Opinion

Gehry’s veiled designs for UTS

June 17, 2010

Frank Gehry’s concept design for a new UTS building has been approved, yet remains hidden from the public. John de Manincor and Adam Russell listened to him talk about the ‘two-edged sword’ of design competitions.

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Starchitect Frank Gehry was in Sydney this week to present his practice’s concept design for the new Faculty of Business at The University of Technology Sydney (UTS). The $150 million, 16,000 sqm building forms part of the University’s ambitious City Campus Master Plan, incorporating hundreds of millions of dollars worth of redevelopment spanning the next five years.

Gehry Partners were invited by UTS to develop concepts for the project late last year. There has been an undercurrent of excitement about the project’s potential ever since, while scuttlebutt has spread through architectural circles in Sydney, questioning the appropriateness of the firm’s involvement. Mostly, however, we just wanted to know what Gehry and co. might do on such a constrained site.

And so disappointment was palpable at the announcement on Wednesday afternoon, where there was nothing to see of the Gehry Partners proposal: all images had been embargoed. Together, 81-year-old Gehry, Chancellor of UTS Professor Vicki Sara, and Vice-Chancellor Ross Milbourne advised the audience that the scheme was ‘not far enough along.’ ‘It’s just a sketch,’ added Gehry.

The presentation described how fantastic the development process has been, how well the space planning has been resolved and how many cafés would be included in the design. We were told Gehry Partners had explored over 25 options, grappling with complex programmatic requirements and contextual issues. According to Gehry, this process is both iterative and intuitive. From the outside, the design process appears to be much like the one illustrated in an episode of The Simpsons, in which Gehry delights in the remodeling of a conventional building at the hands of a wrecking ball.

Gehry himself seemed to have a nuanced and deep understanding of the gritty Ultimo context. When asked by the university if he liked the site, he answered, “I like the problem.”

One point of interest raised by the jet-lagged Gehry was his view that any images of this – or indeed any – project released too early in the process often set up expectations that may not be met as a project evolves, potentially limiting design development.

It’s a problem the practice has dealt with in competition wins over the years. A competition imposes an architect and a scheme on a client, rather than setting up a process whereby a project is developed in conjunction with them. This raises questions about the competition process in general. Should a client have the right to employ an architect of their choosing, on the basis of demonstrated experience, and (more importantly) on the basis of what Gehry describes as “a people thing,” given these projects are a five-to-seven year partnership? It’s interesting to consider the procurement of projects with this in mind, particularly when many practices, ours included, have been strong advocates of design competitions as an opportunity for less-established architects to work on important public projects. Gehry sees competitions as a “two-edged sword”: one side offering opportunities to work in new fields with new clients, the other, placing constraints on both the architect and the client.

UTS is procuring architectural commissions for the Master Plan projects in a variety of ways: EOI’s and open tenders (fee/experience based); design and construct projects; open and/or invited design competitions; and, in the rare exception of Gehry Partners, direct commissions (but let’s face it, Gehry and his team are exceptional architects).

UTS’s commissioning process thus far has not been without some controversy. One of the projects in the Master Plan is the Broadway Building (Faculty of IT and Engineering). This was a hybrid two-stage design competition. Based on anonymous design proposals, six teams were shortlisted: Denton Corker Marshall (DCM), Lacoste + Stevenson (with DJRD), BVN, Cox Richardson, FJMT, and Bates Smart. When announced, the shortlist was the source of considerable criticism from a number of architectural practices in Sydney, ours included.

Our sentiments were summed up by Marcus Trimble on his Supercolossal blog: “The competition opened up an opportunity for less established practices to compete for a large public project and introduce new blood (young practices, new practices, practices not normally engaged for university projects) into the arena of public architecture… we believe that a diverse ecology is vital in the ongoing cultural capital of this city…[there is a] missed opportunity to demonstrate alternate methods of commissioning architects and the notion that UTS may use architecture to establish its brand and set it apart from other universities in Australia by engaging new practices.” DCM went on to win the competition.

In hindsight, it is worth noting that with the Broadway Building, opportunity did exist for “young bloods” like us: the process was anonymous, and the competition was strong (it included starchitects like Bjarke Ingels Group and Benedetta Tagliabue). UTS have run at least two other design competitions since then: one for the Podium of the infamous Tower Building, and another for the new interior of the Great Hall. These projects are yet to be announced, and with all images embargoed, there can be no comparisons to Gehry… yet!

John de Manincor and Adam Russell are principals of DRAW (www.DRAW.net.au) a practice tactically located at the nexus between professional services, research, education, and the odd design competition at UTS. Both John and Adam have taught at UTS.

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