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A Dream of "Paperless" Architechture

Architect Frank Gehry will be celebrating another creative milestone on Oct. 23 when his Walt Disney Concert Hall opens in Los Angeles. Gehry, 74, is using the soaring steel structure's opening to promote his newest business, Gehry Technologies, which will teach architects and other construction professionals how to use some of the technologies Gehry's office has worked with over the years. His secret weapon is CATIA, design software originally developed for the aerospace industry by Dassault Systemes of France (see BW, 10/06/03, "Frank Gehry's High-Tech Secret").

CATIA helped Gehry create some of his most famous structures, including the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Experience Music Project in Seattle. BusinessWeek's Christopher Palmeri interviewed Gehry in Disney Hall on Sept. 17. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: You're trying to use technology not only to help architects in their designs but to improve the way the construction industry operates.

A: The profession, as I entered it, was in an environment of overprotection. Architects were often treated like the little woman -- the sweetie-pie creative person. Then when it comes to the real work, the construction guys, who've been in business for 30 years, inadvertently undermine the power of the architect's work by changing it to save money.

I've always thought that from an architectural standpoint, the era of the master builder that built cathedrals was better. When someone hires an architect, it's for a certain kind of creative input, and then the person is always disappointed when they find out the design costs more than they had budgeted. Enter the computer. Enter Dassault. Enter CATIA.

Q: Was changing the construction profession part of your original reason for using CATIA?

A: We bumped into it because of the kind of designs we wanted to do. What we found was that it gave us a lot more control over the construction process, and we found the construction industry welcomed us assuming a parental position. The client welcomed that, even the insurance companies liked it. When we put a project out for bids, the spread between the bids is usually within 1%.

The computer demystifies the building to such a degree of accuracy that builders know exactly what they're building. You can see the joints and connections. It's like having a 3D model. The clarity, the definition, is more precise. It leads to fewer mistakes and a better-organized process. It also saves time. The dream is to go paperless.

Q: You famously redesigned your house in Santa Monica, Calif., using chain-link fencing and plywood. Were you rebelling against the sleek modern designs in vogue at the time?

A: I wasn't rebelling. The jobs I got, they didn't have the budgets to do the sleek modern stuff. I couldn't get the workmanship. The artists I liked at the time, [Robert] Rauschenberg and [Jasper] Johns, were making art out of junk, found objects. People were paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for them.

I thought: There's an aesthetic leap here -- why not go with it and turn cheap construction into a positive? I started exposing the wood, the rough carpentry. And it worked. People started responding to it positively.

Q: And Disney Hall is in a way, a larger version of that?

A: Every architect working today is confronted with the bad rap of modernism -- being called inhuman. They're looking for humanizing gestures in building. Since we didn't want to put little sculptures of birds and squirrels all over the place, we have to find a way to get feeling. One of them, for me, is the sense of movement.... To find an expression for that seemed interesting. It's startling to people when they first see it. Eventually it makes sense.

A concert hall should be an important icon. It should be an exciting structure that says "things are happening here." Music certainly evokes shapes. The picture of [Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor] Esa-Pekka [Salonen] that you see on the wall conducting -- he's conducting the building.

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