Meeting the 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."
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 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."
"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."
"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."