Aug 31, 201309:00 AMPoint of View

Q&A: Edwin Chan

(page 7 of 7)

I think the creative process is very much like a journey, where there is a starting point and presumably a destination, which is perhaps in the building as the final product. So the process is accumulative of all the experiences that get you closer to the end. They are bits and pieces of a bigger picture and it's not so much of representation per se, but rather means to an end. In some cases we may start with a physical model because that is the most immediate and tactile thing you could do. But as the ideas evolve and when it is appropriate you may want to rely on the computer or do freehand sketches, or build a mock-up of the building, but they are all part of this creative process that would get you eventually to the ultimate fulfillment which is the building.

IA: Let's talk about Disney Music Hall. Last time I was in LA, I was walking to Disney Hall and looking it up on the satellite map on my phone, but I had a hard time finding it because in the aerial view you only see a perfectly shaped rectangular box. And when I finally realized that is the Disney Music Hall I couldn't believe it because that wasn't the image I had of the building and something I expected to see from above.

EC: It is true and Disney Hall is interesting because as you experience the building there is a very clear demarcation between the box, which is the interior of the hall, and the very sculptural exuberant exterior, which is where all the public functions are. And the reason for that is that the acoustics for the hall is best when it is a rectangle. Although within the hall there are sculptural elements that would help enhance the acoustic experience. So in that sense the interior was very successful. The building was very much inspired by Scharoun's concert hall in Berlin, and it is an architecture that is about how people move around and is about creating experiential spaces as opposed to intellectual diagrams. But also Disney Hall is sitting on a few floors of parking and the idea is that the building would bring the people up from the parking inside. So there is that connection to LA car culture, and there is an infrastructural aspect to it. And the circulation to ground level is very much designed as an important experiential sequence to the building. As you work your way up from the lobby, you are occupying the space between the exuberant exterior, and the box interior of the concert hall. 

Walt Disney Music Hall, Los Angeles, California


IA: So is this clear demarcation the way those sketch models - the massing wood blocks and the added paper surfaces around them - evolve or translate into architecture, or is it only unique to this project?

EC: Although this is an interesting strategy in design, it is unique to this project because the best configuration for the concert hall just happened to be a box. So I would rather call the spaces in between as interstitial spaces as opposed to poche spaces. In these spaces you are always navigating through the rigor of the box and the sculptural expression of the exterior surfaces. And then the garden outside is also interesting because it very much connects the experience of building to the city. There are moments in the project when the box makes its appearance. The skin erupts into enclosing the volume. So there is always this kind of a dialogue between the surface and the box. But in some projects the box disappears completely. It depends on the circumstances. In this case it was absolutely essential that the rigor and the discipline become the core of the project and that all the spaces evolve around it. You could also say that when you design a project that is very sculptural it's useful to have some kind of rational anchor. So even in Bilbao there is a very rational anchor--classical galleries. Those are the classical galleries that are made for the classical collection. The classical core becomes the anchor that makes everything work. As a compositional strategy there is something to be said.

IA: Looking back today at Frank Gehry's work, which projects do you think stand out for you the most? 

EC: I think most people might think Bilbao or Disney, but I would guess that if you ask Frank that question, he would probably have a very different list. I think one of the projects that was very important to Frank was the Rouse company. It was a project he worked on before he became the "Frank Gehry" he is today. He always talked about it as a very important piece in a sense that a lot of the ideas that he developed later came out of that project, such as ideas about open spaces, furniture design, etc. In Frank's mind it was a unique project in a sense that he was able to bring the interior, exterior, and the planning all together in a coherent solution. Another project of Frank's that I really like is a little house that he did in the 80’s, called the Winton guesthouse which was an addition to a Philip Johnson house. I have always liked that project because there is a very clear expression of volumes and sculpture, in a sense that the guesthouse is a very beautiful sculpture in the landscape. At that time Frank was very interested in the idea of still life and the project works as series of volumes that work very well with the original Philip Johnson house.

IA: When you think of great architects in our history, they each had a larger project, or a thesis if you will, that defined the body of their work. Each project was an investigation or exploration towards a larger project or search that defined their career. In your opinion, what is Frank Gehry's project?

EC: Frank has created pretty amazing buildings in his lifetime. But from my point of view, and I suspect that Frank would probably agree with me, his greatest legacy is the way he has designed his office. And when I say design, I don't mean design as a kind of physical edifice or style, but I mean in that he has conceived of and organized his office in a certain way that has enabled him to make the kind of architecture that he wants to make. Frank always felt that in the early days of his practice his ability to explore architecture and creative issues were always limited to the way the construction industry has been set up. So the focus of the practice is about trying to free yourself and taking control of the situation and to be able to empower to explore all these things. This has to do with the design process, the way the office is organized, and a lot of it has to do with the use of technology, such as aerospace technology and CATIA, that freed him from the kind of constrains that the construction industry imposes, to explore the kind of aesthetic and formal ideas that interests him. So the design of his office in this way is an important part of his legacy that is different from a traditional office.


Iman Ansari is an architect, urban designer, and principal of AN.ONYMOUS. He is a lecturer in architectural theory at the City College of the City University of New York. His work and writings have been widely exhibited and published in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. He holds degrees in architecture and philosophy from the City College of the City University of New York and in architecture and urban design from Harvard University. Earlier this year Iman talked with Edwin, who was then a design partner at Gehry's office, before he left Gehry after 25 years and started his own practice, EC3.

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