Frank Gehry is, at 82, America’s most celebrated living architect. His designs, including the Guggenheim Bilbao and Disney Hall in Los Angeles, are all technically challenging and unmistakably his. Gehry’s creative process famously borrows from artists; less well-known is his fierce commitment to budgeting and the architect’s role as project manager.
Q: Tell me about starting your own firm.
A: I’m not a businessman, but the business model I set for the office turned out to be a good one. It’s simple: Don’t borrow money. Pay everybody. Nobody works for free, ever. It was difficult financially for the first few years. At the beginning I had to do all the work myself. And then it was hard to get experienced people. They had families; they didn’t want to work with a struggling young architect. So I couldn’t get the technical help we needed, and we suffered for it. Buildings leak when you don’t have enough construction experience.
Q: You’ve said that one of the reasons the Guggenheim Bilbao is a great building is that you had a great client. What makes a client great?
A: It’s a collaboration. I’d say it’s 50/50. The client has got to be willing to talk to you. Imagine you get a job with IBM, you’re working with an executive vice president, and he shows the model to the president, and the guy says, “What the f— is that? That won’t work with my work.” So I only accept jobs where I work with the decision-maker.
Q: How do you balance your clients’ desires against other concerns?
A: The client hires you, so the client is the priority. But you can’t just build a building based on what the clients say, because their vision is based on what’s normal. How do you get out of the normal? You’ve got to question everything. Spend time with the user group. Glean all the information you can. And then throw it all away and begin to play.
Q: How do you go about solving design problems?
A: I’m like a pussycat with a ball of twine. It goes over there, and he jumps over there. It falls on the floor, and he goes there. I’m opportunistic. Once I understand the problems, I try things. I see what works and what doesn’t, and then I try again. When it looks like something I’ve done before, I abandon it. I have learned to trust my intuition.
Q: I’ve heard you have unusually strong feelings about budgeting and project management.
A: Cost control is a big deal for me. In the construction industry, 30 percent of the money spent is wasted. That’s why it’s important to value engineer as you design. It’s easy to do now – we use software that’s precise to seven decimal points, so there’s no chance of a mistake. You can get a good sense of how much a building will cost and whether the budget is real. And once you’ve set a real budget, it behooves you to stay there. You have to manage the information and the relationships with the construction people. You have to control the project through to the end, really control the god—— thing, because it’s your design. Nobody else knows how to do it.
Q: What’s your succession plan?
A: When I reached my 60s, I separated my fee from the office fee so the office would grow up with a culture of working within a normal fee range. Now we’ve got this well-honed machine. Six or seven young people in the office are good enough to take over. We talk about it a lot. My guess is some will splinter off and the rest will figure out how to use the well-honed machine in their own way.