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Architect Frank Gehry Finds CAD a Boon to Art and Business

A world-renowned architect who confesses he doesn't know how to switch on a computer finds inspiration and economy in CATIA

By Martyn Day, February 23, 2004

         See Also

 · Gehry, Dassault and IBM Too - by Martyn Day, October 31, 2003, CADdigest.com
 · Gehry Technologies
 · Dassault Systemes
 · CATIA Reading Room - at CADdigest.com

Dassault and CATIA are brands closely linked to the manufacturing industry. But in recent times, the company has found its manufacturing technology reaching into other markets, including construction, with internationally acclaimed architects using CATIA to build 3D models and aid in the fabrication of complex structures. One of these architects, Frank Gehry, recently announced his intention to use Dassault's technology to help solve some of the endemic process problems that the AEC industry faces.

When I was invited to attend his announcement at the European CATIA Forum, I was under the impression that someone from Gehry's firm, Gehry Partners, would be attending the press announcement but didn’t quite expect to find the man himself at the launch; but Mr. Gehry did indeed appear. What follows is a transcript of the addresses given by Bernard Charles, CEO of Dassault Systemes, Frank Gehry, and Jim Glymph, CEO of Gehry Technologies, an independent company created in 2002 by Gehry Partners to improve the way digital tools are developed and used by building professionals, and to foster changes in building industry practice through advances in digital technology.

Bernard Charles, CEO of Dassault Systemes (left), and architect Frank Gehry.

Bernard Charles started the discussion, "I was invited by Jim Glymph to visit Gehry's LA offices as they used our software to do some very unique architecture. So, when I was visiting some West Coast customers, I called in out of curiosity. Jim introduced me to Frank, and what can I say? I love their projects! The first thing Frank said to me was, 'I don't like computers' and then Jim and I had a meeting to discuss modeling and what is needed in this industry.

"While we were having that meeting, Frank came back in and asked if I'd like to meet some visiting journalists. We stayed and talked for two hours and I heard Frank explain how the architecture world is changing with help from computers."

Frank Gehry

"Yes, I can't turn on a computer, I don't know how to,” Gehry announced. “Forgive me!" He then went on to explain how his practice entered the world of CAD. "I was trying to make a double curved line on a building and I didn't know how to transmit that to the contractor. Jim Glymph had just joined the company and I asked him if there was some way to convey complex shapes in buildings. That instigated a search which has ended up with us partnering with Dassault Systemes.

"The Guggenheim museum in Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall (in Los Angeles) could not exist today if we hadn't met Dassault, because there was no way to explore these kinds of shapes and make them economically feasible. You can always make shapes and get someone to build them, but how do you do it within the constraints of real budgets and real projects? That was something that was of in interest to us.

Jim Glymph, CEO, Gehry Technologies (left), Bernard Charles, and Frank Gehry.

"I am 74 years old; we started my practice in 1962. The other thing that interests me is the culture of architecture. In America, the architect becomes marginalized in the process because of the need for over protection, through organizations like the AIA (American Institute of Architects), who has developed a protective system for architects, so that we are not liable to a lot of responsibilities in the process. When you give up responsibility, you give up power in the equation and it's always been my fantasy to try and find a way to become the responsible part of the team with the client and become a partner with the construction company instead of an adversary.

"Normally what happened was this: a client comes to us, they want something that I can do. They love the process and they are happy with the building and so we would give it out to tender and the tenders that came back were usually higher than the budget. The contractor would then come forward with suggestions to reduce the costs and in reducing the costs they would take away all the architectural elements that we were so proud of. This is/was the normal process and the architect has very little power in this.

"With CATIA and with Dassault we have been able to delineate the parts of the buildings in such detail, to seven decimal points of accuracy, that the construction people are comfortable because their margin of error and misunderstanding is very small. In Bilbao, the steel structure had no duplicate pieces of steel, everything was unique and it was a big structure. We had six separate bidders. Using CATIA, the bids that came in were within 1% of one another and when you get bids as close as that, you know that the documents were clear and they were all under budget. Here, the clarity gave them safety and I have seen this over and over again now, I have become a believer that this is something that should be exposed to other architects and construction companies."

"When we did this, I assumed that with our kind of architecture, because it was unique, that nobody else would want to use it. Instead, I found that every time we used our process, when we left, Düsseldorf, Bilbao, the construction people and the engineers continued to use the same systems and processes that we had introduced, even for buildings that are square, rectilinear, without curves. So it was then that we realized that there was some real value in continuing to develop these processes and continuing to perfect them. So my interest is building our own buildings within reasonable budgets but also trying to turn the equation around to where the architect does become a parental partner in the construction process, with the construction companies. From teaching at MIT, Yale and Columbia, I believe that the young generations of architects coming out of the schools are now very computer savvy and this process of using CATIA will be enormously helpful in getting their ideas realized without being marginalized. For us this is a teaching tool, I love to spread the word and it's also very useful for what we are trying to do."

Jim Glymph (CEO, Gehry Technologies)

"When I first joined Frank's practice, I entered an office that I thought was an ideal place to re-think the process. I had worked for a number of years with all of the traditional platforms that had been developed for architects. Those platforms, and the process and processes they supported, limited you to one way of working. And an architectural firm would develop a culture around that way of working.

"Frank had resisted computers for so long that when I got there, there weren't any 2D software programs in the office! This created a wonderful opportunity, because of the emergence of 3D tools and a 3D model-centric process, where we could leap to 3D without the baggage from other approaches. This allowed us to support his traditional design process, which consisted of design sketches and physical models - and not change it but enhance it, and create a bridge between that process and the world of fabrication and construction.

"Our initial experiments in this were astoundingly successful. They shocked us all. We did our first paperless process in 1991 on a fish sculpture in Barcelona (Vila Olimpica 1989–92), it created a wonderful collaborative environment between us and the fabricators and builders who executed the work. The project was finished perfectly to what Frank was looking for, ahead of schedule, on budget and everyone enjoyed the process, which was one of the most important things.

"That convinced us that this was the right route to go. At the time, we were working alone in this area because we were using CATIA based on a UNIX platform and most of the architectural world does not deal with that kind of sophistication. So we had to develop, with our partners, processes for almost a decade.

"When CATIA V5 came out, this changed everything, as we now had a PC-based platform. It meant our collaborators - architects, engineers, and contractors - did not have to look at new hardware and systems. They could simply apply the software to some of their existing graphics computers. This opened up a lot more interest in what we were doing.

"The evolution of our process has always focused on 3D. The emergence of CAD and the architectural community in general, is based on replicating and creating efficiencies in the 2D paper process. What I found early on, and what I think most architects experienced, is that the process of automating the production of 2D documents actually expanded documentation. Drawings increased in numbers, the information became more fragmented and productivity went down, errors went up, change orders increased and so effectively, the technology had no impact on the industry in terms of productivity. Also the paper-centric process creates sharp divisions between each phase of the project and the process becomes very linear. So you go from one stage with the architect, to one stage with the engineer, then the contractor would take over and they would regenerate information at each stage. This fragmentation reinforced a culture in the industry, in its legal structures, contracts, in the way that architects, craftsmen, fabricators and builders relate to one another. It separates one another and creates a much more antagonistic environment.

"What we found is that when we started working with Object Modeling, and had a shared platform with a collaborative tool, these barriers all broke down. The understanding was rapid. Feedback from builders, fabricators and craftsmen was clear, precise and could be done 'on the fly' as we were still doing the design part of the process. This is at the core of what we find interesting, in fanning this out to the broader industry or architects, engineers and contractors. It's not just about software it's about a cultural change in our industry. We have had tremendous success and have many contractors and fabricators who prefer this method. We have better results in terms of cost, better results in terms of change orders and better results in terms of schedule. So we very much believe that the technology has arrived at the stage where it can have an impact in the industry. Realizing this, in 2002 we set up a separate company that is dedicated to transferring this technology to all architects, engineers and contractors, rather than exclusively using it for our work. We have been working with Dassault for some time and feel we are heading towards some very exciting developments."

Bernard Charles

"From the Dassault perspective, we have taken a minority equity in the company and our challenge is to now build through this alliance, not only the best product, but also the channel and way to reach customers. In some ways we have been doing that in many industries and it takes vision, inspiration, convergence of technology, affordability and a lot of operational focus. So, this is part of the overall journey we are engaging in.

"When you see the results of this, looking at Frank Gehry's buildings, I think it's inspiring, and brings obvious value to the community. I don't think current (software) players in this particular industry can afford to do the same significant levels of R&D investment as we do and Frank and Jim have demonstrated that this technology has value to them and to the process. Entering into this relationship is a milestone for us."


Following their addresses to the audience there was a long Q and A session. In the next issue of AEC Magazine we will run the edited highlights of this enlightening exchange where Frank, Jim and Bernard expanded on the key problems in the AEC market, how 3D can improve the situation and how they plan to develop and deliver on this vision.

About the Author

Martyn Day is group editor of MCAD Magazine and AEC Magazine.


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