March 2015

Arts & Letters

Cyclone Frank

By David Neustein
The Dr Chau Chak Wing Building. © Andrew Worssam
Frank Gehry’s Dr Chau Chak Wing Building

“Frank Gehry, you’re a genius!”

The real Frank Gehry will forever be conflated with his depiction on The Simpsons as an idiot savant who finds design inspiration in scrunched-up wads of paper. “Brown paper bag”, the nickname given to Gehry’s first Australian project, gleefully invokes this association. Officially, the new business school at the University of Technology, Sydney, in Ultimo is named after its major donor, Dr Chau Chak Wing. But the building’s informal moniker is far more evocative, implying an empty container designed with little regard for its cargo. While various stakeholders have heralded it as a “masterpiece of design” and “a new icon for Australia”, and encouraged comparisons with the Sydney Opera House, critics have been less effusive. Fairfax’s Elizabeth Farrelly recently dismissed the building as “bad Gaudi” and the architect’s approach as “all curves, no content”.

He may be the world’s most famous living architect, but Gehry is far from universally admired. A force of nature at age 86, he churns out his signature twisted and crumpled edifices amid continuing controversy. A few months before Cyclone Frank swept through Sydney for the opening of the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building in February, the architect managed to create a media storm using just a single finger. Asked by a Spanish journalist to respond to accusations of “showiness”, Gehry flashed a defiant up-yours gesture. “Let me tell you one thing,” he said. “In the world we live in, 98% of what gets built and designed today is pure shit. There’s no sense of design nor respect for humanity or anything … Every now and then, however, a small number of people do something special. They’re very few. But – my God! – leave us in peace!”

Gehry’s most recently completed project, a Parisian cultural centre, has attracted both critical acclaim and public outrage. Cocooned in layers of glass, the Louis Vuitton Foundation was built for Bernard Arnault, France’s richest man, within a previously sacrosanct city park. Speaking of hallowed ground, Gehry’s Dwight D Eisenhower Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC, has been delayed for years amid criticism of the design from the Eisenhower family and government agencies. Work is yet to commence but millions have already been spent. Meanwhile, it is unclear when, if at all, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will open. Gehry’s colossal, billion-dollar museum has been beset by construction delays, finance problems and protests over the suspect working conditions of the migrant labourers.

Gehry vehemently denies that his buildings are expensive and hard to build. He insists that he can build curvy walls for the same price as straight, though the business school cost almost three times as much, per square metre, as UTS’s other new buildings. He jokes that his greatest achievement was delivering the project on time and on budget, but construction was in fact extended by a year and the budget increased by $30 million from original estimates. Look closely and the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building is riddled with imperfections: crude intersections of glass and exhaust vents, bare concrete forecourts, cheap-looking panelling beneath mushrooming brickwork. To appreciate Gehry’s true genius, however, you might need to take a step back.

Gehry first came to prominence aged 49, with renovations to his own Santa Monica home. He enclosed the 1920s bungalow in an assemblage of chainwire fencing, corrugated metal, inclined rafters and floating glass, inventing an entirely new aesthetic in the process. When the architect realised that this improvised and labour-intensive design approach was not sustainable, he invested heavily in advanced computer software. Gehry’s ability to generate construction drawings for virtually any shape means that for years he has managed to skirt economic and structural realities, eschewing grids, simplicity and repetition. Whereas Mies van der Rohe famously declared that “God is in the details,” in Gehry’s buildings God is dead. Unlike other architects, Gehry does not strive for coherence. He does not expend vast effort protecting his designs against escalating numbers of consultants, multi-tiered client groups, complex arrays of mechanical services and punitive building codes. The combination of Gehry’s ad-hoc style and technological know-how allows him to adopt a truly collaborative and open-ended approach, safe in the knowledge that the outcome will resemble no one else’s work.

Gehry is famous for his thick skin, and his buildings are no different. The business school’s undulating exterior appears to be made of masonry, with one angular, mirror-glass façade. But its brick walls are in fact a veneer, divided into panels and tied to a steel framework. A thickened zone between external skin and internal lining conceals the steel framework and maintains the illusion of solid walls. Though wrapped in titanium rather than brick, the Guggenheim Bilbao employs a similar system of panellised cladding and steel structure, as have all Gehry buildings since the early 1980s. The true brilliance of this technique is not the illusion it creates but the freedom it makes possible. The enlarged cavity beneath the façade simultaneously enables wildly unconventional forms and conventional interiors. Like the pith of an orange, it becomes a pliable buffer zone, allowing straight walls and orthogonal rooms to be carved out of highly irregular volumes. The business school’s deep-set windows punch through this pith, providing oversized timber sills that act as shelves and perches, while concrete floor slabs and angular columns do all the real lifting. Though it seems integral, the building’s pale brickwork is essentially packaging, its textured folds independent of the building’s overall form and interior layout.

The quality of the interior architecture lends credence to the claim that Gehry designs “from the inside out”. Described by Gehry as a tree house, the building is more reminiscent of a combination of corporate Californian hotel and Mediterranean fortress, which sounds weird but works well. The first five floors, devoted to teaching, are enlivened by double-height spaces and strewn with oversized objects, like Brobdingnagian furniture. There is a reflective chrome cafe and a chrome staircase, stacked “log-cabin” oval classrooms and conversation pit–style lounges. Postgraduate students, teaching and administration staff populate the remaining levels, which narrow as the building ascends. Doors lead to sunny terraces clustered with pot plants and umbrellas. The building’s furrowed form creates an abundance of window area with a minimum of artificially lit interior at its core.

Already ubiquitous in UTS’s marketing, its visage plastered on billboards and buses, the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building has become the cornerstone of the university’s $1.2 billion redevelopment. But it could all have been so different. An architectural competition was already planned for the new building when UTS hit upon hiring Gehry in 2009. The newly appointed dean of the business school, Professor Roy Green, was hoping to emulate the success of the Weatherhead School of Management at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University, which in 2002 opened its dynamic, Gehry-designed new headquarters. Coincidentally, the husband of one of Green’s colleagues had become friendly with Gehry through a shared love of Canadian ice hockey. This personal connection provided the impetus necessary to halt the competition and invite Gehry to take over.

Gehry is often credited with putting places and institutions on the map, but no “Bilbao Effect” is required here. The choice of location, between the ABC’s headquarters and the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, is as shrewd as its design. The new business school connects directly to the Goods Line, a public promenade, cycleway and park created out of a disused elevated freight train track. Sydney’s answer to New York’s High Line will eventually stretch from Haymarket to Darling Harbour. On the building’s other side, an empty car park has been converted into a public plaza that opens onto busy Harris Street. Hemmed in on all sides, Gehry’s brick and mirror-glass edifice will soon be surrounded by street life and activity, by cafes, business incubators and flocks of students. While the octogenarian architect has recently wandered into controversial territory, here he has stumbled upon an ideal site. Even cartoon Gehry can tell you that genius is equal parts inspiration and luck.

David Neustein

David Neustein is The Monthly’s architecture critic.


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