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