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Gehry: loss of arena commission "had nothing to do with me or [Ratner], it had to do with circumstances"

They still love Frank Gehry in New York, as the starchitect appeared Wednesday, 10/13/10 at the 92nd Street Y, interviewed by New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger, to much acclaim.

The discussion was wide-ranging, though Gehry spent a good deal of time discussing his latest New York building, the striking Beekman Tower (aka 8 Spruce Street) in Lower Manhattan, the borough's tallest residential building.

There was a bare mention of Atlantic Yards. Gehry said he and developer Bruce Ratner "are really good friends" and that his loss of the project--for a smaller, cheaper arena not as coupled with four towers--"had nothing to do with me or him, it had to do with circumstances."

Setting the scene

Goldberger described Gehry as "the only person in the entire world who has both won a Pritzker Prize," the highest honor for architects, "and also been the subject of an episode of The Simpsons."

More than any other figure in our time, Goldberger suggested, Gehry "has bridged the often unbridgeable gap between high culture and popular culture."

At age 81, Gehry "continues to produce remarkable buildings... around the world... and, I'm happy to say, a significant amount in New York, as well."

Enter Gehry

After thunderous applause, Gehry, in black jacket and black shirt, began a slideshow. Several slides related to Beekman. "It's a developer building," he said, "which meant it had a very tight pro forma, had to be built for a certain amount of money, and almost got cut in half because of the recession, but fortunately, it continued."

That's a somewhat narrow explanation. It almost got cut in half because Forest City Ratner was willing to play chicken with the unions.

The feel of New York

"I wanted it to be a New York building," Gehry said. "The idea of having the apartments have a bay window, so that when you walk into the window, you walk into the bay... gave me the opportunity to manipulate the facade, so instead of lining it up at each floor, I moved them subtly along the facade, to get this fabric kind of feeling."

"And working with the subcontractors and the computer technology, we were able to build this building within the pro forma of a normal economic package that an apartment building in New York requires," he said. The computer allows every piece of the custom curtain wall to be detailed.

He showed a view of the Brooklyn Bridge from above, a view that wowed the audience. "I'm afraid of those elevators, so I haven't been up myself," Gehry acknowledged.

As for one flat side of the building, Gehry said the issue wasn't economics but was a simple architectural gesture. "That facade faces south, so it gets direct sun."

The Holy Grail?

Goldberger said, "Building a serious, ambitious piece of architecture that a New York City developer will actually accept has always seemed to me kinda like the Holy Grail of architecture... and yet you seemed to have done it... an extraordinary building that has been brought in, apparently, at the cost of any of the ordinary pieces of crap."

"My client told me that, so I'm assuming he's telling me the truth," Gehry said, a statement that might raise some eyebrows in Brooklyn.

The interiors

Goldberger asked, "If I stand with my back to the window, will I see it's a Frank Gehry building?"

No, said Gehry, who said he wasn't distressed by it. He said his firm did select some of the hardware and some of the finishes in the kitchen. "It's not banal," he said. "I think the unique thing are the bay windows."

Ratner vs. Trump

"I asked Bruce to make it one foot lower than Trump, because I didn't want to get into a pissing contest with Trump," Gehry said, "but now that this is taller, he's going to have to build a taller one."

Keeping costs down

Gehry said the "fancy software" he uses allows for precision requests and cost controls, as change orders are avoided.

"Bilbao [Guggenheim] was the first time I got to use this stuff," he said. "And the steel bids came in. No two pieces of steel are the same size. Steel bids came in 18 percent under budget, with a 1 percent spread."

Goldberger said there's a public presumption that Gehry buildings "are eccentric, arbitrary, difficult to build, and therefore expensive."

Gehry said Bilbao was $300 a square foot in 1997, "on the low end of what a museum would cost."

Disney Hall in Los Angeles cost $207 million, less than halls built at same time. "That's not the way it's reported and people say, 'perception is everything,'" Gehry observed. "Y'know, if I had a drink or two, I'd rail on.. which is my tendency, to complain a lot, because as you get older, you become crankier."

The research process

Gehry explained that he did some 30 models for his first freestanding building in New York, the IAC Building in Chelsea.

"Somebody looking only at your work, or reading about it... might assume that research is the last thing you do," Goldberger observed.

"That's the other bad rap I get," Gehry responded. "The worst thing is what the Simpsons did with the crumpled paper. Now everybody thinks that's what I do."

The design process

Gehry's said he's willing to trust his intuition, a departure, in Goldberger's view, of "the orthodox modern tradition."

Goldbeger suggested that Gehry's embrace of emotion may be the bridge to the public.

"There's a kind of honesty about it, a simplicity," Gehry responded.

He added that he gets very self-conscious about visiting buildings he designed, though he's finally grown acclimatized to Disney Hall.

"Did they get everything right, or did you stop caring?" asked Goldberger.

"They started living with it, and I appreciated it," Gehry said.

Similarly, Gehry noted that IAC patron Barry Diller used an interior designer he preferred, and that was OK. "For the buildings to work, they have to be able to use them."

Turning down work

Do you turn down a lot of work? Goldberger asked.

"I do, even in bad times," Gehry responded, "because it's going to be a struggle for them and me, and it's not worthwhile for anybody."

"Is there any kind of project you haven't yet done that you want to do?"

"Yes, but I'm superstitious," Gehry responded.

Goldberger wormed it out of him: an airport. Gehry, in his early days, had a small part in Los Angeles International Airport.

Unmentioned: the arena Gehry has designed but not executed.


Goldberger asked Gehry if he had any regrets.

Gehry said yes, but explained why he wouldn't elaborate: " one doesn't talk about one's children."

"I look back and I think they were honest efforts, they just didn't connect," he said.

"I think the process is the excitement of it, more than even the finished building. My shrink friend used to tell me years ago: enjoy the trip to the party, as much as the party."

Ratner as client

"I do enjoy friendships with the clients that are lasting," Gehry continued.

"Most of your client relationships have been very good ones," Goldberger followed up.

"I mean, things happen, like the Brooklyn project had to change course, but I'm still close to those people," Gehry said.

The developer was the same as Beekman, Goldberger pointed out.

"He and I are really good friends," Gehry said.

"You forgave him?" asked Goldberg.

"It had nothing to do with me or him, it had to do with circumstances," Gehry replied.

Defending his reputation

Goldberger, bringing up a few buildings that have generated bad publicity, asked Gehry about the "less happy" Stata Center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"It's not less happy," responded Gehry. "I get love letters from those guys all the time."

"Why did that become a poster child for architectural dysfunction?" Goldberger asked.

"We've been cleared of all our culpability, so to speak," Gehry said, blaming the media for misreporting situations, such as "rusting titanium" on his buildings, even though the material doesn't rust.

As for the notorious glare reported regarding his Disney Hall in Los Angeles, "there was a problem… in April, once a year, on an afternoon at 3 pm, the sun focused in a lady's apartment, and she happened to be a member of the political body of the city of Los Angeles, and she created a fuss," Gehry said.

He said the county (not city) hired a consultant, who found there were five other buildings that also faced the glare. "So the county then hired a crew to fix it, without asking us," Gehry recounted. "We sent a crew over with steel wool, in an afternoon, and fixed it."

"Now you get to MIT, and there's a story about a leak," he said. While there were leaks, nobody complained. The university architect, pursuing due diligence, wanted to fix the leaks.

"They were trigger happy, and filed a suit," Gehry said. The New York Times, he said, "found out about rusting titanium, the glare… and threw it all into the article... and that started it." (There's no titanium in the Times's coverage.)


Gehry took a few questions.

Why does the Beekman Tower have a flat roof?

"Well, I spent a lot of time looking at New York," Gehry said. "Certainly the towers of the past had tops on them; they're very beautiful... but I hadn't seen any example of a contemporary one that I liked, or I could emulate."

Does he regret not building the Guggenheim Museum once announced for an East River site?

"I knew, when we did that, that was not a real project that would be possible," he responded. "The [Army] Corps of Engineers wouldn't allow it."

My unanswered question: from Urban Room to plaza

I never got to ask this one:
Because the flagship office tower you designed at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues--known as B1--has been delayed, the enclosed public space at the tower's base--which you called an Urban Room--is similarly delayed. In its place, Forest City Ratner plans an outdoor public plaza. There's been a lot of debate in the past two weeks about whether the space can work as a plaza, given the significant traffic from both major arteries. What's your take on this?


  1. If you research the story on the “low costs” for building Bilbao you will find this: Gehry has been quoted (having said it more than once) as saying that it was a miracle that will never happen again. He explained that the month he was doing the deal, Russia, where much of the world’s titanium comes from, dumped a lot of it on the market so that it was even cheaper than stainless steel.

    See: Conversations with Frank Gehry By Barbara Isenberg

    As for the subject of the leaks in the MIT building, let’s not stop there. There were also the leaks in the performance center at Bard College (the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts), and in Gehry’s new Art Gallery of Ontario museum in his home town of Toronto.

    Notably he has blamed leaks on “value engineering” or cost-saving technology.


    Monday, March 30, 2009
    Gehry Leaks

    Monday, January 19, 2009
    A Fable for Our Times: Gehry and the Spirit of the Land

    Michael D. D. White
    Noticing New York


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