Yale Bulletin and Calendar

April 12, 2002Volume 30, Number 25

During his Morse College talk, architect Frank Gehry explained why he has given his students the assignment of designing a one-room memorial for the World Trade Center site, which he believes should remain vacant for many years.

Visiting architect describes his creative process

In his effort to demystify the profession for which he has earned renown, architect Frank Gehry began his April 4 talk at a Morse College master's tea by setting the record straight.

Gehry told the capacity audience that he does not, as is rumored, just crumple up paper and throw it in the computer to design a building. "In actual fact," he said of the process, "it is like watching paint dry."

Currently the Louis Kahn Visiting Professor at the School of Architecture, Gehry described how he arrived at such signature monuments as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, or the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

The creative process is "intuitively deliberate," said the architect, noting that the three most important considerations he must take into account on any project are the clients, the budget and the context.

In the beginning, Gehry explained, he is not quite sure how the project will turn out, and he takes advantage of opportunities -- or even constraints -- that occur along the way.

The first task in any architectural undertaking is to visit and revisit the site of the proposed project to establish the physical context, explained Gehry. Since he doesn't believe in "pandering" or being submissive to the surroundings, he spends time on the site, but he doesn't make a "fetish" out of it, he said. Noting that he was raised in a Talmudic tradition, the architect said he always applies the "do unto others" rule to the sites he is working with: He respects them as he does himself.

Taking account of the existing landscape and surrounding structures -- and mindful that many nearby older buildings may be torn down -- he makes models on two or three different scales.

Thanks to his extraordinary visual memory, Gehry explained, he is able to "internalize" the site visually before proceeding to the next stage of the process: sketching.

Describing his sketches as "squiggles," Gehry said he relies on his office staff to make sense of them. "If I show those to a client at that stage," he quipped, "they'd go into cardiac arrest." After deciphering and translating his squiggles into a more intelligible plan, the designers and technicians of his studio then "crumble the paper up and throw it into the computer," he said, to a sustained round of laughter.

It is at this stage, when he really has to "get down to it," Gehry confided, that he starts to procrastinate.

Gehry said he considers it his duty as an architect to bring his own politics and sense of responsibility to his work, and he will frequently take on projects that reflect his convictions. He also maintains close contact with his clients throughout the design process. The relationship with his clients is important, he noted, because without it he would repeat himself.

In the question-and-answer period following his talk, one student asked why Gehry had assigned his advanced studio at the School of Architecture to design a one-room memorial for the site of the World Trade Center, when he had previously said he thought the space should remain vacant.

The architect noted that, although he still thought nothing should be built there for many years to come, he was very moved by New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's proposal for a "soaring space for people to come to." Gehry noted, "My image when he talked was of a pantheon, but 10 times bigger."

Assigning students to design a one-room monument still requires them to deal with technical problems like plumbing and extensive electric work, he said, noting that it is conventional wisdom among architects that all the greatest buildings in the world are one-room.

Most of all, noted Gehry, the simplicity and the sacred nature of the project gives the students an opportunity to confront themselves, one that they might never have again.

-- By Dorie Baker


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