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    Keeping the decision makers close brings your vision closer.

    Nicole Fichera
    Oct 24, '11 11:03 AM EST

    My fellow Archinect blogger Gregory Walker posted a link to a Harvard Business Review interview with Frank Gehry [P.S. For folks from Twitter and elsewhere: if you haven't seen Gregory's blog, I advise checking it out. His posts about the profession are both insightful and grounded].

    Mr. Gehry is one of those architects that my studio instructors loved to hate--the poster child for excess, indulgence, starchitectural disregard for basic concepts like constructability.

    But here's the thing: according to the HBR article, Gehry makes his money. And unlike many, many architects, Gehry realizes his visions--as crazy as they may be.

    To me, as a young architect starting out, that sounds pretty great. No compromising on the things that are important: make the vision happen, and make your money doing it. In Gehry's case, that 'no compromise' mentality starts long before the first concepts are sketched or the first invoices mailed out.

    In the interview, he says: "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."

    "I only accept jobs where I work with the decision maker." He sets it up as a basic project requirement which cannot be compromised--and not compromising on that crucial, structural project team decision leads to both greater freedom on the part of the designer and higher perceived value on the part of the client. It's a classic win-win.

    Every project is an endless game of telephone. You interview the client on their basic needs--some of which are inevitably lost in translation. Then, your team gets together and turns that information into a design that tries to address function, aesthetics, budget and construction. During the design process, you are pre-editing yourself, pre-value-engineering, trying to anticipate concerns to get your design as close to approval as possible. Then every meeting with the client's project team is another process of shaving, focusing, tightening, trimming toward the final solution. Then sometimes they have their own internal meetings and present your work to their internal decision maker. THEN their concerns have to travel backwards along the same path: decision maker, client team, design team. And within those teams, communication is similarly broken down. In the case of the project I'm on currently, it's Client CEO > Client CFO and/or HR Manager > Design Project Manager > Project Designers > Consultants / Contractor.

    Every step, every meeting, is another chance for something to get twisted, communicated incorrectly, or axed, and as the design intent and client requirements get muddied by retransmission, money is lost on fees and coordination hours, and design is lost in favor of hard costs.

    So to Gehry's point: why not streamline that process from the outset by insisting on working directly with the decision maker? Less steps, less confusion: better product, better service.

    I bet it's a difficult concept to execute sometimes--big decision makers on major projects are usually very busy people. Gaining ear time with them is difficult, and they are master delegators.

    But his point is one we should keep in mind, especially as we are starting out in our careers: be realistic about who the decision makers are, and work as closely to them as possible. It's a lesson for every industry, not just architecture. The less links in the chain of command, the less chances for communication errors. Less error, less frustration; better communication, better product.


    • Liebchen

      Reducing the game of telephone goes deeper (further down the hierarchy) in Gehry's projects beyond just the top-level "work with decision-makers" thing.  You mentioned early in the article that Gehry's designs seem to lack constructability, which is true...except when you re-invent the way buildings are constructed so that suddenly your buildings are buildable!  I think this is probably the most important part of Gehry's success: Gehry Technologies CATIA tool, and the flattening of a construction hierarchy it represents, has made Gehry's work affordable, accessible, and less risky to his clients.

      This is Gehry's enduring genius I think: that he's taken the desire to make weird looking buildings and invented a process which makes his buildings economically competitive to conventional buildings, while licensing this tech out to others who'd like to do the same.

      Oct 26, 11 7:56 am  · 


      You're so right. Flattening the decision chain happens in more than one way, with the result that impossible buildings somehow become real.

      I love your summary: "This is Gehry's enduring genius I think: that he's taken the desire to make weird looking buildings and invented a process which makes his buildings economically competitive to conventional buildings, while licensing this tech out to others who'd like to do the same."

      As you say, if Gehry's process can make his "weird looking buildings" economically competitive, just think what it could do for the rest of us. I have been thinking for a while about how to teach business thinking to architecture students, as part of an architecture curriculum. I don't think it's enough to just say that architecture students should take classes in business--that's helpful, but doesn't bring it all home. Gehry's process would be a great case study for a class about how to manage your business and design process to get buildings built the way you want them built.

      Oct 26, 11 11:21 am  · 

      I'd say, though, that the way he's reclaiming the role of the architect in the process is less about making his buildings 'economically competitive' as an end but that he's done more than most to shift risk management equations. Meaning, the level of precision and transfer-ability of the drawings to the actual production has helped make the building more understandable to the contractors, which removes the kind of hedging they might do otherwise. That's what gets them to a level of (highly relative) "affordability".


      What shouldn't be lost in this discussion is the role that the contractor has to play in that equation - they have to trust him and/or be willing to let him assume more of a lead than many are used to doing. I know, though, that in Gehry's case, they get a higher fee precisely because they're willing to take on more responsibility for production (ie, they're confident that their models/drawings can be used to directly generate the steel shops. So, they get the fee to do that upfront, rather than have the contractor do it). One last thing - at least early on, they would also sell the CATIA model back to the client for long term facilities management. One of their former partners told me the fee for selling it back on the Disney project was 1M+. Not a bad half life there...

      Oct 26, 11 2:01 pm  · 

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We live in uncertain times. Let's use the uncertainty to redefine the way we are valued and the way we measure ourselves, to create the context for the change we want to make.

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