"When I interviewed Frank Gehry for HBR, he had recently bought an iPad. Every time he mentioned a building, he'd pick up the iPad and swipe until he came across a good photo to show me. This slideshow is an approximation of that experience: a sampling of Gehry's work, accompanied by his words." Katherine Bell. Photo credit: Dave Lauridsen © 2011 admin. All rights reserved.

Frank Gehry Talks About His Work

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In the November 2011 issue of Harvard Business Review you can read an article “Life’s Work: Frank Gehry”, interviewed by Katherine Bell. Here’s couple of lines from it:

Frank Gehry is, at 82, America’s most celebrated living architect. His designs, including the Guggenheim Bilbao and Disney Hall in Los Angeles, are all technically challenging and unmistakably his. Gehry’s creative process famously borrows from artists; less well known is his fierce commitment to budgeting and the architect’s role as project manager.

"When I interviewed Frank Gehry for HBR, he had recently bought an iPad. Every time he mentioned a building, he'd pick up the iPad and swipe until he came across a good photo to show me. This slideshow is an approximation of that experience: a sampling of Gehry's work, accompanied by his words." Katherine Bell. Photo credit: Dave Lauridsen

HBR: Tell me about starting your own firm.

Gehry: I’m not a businessman, but the business model I set for the office turned out to be a good one. It’s simple: Don’t borrow money. Pay everybody. Nobody works for free, ever. It was difficult financially for the first few years. At the beginning I had to do all the work myself. And then it was hard to get experienced people. They had families; they didn’t want to work with a struggling young architect. So I couldn’t get the technical help we needed, and we suffered for it. Buildings leak when you don’t have enough construction experience.

Victor Gruen and Associates, various projects in Los Angeles "After architecture school I found a firm whose politics were similar to mine. It turned out to be Victor Gruen, which was doing some of the first shopping centers, as well as low cost housing and city planning. I worked there for five years. The buildings I was working on are very uninspiring. I see them, still. They're in LA, so I have to live with them. But the experience I got was enormous." Photo credit: USC Digital Library.

You’ve said that one of the reasons the Guggenheim Bilbao is a great building is that you had a great client. What makes a client great?

It’s a collaboration. I’d say it’s 50/50. The client has got to be willing to talk to you. Imagine you get a job with IBM, you’re working with an executive vice president, and he shows the model to the president, and the guy says, “What the f— is that? That won’t work with my work.” So I only accept jobs where I work with the decision maker.

Danziger Studio (1964) "The architects in LA were very critical of what I was doing. I did the Danziger building as a box, just a little box. And they came out against it. It was stupid. But the LA artists loved it. They hung around, and they started inviting me to their soirees, and I got to know them. They became like family. And I loved their way of working. It was more direct and visceral. I started mimicking it, not consciously, but I started working that way. " Photo credit: Michael Moran.

How do you balance your clients’ desires against other concerns?

The client hires you, so the client is the priority. But you can’t just build a building based on what the clients say, because their vision is based on what’s normal. How do you get out of the normal? You’ve got to question everything. Spend time with the user group. Glean all the information you can. And then throw it all away and begin to play.

Gehry Residence (1978) "I only had $50,000 to do it. I had an idea, and I did it. I wanted to build a new house around the old house, and that's what I did. It looked strange to everybody, but later they all realized there was something going on. " Photo credit: Getty.

How do you go about solving design problems?

I’m like a pussycat with a ball of twine. It goes over there, and he jumps over there. It falls on the floor, and he goes there. I’m opportunistic. Once I understand the problems, I try things. I see what works and what doesn’t, and then I try again. When it looks like something I’ve done before, I abandon it. I have learned to trust my intuition.

Museo Guggenheim Bilbao (1997) "In Bilbao, the mayor, the president of the Basque Country, the minister of commerce, the minister of education, and the cultural minister were trying to rebuild their town. They wanted a building that would do for Bilbao what the Sydney Opera House had done for Sydney. I said, I can't guarantee you I can do that, but I'll try. It was interesting, from a business standpoint. There were three architects in the competition. Arata Isozaki did a seven-story oval. Mine looked weird. And Coop Himmelb(l)au's was halfway between Isozaki's and mine. You'd think the conservative choice would have been Isozaki. But if they'd picked that, they wouldn't have gotten what they wanted. So I turned out to be the conservative choice, strangely enough. " Photo credit: Sydney Pollack.

I’ve heard you have unusually strong feelings about budgeting and project management.

Cost control is a big deal for me. In the construction industry, 30% of the money spent is wasted. That’s why it’s important to value engineer as you design. It’s easy to do now—we use software that’s precise to seven decimal points, so there’s no chance of a mistake. You can get a good sense of how much a building will cost and whether the budget is real. And once you’ve set a real budget, it behooves you to stay there. You have to manage the information and the relationships with the construction people. You have to control the project through to the end, really control the goddamned thing, because it’s your design. Nobody else knows how to do it.

Walt Disney Concert Hall (2003) "When we did Disney Hall, the contractor they were using came to my office with the board of directors. They looked at the models. They were all gaga. And they turned to this guy and said, 'What do you think?' And in front of me, in my office, he said to them, 'It's beautiful, but you can't build it.' Well, it's built. And that guy's out of business."

What’s your succession plan?

When I reached my sixties, I separated my fee from the office fee so the office would grow up with a culture of working within a normal fee range. Now we’ve got this well-honed machine. Six or seven young people in the office are good enough to take over. We talk about it a lot. My guess is some will splinter off and the rest will figure out how to use the well-honed machine in their own way.

IAC Headquarters (2007) "Glass is made flat, shipped to the site flat. When you want it curved, you build a frame that's torqued, and you just torque it into place. But you have to know how much you can torque it without breaking the seal. On Barry Diller's building, we discovered that when the double-layered glass is being manufactured, four suction cups on the assembly line pick each sheet up to take it to the next station. When we watched the process, we saw that the edges sagged six inches without breaking the seal. The insurance company added a cushion of safety and guaranteed the glass up to a four-inch sag, and then we added an extra half-inch to be safe." Photo credit: William Paterson.
Spruce Street (Beekman Tower) (2011) "I've built a lot of stuff, and I know what things cost. I know if I make a curve, I've got to account for it. Beekman's got all these curves, but it came in at the same price as any New York building. We eliminated change orders on the curtain wall. That's a big deal. No change orders. That saves a lot of money. " Photo credit: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times.

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