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, Americaâ€™s most celebrated living architect. His designs, including the Guggenheim Bilbao and Disney Hall in Los Angeles, are all technically challenging and unmistakably his. Gehryâ€™s creative process famously borrows from artists; less well known is his fierce commitment to budgeting and the architectâ€™s role as project manager.
HBR: Tell me about starting your own firm.
Gehry: Iâ€™m not a businessman, but the business model I set for the office turned out to be a good one. Itâ€™s simple: Donâ€™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 didnâ€™t want to work with a struggling young architect. So I couldnâ€™t get the technical help we needed, and we suffered for it. Buildings leak when you donâ€™t have enough construction experience.
Youâ€™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?
Itâ€™s a collaboration. Iâ€™d say itâ€™s 50/50. The client has got to be willing to talk to you. Imagine you get a job with IBM, youâ€™re working with an executive vice president, and he shows the model to the president, and the guy says, â€œWhat the f— is that? That wonâ€™t work with my work.â€ So I only accept jobs where I work with the decision maker.
How do you balance your clientsâ€™ desires against other concerns?
The client hires you, so the client is the priority. But you canâ€™t just build a building based on what the clients say, because their vision is based on whatâ€™s normal. How do you get out of the normal? Youâ€™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.
How do you go about solving design problems?
Iâ€™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. Iâ€™m opportunistic. Once I understand the problems, I try things. I see what works and what doesnâ€™t, and then I try again. When it looks like something Iâ€™ve done before, I abandon it. I have learned to trust my intuition.
Iâ€™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. Thatâ€™s why itâ€™s important to value engineer as you design. Itâ€™s easy to do nowâ€”we use software thatâ€™s precise to seven decimal points, so thereâ€™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 youâ€™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 itâ€™s your design. Nobody else knows how to do it.
Whatâ€™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 weâ€™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.