Beautiful Machines: Frank Gehry and Software

"Beekman Place New York" by Emmett hume. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -
A Frank Gehry building in NYC: “Beekman Place New York” by Emmett Hume. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The characteristic designs of architect Frank Gehry’s signature buildings are only possible with the advent of sophisticated computerized design programs. (True of most modern buildings I would think, unless there are some historical re-enactor types who limit themselves to only the tools available to Palladio.)

A fascinating, and underreported, aspect of his legacy is the extension of computer approaches not only into the design process, but also into the engineering, the sourcing and the fabrication. The designs go from the computer to the fabricators directly, who create the pieces of the building on a just in time basis. The results get shipped to the site, and all of this is a “paper free” process, that is born digital, bits the whole way until the steel, titanium, or whatever is being fabricated, becomes atoms. No blue prints, no 2-D models, just a data stream.

I learned about this hearing a visitor talk about it at an exhibit in the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation. He was explaining to his companion how the panels for Disney Hall came in from their Midwestern fabricator in batches, everything controlled by algorithms. As the building came together variances occurred in the panels, and this information could be fed back by computers to the manufacturer who made the next batch of panels to the slightly changed spec. In fact, the computer program could predict most of the variances, including any changes that resulted from weather during shipping.

This use of nearly real-time data across a network is what makes these buildings visually possible, and financially feasible. Earlier architects with hit unbreachable limits that Gehry, and his peers, can blow past. (To wit one of Gehry’s quips: “Had Erich Mendelsohn had the computer stuff that we got now, I would have had to do something else.” )

The fascinating blog Priceconomics has a great piece on it by Lian Chikako Chang, an architecture writer and researcher, with detail about how his system works and just how transformative the concept was to the whole industry. Gehry’s shop is now also a tech company that offers a platform and service for other studios as well. It also mentions the irony that Gehry himself has no patience or aptitude for computers at all!

From the piece:

Gehry suspected that digitally designed geometries could be executed much more efficiently with less redundancy. Instead of creating standard 2D construction drawings, Gehry now had his contractors refer directly to the 3D digital model, translating digitized coordinates directly into manual cutting instructions and machine tooling paths.

The contractors he worked with welcomed his guidance. “Most contractors,” he has since said, “want the architect to be the Daddy.” In 1997, the museum [Guggenheim in Bilbao] opened on budget and on time to rave reviews.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao Spain. Photograph taken by User:MykReeve on 14 January, 2005.
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao Spain. Photograph taken by User:MykReeve on 14 January, 2005.

Riding in Fast Cars with Beethoven

MFA Cars
Model cars at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Photo by ARS.

Have been on a jag listening to all the Beethoven Piano Trios. (A lacuna in my musical education: beyond the Ghost Trio, I didn’t really run across them before, and am now stumbling through them as an amateur chamber musician.) Not as epic as his quartets, but lots of interesting and experimental music, as well as some things that seem like Beethoven parodying Beethoven, including this irresistible (and earworm creating) finale to the Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 1, No. 3, – IV. Prestissimo: one of his great car chase scenes. Something about c-minor released the whirlwind in him, but here, unlike say the finale of the Moonlight, it’s more keystone cops than galloping furies.

A nice performance by what I’m guessing is a faculty group at SMU.

Remembering Words

It’s often asked whether we are still fighting the Civil War (“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”–Faulkner), but I also wonder whether we are in some way still fighting the Vietnam War, or at least contesting its legacy. People who were alive at the time came together this weekend at “Lessons of Vietnam” with a goal of extending the conversation and complicating the “official” versions of the history.

From their website, “This effort began last fall in reaction to the Pentagon’s plans for their own commemoration, including extensive public outreach and a false and one-sided website history of the Vietnam War that excluded the peace movement. The New York Times reported our objections on its front page. While former presidents and Pentagon officials seek to obscure the memory of what we accomplished, we will keep pushing for an accurate history of both the Vietnam War and one of our country’s most important social movements.”

Hoping that a film will come out of, and more resources for teaching. It’s not a period to forget (or to reflect on in a one-dimensional way).

We’re a few years’ shy of the 50th anniversary of the DNC in Chicago. Another embattled history.


More and Cromwell


WaMoretching the terrific adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” on Masterpiece and enjoyed the visual reference to  the Holbein portrait of Thomas Cromwell (even sitting for a portrait comes with a bit of pointed political intrigue in this take on the story).

The painting itself hangs in the Frick, and is paired with that of Thomas More by the same artist. Both Anton Lesser who plays More and the dazzling Mark Rylance, the Cromwell, evoke the characters in these paintings to an extraordinary degree, a conversation about representation of history that continues.

It’s also interesting to consider the conversation between Mantel’s telling of the Thomas More story and the beloved (if now sort of 1960s ) version in A Man for All Seasons. A great feast for lovers of fine acting of an earlier era.

Travelogue: Belgium & Holland

Took a short trip to Europe last month and going to make you sit through some of the slides.

Took a short trip to Europe last month and going to make you sit through some of the slides. Pull up a chair.


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