Gehry Gets Frank With Pratt Students

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Thursday, November 11, 2010
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Julie V. Iovine with an introspective Gehry. (Photo: Jennifer K. Gorsche)

Famed architect Frank Gehry enthralled a packed auditorium of students and community members at Pratt Institute yesterday afteroon. Speaking with The Architect’s Newspaper’s own executive editor Julie V. Iovine and Yael Reisner, author of Architecture and Beauty: Conversations with Architects about a Troubled Relationship, Gehry reminded the budding architects in the audience that his job involves more than just sitting around and creating curvy buildings from crumpled paper–it’s about delivering a finished product to a client, albeit a unique one.

Though creativity and the language of the architectural past are not absent from Gehry’s design equation, the architect admitted that he’s often driven by the desire to not repeat what’s already been done. He also feels that it’s important to recognize that inspiration can come from many different places, and that it’s good to “grab ideas as you can get them.” For Gehry, this happens to include the Talmud–studying the age-old Jewish texts is where Gehry learned to ask “why?”, and where he learned that questioning the status quo was okay. Architecturally, that translated into asking himself why chain link fence is considered by many to be a “throwaway” material and made him wonder how he might use it–a move that worked out pretty well for the architect.

Iovine and Gehry with Yael Reisner and Thomas Hanrahan, dean of the school of architecture at Pratt.

Sometimes a little tweak can make a building distinctive, like the new 8 Spruce Street building (formerly known as Beekman Tower) in Lower Manhattan. Gehry said that the only change he made from the typical New York City apartment pro-forma was that many of the apartments will have bay windows–a feature often found in historic buildings on the Upper West Side–and that those bay windows help give the skyscraper its distinctive shape.

A slide of the facade system for Gehry's tower at 8 Spruce Street.

Taking his audience into account, Gehry reminded the students that they have to understand and accept the practicalities of being a working architect: “Be real about your responsibilities,” he said, even if you don’t like them. In light of that, Gehry’s most important lesson of all for those in the audience was, “Be yourself, and you’ll like what you do.”

When a student in the audience asked a question about materials, Gehry said that he doesn’t necessarily begin a project with materials in mind, but he does like to explore material possibilities (an agenda also promoted by the lecture’s sponsors, the Steel and Ornamental Metal Institutes of New York). He also pointed out that aesthetics can relate to budget, and that he often uses what’s available because he still has to deliver a finished product to his client. He was honest about the realities of the job; the everyday stuff one doesn’t always hear architects of this caliber mention–the budget, the client, and that client’s agenda; the construction managers and their often-changing crews; and the cost per square foot (Bilbao came in at $300 per square foot, surprising many in the audience).

Despite all of those difficulties, Gehry showed that there is still evidence of all the things that architecture can be–beautiful, awe-inspiring, majestic, and sometimes even formidable–around us every day.

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