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Gehry comes to Sydney

Internal organization drives the design of Gehry Partners’ new business school for UTS.

The announcement of Gehry’s first architectural commission in Australia has been met with much discussion about the political ramifications of international architects undertaking major projects. It is widely assumed that the commission derives not from the local absence of some unique design expertise, but from the perceived value a “starchitect” brings to the client’s reputation. Or, as one blogger opines, it’s more “about getting a Gehry than getting a building that is fit for purpose.” While Gehry is no theorist and has often been criticized for the seeming lack of conceptual depth in his oeuvre, his response to claims that the building was an icon on a par with the Opera House was characteristically realistic. “I do not,” he deadpanned, “presume to make a tourist attraction out of a business school.”

Given the sophistication with which the University of Technology, Sydney, has harnessed the media and marketing opportunities around Gehry’s appointment to design the new building for the Faculty of Business, the sceptical tenor of the profession’s response is not surprising. The original motivation for engaging Gehry was, however, far less cynical. At an informal meeting with the new Dean of Business, Professor Roy Green, that I attended in 2009, he described his aspiration for a building conducive to informal socializing and similar to a business school he had visited in the United States six or seven years earlier. “The architect was Frank something, he did the Guggenheim in New York,” he added! At that point Professor Green was less interested in Gehry’s reputation for formal acrobatics than in getting a building that was spatially analogous to the innovations he and his colleagues advocate in organizations and seek to put into place in the faculty.

The irregular shapes and misalignments of the eastern elevation are intended to express the social aspirations of the project.

The irregular shapes and misalignments of the eastern elevation are intended to express the social aspirations of the project.

The building Green had visited, the Peter B. Lewis Building for the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, completed in 2004, is something of a legend in business innovation circles. The former dean at Weatherhead, Kim Cameron, has described the building as having provided “an impetus for transformational change” and for stimulating creative solutions.1 The building’s impact, however, went further than the working life of Weatherhead staff. The faculty members who worked with Gehry over the four and a half years of planning, design and construction were so impressed by the approach to problem solving they witnessed in the architect’s office that they came to advocate the adoption of a “design attitude” for all businesses seeking innovation and change. They hailed an approach that, eschewing default solutions and the “decision attitude” traditionally taught in management education, seeks new possibilities for the future. Weatherhead was named by BusinessWeek in 2009 as one of the thirty-nine best design thinking programs in the world, and while it would be unfair to blame Gehry for the uptake of “design” and “architecture” into the lexicon of the business world, he did agree to be the keynote speaker at an academic conference on organizational innovation held at the Weatherhead School after it opened. The building also features on the cover of the book Managing as Designing, (2004), that includes papers presented at the conference, which may be understood as some sort of endorsement. Edited by Weatherhead staff, the book contains essays with disturbing titles such as “Designing the Australian Tax System” and “Public Policy as a Form of Design”.

In the design of academic buildings across the world, the shift in management approaches to organization – from efficiency to innovation – has translated into an emphasis on social interaction in the workplace, or “connectivity” as they call it in workplace design. The older model of the contemplative, reclusive scholar in an ivory tower has been replaced by an academic entrepreneur who apparently spends most of their day having spontaneous and fruitful conversations with colleagues in other disciplines. It doesn’t mirror my own experience of academia, but Gehry is deeply invested in this idea, as are most university managers. Of his design for MIT’s Ray and Maria Stata Center (2004), Gehry wrote:

“I am happy that this building expresses what is going on inside. My interpretation is that it reflects the different groups, the collision of ideas, the energy of people and ideas. They each have their own sorts of vectors and they will be colliding with each other, some accidentally and some by contrivance. That’s what will lead to the breakthroughs and the positive results. I think that’s really going to work.”2

The interior of the building combines intimate spaces for work groups with more open areas for social interaction. This 1:50 model shows a section of the western elevation.

The interior of the building combines intimate spaces for work groups with more open areas for social interaction. This 1:50 model shows a section of the western elevation.

Gehry’s phrasing is unique, but the general argument is ubiquitous in the design of academic buildings. So, too, are the component pieces deployed by architects in the name of connectivity and interdisciplinarity: informal living rooms and breakout areas with soft seating and kitchenettes; thickened corridors (again, with seating for impromptu chats); on-site cafes, bars and coffee carts; atriums crisscrossed by bridges and stairs and overlooked by several floors; open stairs between floors, open-plan work spaces and offices grouped in clusters around, again, lounges. Gehry’s distinction is that he literally conflates talk about people bumping into each other with the collision of antagonistic architectural elements. His particular formal agility with irregularly shaped spaces and misalignments gives dynamic expression to the social aspirations of the program.

Professor Green wanted what he saw at Weatherhead and the proposed building suggests that he will get that. In fact, many of the features of the Cleveland building are present – right down to the oval shape of the two lecture theatres, with their tiered seating stepped two rows at a time to allow the front row of each step to turn around and join in discussion with the row behind them. One might be forgiven for thinking that there is very little here that is new. The UTS Faculty of Business has a budget of $150 million and a floor area of 16,030 square metres, only marginally larger than the floor area at Weatherhead. It is, however, ten storeys tall rather than the modest five storeys of the earlier business school building and the tight site has constrained Gehry’s tendencies to exaggerate planimetric disorder. Verticality is imposed by the site, but Gehry has been quick to exploit it, describing the building as a “tree house” made up of vertical stacks of office floors with spatial cracks in between. Working groups, it is claimed, would feel an intimacy with others working within their own tree house while looking across the cracks to other tree houses and would then, drawn by curiosity, venture out to talk.

With the exception of the odd choice of a sandstone-coloured brick (in a precinct boasting many fine red-brick buildings), all other aspects of the building are familiar Gehry. Both Weatherhead and the Stata Center include areas of facade with double curvature given over to a single material, including at times glass, alternating with planes interrupted by a regular pattern of office windows. At Weatherhead, the glazing sits in the same plane as the brick and curves with it. At the Stata Center, the glazing is flat and the window pops out from beyond the curved surface. It is a clumsy solution to a problem that could be avoided and is repeated here in the UTS project. Certainly, his most successful buildings – the Bilbao Guggenheim, for example – are those where individual openings are not a requirement and the sculptural surfaces are uninterrupted. What is made apparent by the lack of compositional order to the exterior is that Gehry approaches the design from the inside out. The tension between inside and outside perhaps begins from the fact that the external facade is contingent and arbitrary, not the other way around. This is supported by the evidence of numerous working models exhibited to the media last December, including several that advanced the scheme entirely through internal organization and had no skin. Gehry himself argued that the building was well advanced in its internal planning but there was much work yet to be done on its exterior. It would be impressive if this work yet to be done were in the development of new solutions to the problem of providing individual windows to curved forms. Then we might really see “design thinking” at work.

1. Kim S. Cameron, “Organizational Transformation through Architecture and Design: A Project with Frank Gehry,” Journal of Management Inquiry, vol 12 no 1, 2003, 88–92.

2. Nancy Joyce, with commentary by Frank Gehry, Building Stata: The design and construction of Frank O. Gehry’s Stata Center at MIT, MIT Press, 2004, xv.



Published online: 23 Dec 2011
Words: Sandra Kaji-O'Grady


Architecture Australia, March 2011

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