UTS, Frank Gehry and the shock of the new (busi­ness school)

The Australian - The Deal - - Front Page - Story by: Sue O’Reilly

IN 2010, when Roy Green got the go-ahead to con­struct a new home for the Busi­ness School of the Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy Syd­ney, his dream was to cre­ate some­thing “dis­rup­tive” – a build­ing that in its de­sign, in­side and out, would in­spire people to think rad­i­cally cre­ative thoughts; a build­ing “dif­fer­ent from any­thing ever con­structed be­fore”. In the $210 mil­lion Dr Chau Chak Wing Busi­ness School, due to be com­pleted in Oc­to­ber and of­fi­cially opened later this year, Green has in­dis­putably achieved those am­bi­tions.

De­signed by the world’s most dar­ingly imag­i­na­tive ar­chi­tect, Frank Gehry, the Busi­ness School is stun­ning – one of those rare, vis­ually dis­ori­ent­ing and ap­par­ently grav­ity-de­fy­ing struc­tures that makes you re­think ev­ery­thing you as­sumed about ar­chi­tec­ture and de­sign, about what is pos­si­ble in a prac­ti­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal sense, about what hu­man be­ings are ca­pa­ble of achiev­ing.

At first sight, the school will al­most cer­tainly shock any­one not al­ready fa­mil­iar with Gehry’s work else­where around the world – and as this is the so-called “star­chi­tect’s” first Aus­tralian project, that should be quite a few. The con­fronting aes­thet­ics of the ex­te­rior will spark heated de­bate for decades, rais­ing eye­brows in all but the most self-con­sciously avant garde cir­cles for now, yet highly likely to be hailed a mas­ter­piece of early 21st-century ar­chi­tec­ture in time, just as so many of his other cre­ations have al­ready been.

To­day a sprightly 85-year-old, Gehry has cre­ated many fa­mous works in­clud­ing the ti­ta­nium-roofed Guggen­heim Mu­seum in Bil­bao, Spain, widely cred­ited with re­vi­tal­is­ing that city to such an ex­tent that many econ­o­mists and city plan­ners now de­scribe the power of iconic ar­chi­tec­ture to draw vast crowds and stim­u­late eco­nomic growth sim­ply as “the Bil­bao Ef­fect”.

Other ex­tra­or­di­nary cre­ations of his in­clude the Dancing House in the Czech cap­i­tal of Prague, de­signed in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Croa­t­ian ar­chi­tect Vlado Milu­nic, the Lou Ruvo Cen­tre for Brain Health in Cleve­land, Ohio, the Art Gallery of On­tario in Toronto and his own home in Santa Mon­ica, Cal­i­for­nia.

Al­though cited in the 2010 World Ar­chi­tec­ture Sur­vey as hav­ing cre­ated many of the im­por­tant works in con­tem­po­rary ar­chi­tec­ture, Gehry rarely avoids con­tro­versy, at least to be­gin with. His de­sign for the UTS Busi­ness School was no dif­fer­ent. En­vis­aged by the mae­stro as a tree­house, the build­ing has been de­rided by crit­ics as re­sem­bling a crum­pled brown-paper bag or a melt­ing choco­late cas­tle. Film footage of high-rise struc­tures se­verely dam­aged by earthquakes or sus­tained shell­fire in war zones also spring to mind. For his part, Roy Green could not be more de­lighted. The con­tro­versy Gehry’s cre­ation has sparked in in­ter­na­tional de­sign, tech­nol­ogy, ar­chi­tec­tural and aca­demic cir­cles is, in part, ex­actly what he set out to achieve four years ago – thrust­ing, in one bold swoop, his univer­sity’s busi­ness school on to the global stage as a world leader in un­der­stand­ing and har­ness­ing the syn­er­gies be­tween de­sign cre­ativ­ity, tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion and busi­ness suc­cess.

As the school’s dean since 2009, Green also has vault­ing hopes for what the new build­ing’s in­te­rior de­sign and lay­out will achieve – noth­ing less than a rad­i­cal shake-up in how aca­demics from a range of dis­ci­plines, stu­dents, en­trepreneurs and busi­ness­peo­ple in­ter­re­late in their day-to-day work­ing, think­ing and col­lab­o­rat­ing. He even en­vis­ages that the school’s in­ter­nal de­sign could help pro­mote con­cep­tual changes in work­ing ar­range­ments in of­fices na­tion­wide.

“The idea ba­si­cally is to re­duce sep­a­rate of­fice spa­ces and ex­pand col­lab­o­ra­tive spa­ces,” Green ex­plains. “In the new build­ing, ev­ery­one en­ti­tled to their own of­fice space will get the same sized of­fice, re­gard­less of tra­di­tional aca­demic hi­er­ar­chies or se­nior­ity rank­ings. The size of one’s of­fice has al­ways been an in­stantly recog­nis­able sig­ni­fier of one’s sta­tus in any or­gan­i­sa­tion. But our phi­los­o­phy at UTS is to pro­mote moder­nity, egal­i­tar­i­an­ism, democ­racy. So one of the first ques­tions we asked when think­ing about a new build­ing was: ‘How do we break down hi­er­ar­chies?’ In academia to­day, we are all co-work­ers, whether pro­duc­ing re­search or teach­ing.

“The fu­ture of re­search in the 21st century is col­lab­o­ra­tion, as the his­tory of in­no­va­tion awards in the US shows. Forty years ago, twothirds were won by people do­ing solo work, whereas now more than two-thirds work in col­lab­o­ra­tive ar­range­ments. The ex­plo­sion in in­for­ma­tion and knowl­edge means it’s es­sen­tial for ex­perts in in­creas­ingly spe­cialised ar­eas to share knowl­edge and work to­gether now. Plus, it en­hances cre­ativ­ity to in­ter­act with oth­ers. Yes, there will al­ways be the oc­ca­sional in­di­vid­ual ge­nius, like Frank Gehry, for in­stance,” Green says, “but the bal­ance in gen­eral has changed.”

In these fi­nan­cially con­strained times, it was ex­tra­or­di­nary to be given the op­por­tu­nity to re­in­force and re­flect what Green calls “con­tent and mes­sage” with the ap­pear­ance and lay­out of a new multi-mil­lion-dol­lar build­ing, de­signed by some­one of Gehry’s artis­tic cal­i­bre, he agrees. It all be­gan in 2009 – well be­fore a new build­ing was en­vis­aged – with strate­gic con­ver­sa­tions about the school’s fu­ture di­rec­tion. “We also ur­gently needed more space, but my pre­de­ces­sor’s pro­posal for a new build­ing had been re­jected, so the orig­i­nal plan was to gut and re­fur­bish our cur­rent build­ing.

“We brought in not just ar­chi­tects but also so­ci­ol­o­gists, an­thro­pol­o­gists and psy­chol­o­gists to ex­plore the ques­tion of what sort of en­vi­ron­ment helps people to work best and how people want to work, but quickly re­alised re­fur­bish­ing wasn’t an op­tion. Where do people work while you’re do­ing it? Plus the cur­rent build­ing sim­ply wasn’t big enough. So the univer­sity agreed to a new build­ing.”

The site al­lo­cated was of a derelict ware­house the univer­sity had bought, just around the cor­ner from the cur­rent busi­ness school in Syd­ney’s in­ner-city Ul­timo. An­other stan­dard, mod­ern glass box of a build­ing seemed in prospect.

Green had long been fas­ci­nated by Gehry’s work, and when he men­tioned his name one day, a col­league who knew him well of­fered to call him. “We as­sumed en­gag­ing Frank couldn’t pos­si­bly be an op­tion be­cause he was sim­ply too fa­mous and sure to be too busy. Later, he told us that as­sump­tion de­terred many people from con­tact­ing him, say­ing: ‘I just sit on this end of the phone, wait­ing for some­one to ring!’ But more se­ri­ously, he also said one rea­son he ac­cepted this com­mis­sion was be­cause he wanted to ful­fil an ed­u­ca­tional phi­los­o­phy he felt hadn’t quite been re­alised in his other

ed­u­ca­tional build­ings.” A wind­fall gift of $20m to the project by Chi­nese-Aus­tralian busi­ness­man Dr Chau Chak Wing – at the time the largest phil­an­thropic do­na­tion to any Aus­tralian univer­sity – sealed the deal, and the UTS board ap­proved Gehry’s en­gage­ment.

On a first visit in 2010, Gehry was struck by the brick­work of many of Syd­ney’s his­toric build­ings, par­tic­u­larly the con­vict-built Hyde Park Bar­racks, and de­cided he too would build a brick struc­ture. But not just with any old bricks. When build­ing be­gan in 2012, highly skilled crafts­men and brick­lay­ers had to be re­cruited from over­seas or spe­cially trained, with five new brick types pur­pose-de­signed. His vi­sion com­bines an ul­tra-mod­ernist struc­ture with near-for­got­ten craft skills dat­ing back cen­turies. In ac­knowl­edge­ment of the area’s long-es­tab­lished Chi­nese com­mu­nity, an­other fea­ture is a ref­er­ence to a peas­ant-built wall he once spotted in Bei­jing.

Yet de­spite his well-earned rep­u­ta­tion for star­tling ex­te­rior de­signs, Gehry also ex­plained to Green that his phi­los­o­phy was al­ways to de­sign from the in­side out, say­ing: “I start from what people want, the func­tion­al­ity of the build­ing.”

The dean was more than happy to hear it. When he ar­rived at UTS, Green was al­ready be­gin­ning to think some rad­i­cal thoughts about the need to forge much closer links be­tween busi­ness ed­u­ca­tion and the worlds of de­sign and tech­nol­ogy – long as­sumed to be two sep­a­rate spheres – and he wanted an in­te­rior that chal­lenged all as­sump­tions about how uni­ver­si­ties op­er­ate.

“I be­gan here hav­ing just com­pleted a re­port for the govern­ment on Aus­tralia’s cloth­ing, tex­tile and footwear in­dus­tries, which stim­u­lated my in­ter­est in the area of de­sign think­ing and link­ing de­sign to busi­ness in­no­va­tion,” he says. “Trav­el­ling around the coun­try, I re­alised many of our TCF com­pa­nies sim­ply could not com­pete with low-cost Asian man­u­fac­tur­ers. But there are other TCFs here that are highly com­pet­i­tive be­cause they are driven by tech­nol­ogy, by smart fabrics, and oth­ers still by de­sign – by de­sign think­ing, which is about imag­in­ing what the fu­ture of an or­gan­i­sa­tion can be, and then find­ing the steps by which that can be achieved.

“Vis­it­ing deans of de­sign around Aus­tralia as part of the re­view, I thought to my­self: ‘ They are all grad­u­at­ing very clever young people with great de­sign ideas who want to start their own businesses but don’t have the busi­ness skills to do it, with the re­sult that 90 per Artist’s im­pres­sion of Frank Gehry’s Dr Chau Chak Wing build­ing and the ad­join­ing Goods Line el­e­vated park be­ing built on a dis­used rail­way and, be­low, an­other con­cept high­lights the build­ing’s con­fronting æs­thet­ics. UTS busi­ness school dean Green, op­po­site page top, and star­chi­tect Frank Gehry, op­po­site page bot­tom cent of these start-ups fail within a year’. So I said to them: ‘Why don’t you in­cor­po­rate more busi­ness skills in your cur­ricu­lum?’ And the gen­eral re­sponse was: ‘Why don’t YOU in­cor­po­rate more de­sign cour­ses in the busi­ness cur­ricu­lum?’ That made me re­flect.”

UTS is “uniquely placed” to con­nect cre­ativ­ity, tech­nol­ogy and in­no­va­tion with busi­ness stud­ies, Green ar­gues, be­cause its aca­demic fac­ul­ties are far more in­ter­con­nected than at tra­di­tional uni­ver­si­ties, mean­ing “there’s far more in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary ac­tiv­ity that can take place in a univer­sity of this type, and much more prac­ti­cal en­gage­ment with busi­ness and com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tions”.

It’s a trend well-es­tab­lished in North Amer­ica and Europe, but Green says apart per­haps from Mel­bourne’s Swin­burne In­sti­tute and Queens­land’s Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, “it’s not re­ally hap­pen­ing here”. Within Aus­tralia, UTS is def­i­nitely “the mar­ket leader” in this field, he as­serts, point­ing to its Cre­ative In­dus­tries In­no­va­tion Cen­tre as in­tro­duc­ing to Aus­tralia new ways of think­ing about or­gan­i­sa­tional and busi­ness mod­els. Think, for in­stance, of the in­ter­re­la­tion­ship be­tween Cal­i­for­nia’s Sil­i­con Val­ley, its many young IT in­ven­tors, de­vel­op­ers and en­trepreneurs, and the nearby Stan­ford Univer­sity.

It’s ex­actly what Green wants to see here, link­ing stu­dent learn­ing and en­tre­pre­neur­ial ideas with broader en­tre­pre­neur­ial and busi­ness ac­tiv­ity. “We wanted an ethos of light, spa­cious site lines, both hor­i­zon­tally and ver­ti­cally, all very or­ganic. Ev­ery build­ing Frank builds has a metaphor around it and our metaphor is a tree­house, with the trunk of so­cial spa­ces branch­ing into dis­ci­pline ar­eas, the branches of knowl­edge.”

Ex­plain­ing his ideas to Gehry over a pizza in 2010, the ar­chi­tect sud­denly took a paper tablemat and be­gan scrib­bling a draw­ing of a tree-like struc­ture, de­scrib­ing his vi­sion of “a grow­ing, learn­ing or­gan­ism with many branches of thought, some ro­bust, some ephe­meral and del­i­cate”, Green re­calls. “It was a day of great in­spi­ra­tion,” he says softly.

Each of Gehry’s now-famed first scrib­bles is stored rev­er­en­tially in the ar­chi­tect’s per­sonal ar­chives, but, uniquely, Green man­aged to talk Gehry into let­ting him keep this one. With the new Busi­ness School likely to join the Syd­ney Har­bour Bridge of the 1930s and the Syd­ney Opera House of the 1970s as among the world’s most iconic struc­tures, that pizza mat is now a prized bit of paper.

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