building’s 278 total residences," the developer said in a 9/25/15 press release announcing the opening of a sales gallery in Brooklyn. "The strong response from the marketplace indicates the high level of demand for well-designed new luxury homes in Brooklyn..."

Maybe. Or maybe it just meant a decent initial pipeline to Chinese buyers.

As lawyer Jay Neveloff, who represents Forest City, told the Real Deal in 2015, a project involving a Chinese firm "creates a huge market for…

Is Barclays Center dumping the Islanders, or are they renegotiating? Evidence varies (bond doc, cash receipts); NHL attendance biggest variable

The Internet has been abuzz since Bloomberg's Scott Soshnick reported 1/30/17, using an overly conclusory headline, that Brooklyn’s Barclays Center Is Dumping the Islanders.

That would end an unusual arrangement in which the arena agrees to pay the team a fixed sum (minus certain expenses), in exchange for keeping tickets, suite, and sponsorship revenue.

The arena would earn more without the hockey team, according to Bloomberg, which cited “a financial projection shared with potential investors showed the Islanders won’t contribute any revenue after the 2018-19 season--a clear signal that the team won’t play there, the people said."

That "signal," however, is hardly definitive, as are the media leaks about a prospective new arena in Queens, as shown in the screenshot below from Newsday. Both sides are surely pushing for advantage, if not bluffing.

Consider: the arena and the Islanders can't even formally begin their opt-out talks until after this season. The disc…

Skanska says it "expected to assemble a properly designed modular building, not engage in an iterative R&D experiment"

On 12/10/16, I noted that FastCo.Design's Prefab's Moment of Reckoning article dialed back the gush on the 461 Dean modular tower compared to the publication's previous coverage.

Still, I noted that the article relied on developer Forest City Ratner and architect SHoP to put the best possible spin on what was clearly a failure. From the article: At the project's outset, it took the factory (managed by Skanska at the time) two to three weeks to build a module. By the end, under FCRC's management, the builders cut that down to six days. "The project took a little longer than expected and cost a little bit more than expected because we started the project with the wrong contractor," [Forest City's Adam] Greene says.Skanska jabs back
Well, Forest City's estranged partner Skanska later weighed in--not sure whether they weren't asked or just missed a deadline--and their article was updated 12/13/16. Here's Skanska's statement, which shows th…

Not just logistics: bypassing Brooklyn for DNC 2016 also saved on optics (role of Russian oligarch, Shanghai government)

Surely the logistical challenges of holding a national presidential nominating convention in Brooklyn were the main (and stated) reasons for the Democratic National Committee's choice of Philadelphia.

And, as I wrote in NY Slant, the huge security cordon in Philadelphia would have been impossible in Brooklyn.

But consider also the optics. As I wrote in my 1/21/15 op-ed in the Times arguing that the choice of Brooklyn was a bad idea:
The arena also raises ethically sticky questions for the Democrats. While the Barclays Center is owned primarily by Forest City Ratner, 45 percent of it is owned by the Russian billionaire Mikhail D. Prokhorov (who also owns 80 percent of the Brooklyn Nets). Mr. Prokhorov has a necessarily cordial relationship with Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — though he has been critical of Mr. Putin in the past, last year, at the Russian president’s request, he tried to transfer ownership of the Nets to one of his Moscow-based companies. An oligarch-owned a…