Frank Gehry Looks to Asia for Projects as U.S. Growth Slows

Frank Gehry Looks to Asia for Projects as U.S. Growth Slows
Visitors look at a model of the Frank Gehry-designed Hong Kong Museum Complex. Photographer: Dennis Owen/Bloomberg

Frank Gehry, designer of Los Angeles’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, is seeking projects in Asian countries including China and India as slower U.S. growth crimps development in the world’s largest economy.

The architect said he’s competing to plan a museum in one of China’s fast-expanding metropolitan areas, as well as a “very spiritual kind of a building” in India. He declined to give further details.

Gehry, 82, is turning to Asia as developers start few projects in the U.S. The Architecture Billings Index, an indicator of American construction, plunged to 46.9 last month from 51.4 in August, reflecting lower demand for design services, according to the American Institute of Architects. Any score less than 50 indicates a decline in billings.

Meanwhile, “there’s an art explosion in China,” Gehry said in an Oct. 25 interview at Bloomberg’s Los Angeles offices. “It’s really great -- very exciting.”

He expects to sign a contract within three to four months should an agreement be reached for the Chinese museum.

Gehry, the 1989 winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, in December unveiled the design for his first Australian building. The 16,030 square meter (172,545 square foot) University of Technology, Sydney, business school building will have a “tree-house” design, incorporating a core structure, with “branches” spreading away from it, Gehry said at the time. It will be made from yellow bricks and sharp-angled sheets of glass with a “crinkly” facade.

Lower Pay

One challenge of designing in a country such as China is the lower pay for projects, Gehry said in the interview this week. Architects get paid a percentage of construction costs, which in China are about a third of what they are in the U.S., he said.

“If you take a percentage and you work with western salaries, you can’t make it work,” Gehry said. “So it almost forces you to open an office in China and work with local people.”

Gehry said he would prefer to travel less and focus on projects in California or New York. The lack of development in the U.S. along with employees at Los Angeles-based Gehry Partners LLP who depend on him are forcing him to look elsewhere, the architect said.

“I have over 100 people in my office,” said Gehry, who formed the partnership in 2001. “At my age, I would love only to work in Los Angeles, maybe Santa Monica, maybe Beverly Hills.”

Work Halted

Construction of one of Gehry’s projects abroad, the 450,000-square-foot Guggenheim Abu Dhabi museum, was halted earlier this month by Tourism Development & Investment Co. as the emirate scales back plans made before the 2008 financial crisis.

“The Abu Dhabi building we’ve been working on in the last five to six years has been stopped, and that’s painful,” said Gehry, who also has a contract for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington.

Gehry, who designed a Manhattan apartment building on Spruce Street that opened earlier this year, also is seeking to win contracts by cutting construction waste, which often accounts for 30 percent of a development budget. His Los Angeles-based Gehry Technologies Inc. employs the same type of computer-aided, paperless, three-dimensional design used to build Boeing Co.’s 777 airliner.

“With two-dimensional drawings there’s a lot of room for error,” he said. “It creates so-called clashes that will result in costly change orders.”

There were few such conflicts at the 76-story Manhattan tower -- called New York by Gehry, and developed by Forest City Ratner Cos. -- even with its rippled and curved bay windows, according to Gehry. Almost 600 units of the 900-apartment building have been rented, he said.

“You’ve got to respect budgets because people are investing and building and have certain finite resources,” Gehry said. “So it behooves us to respect that.”

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