A year ago, when Frank Gehry was commissioned to design the new business school for the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) he was asked if he liked the proposed site. His response — “I like the problem” — was both diplomatic and revealing, for UTS, the youngest of Sydney’s four major universities, exists in a part of town with a lot of likable problems. Like NYU, UTS is an urban university with no real campus. This lack is no problem if you have a Washington Square Park, an expansionist attitude and a Greenwich Village to compensate, but UTS is stuck in a defiantly unlovely part of Sydney. Even if it had the beautiful lawns and gracious old buildings of the nearby University of Sydney, UTS would struggle to maintain a physical identity among the dense but generally mediocre surroundings to the west of Central Station. In a sense UTS’ problem is a condensed version of central Sydney’s more persistent malaise; it is not a place where people linger. While Gehry might seem an obvious choice for any university looking to promote, as the current jargon goes, “stickiness,” UTS and Gehry are in fact an ideal match. As his now-unveiled design for what will be known as the Dr. Chau Chak Wing Building reveals, he has solutions to their problems.
It is a paradox that the most famous architect in the world (even Rem Koolhaas would never make The Simpsons) remains, at least in my view, misunderstood. Even thirteen years after its shock of the new, it’s not hard to find pundits and architects still shaking their heads about “the Bilbao effect,” as though Gehry’s building somehow invented a phenomenon which, if it is worth mentioning at all, is at least as old as the Parthenon. What I find most interesting about Gehry is his continual progression, his unbroken commitment to finding his architecture within himself. This individualism has been happily at odds with the several variously ephemeral architectural tendencies during his career — 80s postmodernism, 90s deconstructivism, today’s parametric design. Gehry only became famous fairly late in his career, after he had honed his game against the backdrop of the historicist post-modernism of the 1970s and 80s. While consciously avoiding pomo like the plague, Gehry nonetheless managed in early projects like his own chain link wrapped house (1978) and the the Chiat-Day Headquarters (1985-91, with its triumphal entrance gate formed by Claes Oldenburg binoculars) to assimilate, perhaps unconsciously, the “rough and tough and frontier” context of Los Angeles with the humor and cultural references of the best postmodern architecture. The result was, and remains, completely sui generis.
From the earliest Venice Beach houses (some of them on sites as unlovely as UTS), Gehry’s work has expressed a sense of movement. By revealing the prosaic stud work underneath the skin of the American home, Gehry tried to capture the evanescent beauty of unfinished buildings. In a gradual progression, advanced by ten years of toil on the unbuilt Peter B. Lewis House (1985-95) outside Cleveland (which Gehry credited as “the equivalent of a MacArthur Grant”), and perhaps culminating in Bilbao’s literally billowing titanium scales, Gehry became interested in all sorts of movement; the wiggling of a fish, the drapery in a Bellini Madonna and Child, the “luffing” of sails on a sailboat.
As his commissions have become more public, Gehry has tried to design “porous buildings,” buildings which break down the barriers which exist within institutions and between institutions and their cities. In Sydney, Gehry has, bene trovato, managed to find things to celebrate on his harsh little site. With no choice but to go vertical, the Wing Building has been explicitly designed as a “tree house.” The basic parti is surprisingly simple — a group of mini-towers stacked in a rough pyramid. This form intrinsically allows generic spaces — the offices within the towers — to generate more public areas in the irregular cracks between the towers. The logic is especially evident on the ground and first floor plans, where the bases of the towers shape a flowing social space over two levels. While architects imitate Gehry at their peril, we can all learn from his expertise in combining generic and particular space, a combination which seems to characterize many contemporary building typologies. Gehry has done this in many different ways during his career. At Bard’s Fisher Centre (2003), for example, the stainless steel scales of the entry and foyer give way with charming matter-of-factness to simple plaster boxes at the back of house.
On the outside of the Wing Building there is wit in the way a large building seems to have been squeezed like an accordion onto a little site. Is this a big or a little building? The ambiguity is intriguing. Gehry sensibly realized that the new business school will never be seen in its entirety from any viewpoint in the cluttered context, and designed the exterior as a series of “vignettes.” Each elevation takes on a different personality (the Sydney climate generally suggests that a building treat the four cardinal directions in four different ways, and I hope as Gehry’s UTS design develops that each elevation is further modified to respond to the climatic context as subtly as it currently responds to its urban surroundings). Gehry has tried hard to activate the site. What one might call the dominant elevations face east and west. To the east a roughly tripartite brick facade opens onto the optimistically named Ultimo Pedestrian Network. The “wrinkly,” drapery-like central portion frames the kind of pleasant outdoor space UTS desperately needs. On the west side, facing onto Omnibus Lane, and looking through a gap toward Harris Street, tilting planes of glass are intended to reflect the urban surroundings. On the narrower northern and southern elevations, the building is also “porous” with a small plaza and cafe opening to the north-west and the main entrance off Ultimo Road tucked into a fold on the southern side. This description makes the spaces seem more fragmented than I suspect they will be in the flesh (and fleshy this building shall be). Internally, the sinuous lobby should link it all into an unbroken whole, while on the exterior, the building turns the corners between the four distinct elevations with a typically Gehrian flow.
Gehry’s emphasis on the practical nature of his practice — “architecture is a service business” — makes is difficult to generalize about where the Wing Building fits into his oeuvre, but the design does seem to belong to a series of recent works preoccupied by the tectonic qualities of particular building materials. While the Disney Concert Hall (1987-2003!) was revised from stone cladding to stainless steel with barely a change in form, it would be difficult to imagine, for example, the IAC Building (2007) on the Hudson River in anything but glass, or the 2008 Serpentine Pavilion in anything but wood. For Sydney, Gehry has written an essay in brick, and I’m pleased that he made such an unconventionally conventional choice. The brick occupies a unique place in the Australian psyche, both for public buildings and, most interestingly, for houses, where a brick finish has long been considered so desirable, indeed so necessary to the idea of a proper house that the very Aussie concept of brick veneer — in which a perfectly good timber house is clad in a nonstructural layer of brick — was invented. It will be fascinating to see how Gehry chooses to detail the brick walls, which must achieve some pretty sharp curves while accommodating punched openings. Unlike the smooth, billowing brick forms of the Vontz Center in Cincinnati (1997-99), Gehry intends the buff colored brick of the Wing building to have an “animated,” corbeled finish. A full-scale mock up on display at UTS suggests that the constraint of stacking rectangular bricks into complex curved forms could result in an extremely beautiful texture, and a real innovation among Gehry’s material experiments.
Beyond the building itself, I appreciate the way Gehry’s presence in Sydney allows a writer on architecture to, for once, write about, well, architecture. After a year of agonizing about the politics, spin and obfuscation of the now rubber-stamped Barangaroo fiasco (two fast facts: the entire eleven story Dr. Wing building is budgeted at $150 million, a 200 meter pedestrian tunnel at Barangaroo will cost Mr. Taxpayer $286 million), it is refreshing to talk about bricks, glass, doors and walls for a change. Gehry justifies his architecture in the language of architecture, not as the harbinger of progress or wealth or utopia, but as the continuation of a noble tradition of making people feel better in physical space.
The solidity of Gehry’s practice extends to the way he presents his buildings. Gehry travelled to Sydney with physical models and two dimensional scale drawings, formats which, unlike the ubiquitous computer rendering, allow the architect no room to hide, no room for fudging. The several enormous models, at scales ranging from 1:1 to 1:500 were sturdy and beautiful in the Gehry office style. One could tell that they were working models, designed to be taken apart and reconfigured as necessary. Gehry emphasizes the importance of brain-eye-hand coordination for architects and though it may sound fuddy duddy I fear that this delicate link has been endangered by the contemporary tendency to design buildings on a computer, rather than, as Gehry does, with the aid of one. Too often a physical model takes the form of a perfect, filigree object spat out of a laser printer at the end of the design process. I know in my own architectural education the quality of a design was directly proportional to the number of process models, even if one occasionally and literally bled for them.
Beyond their usefulness for the architect, it is impossible to overemphasize how expressive a handmade physical model can be. Models are perhaps the only way to create a conversation between the architect and a general public untrained in the reading of plans and uncritical in the reading of digital renderings. Even though Gehry’s forms are complex, he presents them with a precision which allows those interested to see into his design process. This was obvious on the afternoon of Gehry’s public interview with ABC television, which was followed by a mass stampede towards the arrayed models.
Sydney’s Gehry building (as I’m afraid it will ever be known) is a major coup for UTS and the city. Universities love to call their building programs, however meek or blatantly expansionist, transformational, but there is no doubt that UTS and its neighborhood are at the beginning of a transformation at the hands of architecture, with the university’s many projects in turn dwarfed by the promising Central Park development on the other side of Broadway. What is remarkable, given the history of university building programs, is that UTS seems to have cracked out the bulldozers for buildings which are so resolutely contemporary and so unapologetically urban. Gehry could have been describing UTS’ approach as a whole when he said that his building “doesn’t pander to the fabric. It talks to it but doesn’t talk down to it.” It is this sense of engaged acceptance of one’s surroundings, worthy of Ozu, that unites architect and client on an obscure little site at the edge of inner Sydney’s edge.
The ABC Radio’s By Design program conducted an excellent interview with Gehry while he was in Sydney, available as a podcast here.