Frank Gehry’s crumpled vision for Sydney

December 22, 2010

Starchitect Frank Gehry claims his $150m crumpled ‘brown paper bag’ proposal for the UTS Business School is cost-effective and simple to build. David Neustein responds.

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From Bono to Blondie, Bon Jovi to Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Kanye, Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway: in the past fortnight, Sydney has played host to a plethora of celebrities. Accompanied by swarming helicopters and watched by a global audience of 150 million, Oprah’s arrival proved emphatically that Sydney was the place to be seen. Like a besieging army, Oprah and her entourage set up camp in the Opera House forecourt. Sydney’s public offered little resistance. So infatuated were we with the queen of American TV that we verged on renaming our most famous landmark the ‘Oprah House’.

Enter Frank Gehry. The architecture world’s only true celebrity, Gehry displayed impeccable timing in scheduling his public visit to Sydney. And without needing to resort to lavish gifts or a kamikaze Wolverine, Gehry arguably trumped even Oprah. For while Oprah’s signature ‘O’ illuminated the harbour bridge for one week, Frank O. Gehry’s signature will be writ even larger, in permanent brickwork and glass, as the new home of the UTS Business School. State and federal agencies spent $5 million on Oprah’s visit. UTS will spend $150 million on Frank.

Sure, Lord Richard Rogers is designing a whole city precinct at Barangaroo, and fellow Pritzker Prize winner Jean Nouvel is constructing a taller and more prominent building just across Broadway from UTS. But Nouvel couldn’t command a film crew from the ABC, and Rogers’ talk was hardly the hottest ticket in town. There can only be one Gehry. Having emerged from obscurity with a ramshackle house-extension at the age of 49, the octogenarian Sketches star is today at the height of his powers. That UTS has snared him as the centerpiece of their rebuilding program is clearly a major coup. Indeed, 2010 was the year of high-profile Sydney commissions. Also landing big jobs at UTS were Melbourne architects Denton Corker Marshall (DCM), Sydney/Melbourne collaborators Lacoste + Stevenson and Daryl Jackson Robyn Dyke, and local boys, DRAW. So it proved fitting that the year would culminate in a commission of near Bilbao-scale aspirations.

On a balmy Friday afternoon, the UTS Great Hall is packed to the brim with an expectant audience. A row of finely crafted models of the freshly unveiled Dr Chau Chak Wing Building lines the wall furthest from the doors. While waiting for the star attraction to appear, we watch a fly-through movie of the new edifices planned for UTS, which culminates at Gehry’s site. The film depicts the design first as a stack of crisp brown cubes – then the cubes deform into rumpled brick, as if wilting under the Australian sun. The camera pans to reveal a predominantly glass, regular backside to the building: the fourth, conventional façade typical of most Gehry designs.

Arriving onstage, Gehry is flustered to discover compère Geraldine Doogue casually joking around with an ABC staffer. Dressed in black jacket, black t-shirt and beige chinos, with a tidily swept head of silver hair, Gehry looks svelte but seems tired. With his first words, he reminds everyone that he’s an ’81 year old man and has worked very hard’. Enlisted to prompt Gehry’s thoughts, Doogue is an award-winning journalist and an engaging presence, but hardly an architectural authority. She asks Gehry if he ever compromises. ‘Everybody compromises,’ he replies testily. ‘I’ve compromised my body to be here.’ World-weary, he flippantly dismisses the current focus on sustainable architecture as ‘the sustainability police’. ‘Every few years there’s the new thing,’ says Gehry. ‘I forget what the last thing was; probably low-income housing.’

Lack of environmental concern is a criticism often levelled at Gehry, who, due to his success, attracts more scrutiny than perhaps any other architect (see the comments accompanying ADR’s earlier story). As frequently as they are acclaimed as masterpieces, his buildings are said to be resource-intensive, structurally wasteful, unresponsive to climate and context, and above all, expensive. Gehry, however, has weathered such criticism for years. Before Doogue has a chance to probe him for weaknesses, he pre-empts any jibes about his UTS design by audaciously arguing that his methods are cost-effective. ‘Bilbao,’ he claims, ‘cost a third less per square metre than the going price for museums in 1996. It was not an expensive project.’ That the museum has recouped the sum invested in it many times over is apparently something Gehry foresaw. ‘It was transparently a business decision,’ he says of his appointment as Guggenheim architect by the museum’s director, the Mayor of Bilbao, and the President of the Basque region. And while his planned $800 million Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi will be 12 times as large as the original in New York, Gehry asserts that, per square metre, it will cost less than half that of Renzo Piano’s newly opened Broad Pavilion at the LA County Museum of Art. Never mind that Piano’s building is of an entirely different scale, and that the price of labour in the Emirates ranges anywhere from ludicrously cheap to illegal exploitation; Gehry’s sales pitch is persuasive. I search my pockets for a calculator, but having none, I have to take his word on the subject of affordability. If quirky and exuberant costs less than rational and sober, he asks, why wouldn’t you hire me? Later, he claims that the ‘wiggly’ brick walls proposed at UTS will be no more expensive than flat walls. There is obviously one price for Gehry, another for everyone else.

In the 1990s, at the same time as he was completing Bilbao, Gehry was at work on the Berlin headquarters of DG Bank. He describes this time as a turning point in his career. While the shimmering, curvilinear forms of Bilbao presented the architect with seemingly endless possibilities, the rectilinear geometry required for the historic precinct of the DG Bank ‘forced [him] into a fastidiousness’ regarding joints, connections and details. ‘The American city is a product of democracy,’ says Gehry, ‘which means that everyone can do what they want. It’s a collision of ideas. There’s not much you can do to change that. So I embraced the beauty of the collision.’ The tension between the freeform and orthogonal continually manifests in the architect’s work, and is particularly evident in the Business School’s tortured façade. Gehry explains that his aesthetic is inspired by the ‘junk’ of artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Rising to fame in the 1970s, Johns and Rauschenberg frequently challenged high-art norms by incorporating found objects into their paintings and assemblages. In the 1980s, Gehry collaborated with pop artist Claes Oldenburg – he of the infamous giant scissors, drooping sandwiches and towering lipstick. It seems curious, then, that Gehry should take exception to his UTS project being unofficially named ‘the Big Paper Bag,’ as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald. In a city that already boasts a Toaster, Coat Hanger and Mushroom, the nickname is likely to stick. But rather than celebrating the building’s precipitant entry into pop culture, Gehry snarls that ‘there’s always some smartarse,” before boasting that Bilbao residents issued him with death threats.

In parallel with stylistic tensions between the capricious and restrained, Gehry also treads a tenuous path between establishment and punk. ‘Accepting the project is the sell-out,’ he says. He works for global institutions yet identifies himself as a maverick. Transgression, deviance and willfulness are recurrent themes when Gehry talks about his work. When he describes solving ‘knotty’ problems, I hear ‘naughty’, which seems a more appropriate choice of word. Presumably before launching his architectural career, Gehry tells us that he taught art to children from grades three to six because he ‘wanted to find out where things go wrong. By the time you get to sixth grade, the system has squelched creativity.’ Talking candidly, having seemingly shaken off his lethargy, he relates to us the story of how he reawakened his own creative drive. Attending three or four years of group therapy sessions, held for LA artists as a charity by a celebrity Hollywood psychoanalyst, Gehry learned to gradually find his voice. ‘When you write your signature, that’s yourself,’ he says. ‘I approach every project with the same anxieties and insecurities. I’m never sure if it’s going to be good.’ Gehry’s squiggle of selfhood, which originates in hurried doodles and eventually manifests in sculptural objects, has become more than just his signature style. Like Jabba freezing Han Solo in carbonite, the process petrifies Gehry’s doubts and internal struggles in built form. This method is diametrically opposed to the Modernists’ concept of architecture as the harmonious resolution of various forces. Having earlier convinced us of his buildings’ value for money, Gehry now seduces us with the prospect of self-liberation. ‘It is childlike, intuitive playfulness,’ he says. ‘But that’s what we all yearn for, this freedom from constraints!’ The architect emerges as a heroic figure, realising in his work our latent desire for rebellion. He does what we all wish we could do.

The flash of inspiration embodied in the signature or doodle is a crucial part of Gehry’s mythology. His true genius is the ability to include clients, stakeholders and the general public in that transformative instant. ‘With architecture the idea must go through five or 6,000 people,’ he says. ‘That’s the magic trick.’ The key moment in the development of the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building came during a ‘free association session’ in which Gehry and his UTS clients tossed terms around. Roy Green, Dean of the Business School, wanted a ‘porous building,’ a space of openness, connection and collaboration that eliminated self-contained ‘silos’. This aspiration suggested a sprawling, horizontal floor plan. However, constraints of site and program dictated that the new entity would have to be more vertical than horizontal. Gehry seized on the concept of a ‘tree house’. ‘I first came across the notion of a tree,’ he says, ‘and then platforms in the tree.’ He later confuses the metaphor by asserting that the proposed building comprises ‘a stack of tree houses.’ That the eventual design – squat, solid and resting heavily on the ground – looks almost exactly unlike a tree house is entirely beside the point. The key figures at UTS feel as if they are equal participants in Gehry’s vision.

Unlike the planned Broadway additions by DCM et al, the UTS Business School is located off the main drag, tucked in behind the larger ABC headquarters. Of the surrounding context, Gehry states that his design ‘doesn’t pander to it, but doesn’t talk down to it either.’ The choice of a light-coloured brick as the primary cladding material, as opposed to steel, copper or titanium, is both a budgetary concession and an apparent nod to Sydney’s pale-hued sandstone. In order to realise his outlandish forms, Gehry has pioneered the use of parametric computer modelling to enable design and construction. Some might worry that the complex geometry of the Business School will befuddle the local construction industry. This was the case with his Stata Center at Boston’s MIT, which has been beset by problems of leaking, cracking and mould since opening in 2004, forcing MIT to sue Gehry and the project’s builders. Ironically, of all his buildings, it was the Stata Center that proved decisive in UTS choosing Gehry. Allaying such fears about the Business School, Gehry reassures us that he’s ‘confident that the technology is here to build it,’ before qualifying that ‘brick is simple.’

All in all, Gehry has managed to subtly manipulate the questions posed by Doogue in order to systematically nullify any concerns we might have had about the sustainability, cost, exclusivity and constructability of his design. He deftly shrugs off a question from an audience member about the slave-like conditions of builders in Abu Dhabi, claiming to have hired a human rights lawyer to avoid any potential abuses on the ground. He leaves to thunderous applause, with Doogue, segueing into Oprah-mode, asking us to ‘show our appreciation, Sydney-style.’ I cringe, while clapping. After Gehry departs, I seize my chance to inspect his models up close. Ranging in scale and detail, the models plainly reveal the design as a cluster of timber blocks, wrapped in hessian, and the hessian then translated into brick. That the ‘wiggly’, expressive parts of the building house public functions such as auditoria, lobbies and a cafeteria – and the more restrained back end contains offices – is clear in drawings but seems unlikely to be apparent to outside observers. Confusingly, the public face of the Business School is concealed by opaque brickwork, while its private face is exposed behind clear glass. And with public murmurings of dissent over the lack of transparency in UTS’ commissioning process, the choice of material for the windows which puncture the brickwork seems appropriate: mirror glass, of course, like the mirrored shades which are the hallmark of celebrity.

  • Peter vdVeer December 22nd, 2010 7:53 am

    This 22/12/10 electronic issue of Australian Design Review has the headlines “Frank Gehry’s crumpled vision for Sydney” and “Frank Gehry claims $150m crumpled ‘brown paper bag’ proposal for UTS is cost effective and simple to build.”
    Gehry doesn’t have a crumpled vision nor has any bag been involved in the design process or been an inspiration source. To quote his vision, it should read: “Frank Gehry’s tree house vision for Sydney”. and perhaps: “Frank Gehry assures us his design proposal for UTS is cost effective and …”

    The headline tones here are the derogatory tabloid ones used to arouse an ignorant rabble through scathing catch-phrases. We’re professionals well above gutter-press rhetoric. It’s why we subscribe.
    This publication’s purpose is surely to strengthen the design professions, not aid and abet their crucifixion.

    There have been some mediocre designs and products published during the last 12 months , yet always headlined with neutrality or praise. In the body, reviewer criticisms would then be found. Why the sudden change?

    Please don’t be misled by tabloids into professional deceit. Please don’t sink to the lowest common denominator, keep your own counsel and responsible leadership. It was the gutter press who had “the crumpled vision” and the gutter press who produced “the ‘crumpled brown paper bag’ “. They’re quotes that cannot be ethically linked to Frank Gehry.
    Patterson’s “language uninviting of the gutter children fighting” is continuing to come “fitfully” into our private domain “through the ceaseless tramp of feet”. It’s time to review standards here.

    Each day it’s getting more like the Opera House all over again. If our own publications misquote, misguide and deceive us, who can we trust?

  • December 23rd, 2010 12:16 am


    Thank you for your comment.

    We agree that the headlines and leads in our news articles should be informative, impartial and avoid sensationalist language. Our main news piece about Gehry’s UTS design, titled ‘Design for Gehry’s first Australian building unveiled’, reflects this.

    However, this article is written as an opinion piece following Gehry’s presentation and is published in our ‘Response’ section. Separate from our news section, ‘Response’ allows our writers to express opinion and is intended to invite considered comment from others. ‘Response’, in a nutshell, is intended to be polemic, the headlines and leads reflect this and – we hope – will prompt others to share their thoughts.

    Thanks for engaging with the debate, and for your support of Australian Design Review.

  • Peter van der Veer December 23rd, 2010 4:30 am

    Thank you, yes I respected your initial article and should have reminded myself that this article is a response. I wish David had used his critical headline as a second headline in response to a neutral one as a way of introducing his opinion before continuing to elaborate. It would have been more in keeping with ADR. But it’s not for me or anyone to dictate syntax.
    Let me take this opportunity to thank you for producing this wonderful invaluable publication.

  • David Neustein December 25th, 2010 2:38 pm

    Peter, thanks for your comments. I’d just like to clarify that the choice of article heading is typically not mine. As was the case here, I write articles and leave the task of choosing a heading to the editorial team. I don’t think the intent here was to be sensationalist, I think it was to arrouse peoples’ interest. Hopefully they’ll then read on!

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