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.

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