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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.