Technology at Work at Gehry Partners: A Case Study

Welcome to the inaugural issue of the AECbytes Feature series, which takes an inside look at one of the most renowned and innovative architectural firms in the world today and explores their use of technology. Frank Gehry has always been synonymous with unconventional architecture (see Figure 1), and it should be interesting to see how exactly the firm deploys software and hardware to conceptualize, visualize, and document these organic forms and guide their execution into real buildings that people can inhabit. In particular, with the growing interest of the architectural profession in building information modeling (BIM), it would be pertinent to find out if one of the most cutting-edge architectural firms does BIM, and if so, how.

Overview of Firm

Gehry Partners is a full service firm that has designed museum, theater, performance, academic, and commercial projects all over the world. Founded in 1962 and located in Los Angeles, California, the firm currently has a staff of 140 people. Every project undertaken by Gehry Partners is designed personally and directly by Frank Gehry. The staff includes a large number of senior architects who are very experienced in the technical development of building systems and construction documents and in the management of complex construction projects. Figure 1 shows some of the firm's work. Most projects are complex, both in scope and in form, and have an average duration of 5 to 8 years. Some projects, like the recently completed Disney Concert Hall, were 20 years in the making!

Most of the employees in the firm come from a design background. Some are involved in the design and documentation process primarily through the creation of physical models, while others focus entirely on the computational processes. A third category comprises those who are comfortable with both mediums; these individuals are in great demand. The CAD/IT team in the firm is relatively small, comprising of only 6 members. It is responsible for system administration, software deployment, training, and support. Most of the training is provided in-house, and employees are encouraged to do their own learning.

The Primacy of Physical Models

Visiting the office of Gehry Partners is like going back to an architectural school studio—physical models of buildings are all over the place, along with the accompanying clutter, which lends it dynamism and vibrancy. The firm relies extensively on the use of physical models for schematic design as well as design development. This comes largely from Frank Gehry himself, who is a very tactile designer and works closely with the model-makers to give expression to his forms. Many models are built for each project to explore variations of massing and form, and very often the site is also modeled in detail to explore how the building would fit within its context. Once a few massing options have been narrowed down, they are physically modeled in more detail to explore design variations. This iterative process continues until the design has been finalized. Very often, parts of a design are also modeled in detail to explore alternatives, such as the seating configuration in a stadium or the curve of a roof or curtain wall. In other instances, full-size mockups are built to test out materials, construction techniques, performance, and so on. Thus, the total count of physical models at different scales created for a single project is quite extensive and can easily run into a hundred or more.

The physical models are used not just for design but also for presentation. Most of the presentation boards for a project are comprised of photographs of the physical models, capturing different views of the design under varied lighting conditions (see Figure 2). The office has a dedicated photographer and a dedicated room where the appropriate lighting and backdrop is applied to a physical model to photograph it. To give these photographs a more abstract and sketchy feel for client presentations, a simple low-tech method is used—they are just run through a fax machine and then enlarged! Filters in Adobe Photoshop are used sometimes for the same purpose, but the fax machine remains the preferred method, particularly when black and white images are desired.

Most of this physical modeling work is done within the office, and there is a dedicated workshop with all the necessary equipment for creating physical models from different kinds of materials. The firm periodically uses high-tech rapid prototyping methods such as laser cutting; this, however, is outsourced to service providers rather than done in-house. 3D printing is not used as often as one would expect, given the organic forms of most of the firm's projects. I found out that despite the complex appearance of the building forms, most of them have single curves and can be modeled with standard techniques. Only the occasional sculptural piece has double curves and such models are outsourced for 3D printing rather than done in-house.

Computer Modeling with Rhino and CATIA

A building can't be built from a physical model alone, howsoever detailed the model might be, and the design process at Gehry Partners gradually transitions from physical modeling to computer modeling during the course of a project. Figure 3 shows a simple diagram capturing how this transition happens for most projects. Exceptions do exist, however—there are instances where the computer is introduced much earlier on, or when physical modeling is still being done late into the design process.

Gehry Partners has found that the 3D modeling tool best suited to their kind of architecture for preliminary design and design development is the NURBS-based Rhino. The 3D modeling effort in Rhino begins in conjunction with the development of the physical massing models. In fact, very often, the starting point for a Rhino model is the point set digitized from the physical model, from which the curves of the building form are generated. From this 3D shell, 2D slices at the floor plan levels are generated in Rhino, and these are used as the basis for developing the space plans of the building. This allows the functional aspects of a project to be explored in conjunction with its formal aspects. Sophisticated Excel spreadsheets are used to study and develop the programmatic requirements of the building. The use of Rhino only sometimes extends to presentation; I did see a few instances of presentation visuals created in Rhino and touched up with Adobe Illustrator. But apart from this, Rhino is used primarily as a design exploration and development tool, as shown in Figure 4.

As the design gets more detailed and refined, it is moved from Rhino to CATIA using the IGES export format. Gehry Partners relies extensively on the use of CATIA, a highly sophisticated 3D computer modeling program originally created for use by the aerospace industry, to model accurately in complete detail the building shell as well as those parts of the building that are unusually shaped (see Figure 5). This CATIA model becomes the basis for the construction of the building, and directly yields the geometric data that will be needed by contractors and fabricators to manufacture its different forms. For this process to work smoothly, General Contractors and sometimes Subcontractors and fabricators also learn and use CATIA. A recent spin-off company from the firm, Gehry Technologies, is formalizing the process of going from CATIA models to fabrication, and providing the necessary training to contractors and fabricators in the use of this technology.

While the CATIA model is used as the main data source for the fabrication and construction of the organic forms, regular 2D construction drawings of a project are also prepared in AutoCAD using 2D section cuts exported from CATIA. This allows the documentation of the more standard parts of the building that have not been modeled in CATIA. In fact, the firm owns more than twice the number of seats of AutoCAD compared to the other software applications, even CATIA, indicating that 2D drafting is still an important component of their design process.

Project Collaboration and Management

Project collaboration technology is particularly critical to Gehry Partners, since their projects are located all over the world. The firm prefers to provide the full range of architectural services in order to have better control over the quality of the outcome. Typically, an executive architect will be retained to provide a local presence, and to assist with site surveys, local code requirements, site supervision, etc. While Frank Gehry himself travels extensively to project locations, most people in the firm, surprisingly, do not travel a lot. Video conferencing allows more meetings to take place online and reduce the need to travel, as do the ubiquity of email and FTP technology. Travel related to site supervision, however, has been relatively untouched by technology. Webcams have not been found to be useful; instead, what has worked better for this purpose are still images shot with digital cameras and communicated by email.

With regard to project collaboration websites for the design phase, Gehry Partners does not find any of the currently available solutions particularly impressive. The firm has had some satisfactory experience with project collaboration solutions geared towards construction, notably Meridian's ProjectTalk, which was able to leverage the General Contractor's project management database while still providing secure access to the design team. They also successfully used Bidcom's product and appreciated its superior database implementation; however after its merger with Cephren to form Citadon, this product is no longer offered.

Using project management solutions, however, hasn't done away with the need to communicate directly, and the phone is still extensively used. Surprisingly, the traditional FedEx method of exchanging drawings is also still very much in use, indicating that even technologically advanced firms still have areas where the potential of technology to improve efficiency and minimize costs hasn't been fully exploited.

TIFF Format Preferred for Electronic Publishing

PDF and DWF may be fighting it out to become the standard electronic distribution and viewing format for the AEC industry (for more on DWF versus PDF, see AECbytes Newsletter #2), but Gehry Partners has found that neither of these solutions fully satisfies their list of requirements for electronic documentation. This includes displaying the information 100% correctly for graphic as well as geometric intent across platforms and software versions, and the availability of free and ubiquitous (including cross-platform) viewers for the format. Moreover, the software used to create it also needs to be ubiquitous so that the extended team can standardize on one format for document exchange.

After much experimentation, the best and most elegant solution Gehry Partners has found for electronic documentation is the TIFF format, despite its large file size compared to PDF or DWF. AutoCAD drawings at full print resolution are created in the TIFF format and then distributed for viewing and printing. In this format, the integrity of the drawing is fully retained and there is no chance of garbled data. Very often, such TIFF files of AutoCAD drawings are generated and then embedded within PDF files for distribution (see Figure 6), making the best use of both kinds of file formats.

What About BIM?

Gehry Partners does not use any of the applications that currently carry the "BIM" label, such as Autodesk Revit, ArchiCAD, or Bentley Architecture. What is critical to the firm is to use the technology that is needed to design and build their kind of architecture, and all the company's resources and efforts are directed towards this end. Thus, they have spent a lot of resources on the very expensive high-end modeling solution, CATIA, which they have identified as the key technology to enable fabrication of their free-flowing forms exactly as envisioned. The firm is less interested in the frequently cited productivity benefits of BIM applications such as automatic drawing generation and coordination, and is more focused on achieving the right results. Thus, they still rely heavily on a traditional 2D drafting application like AutoCAD for producing construction documents and continue to tolerate the (by now) well-known limitations of CAD.

This does not mean, however, that Gehry Partners totally discounts the promise and potential of BIM. In fact, they see their technological processes, which allow the building to be taken from design all the way through to fabrication, as a more advanced form of BIM than that restricted to architectural and engineering design alone. They also find such capabilities lacking in the industry in general, and are attempting to provide them through their spin-off venture mentioned earlier, Gehry Technologies, which is working with Dassault Systemes to make its CATIA product better suited for building design and construction. Essentially, Gehry Technologies is aiming to provide a CATIA-based BIM solution to the AEC industry that is focused not just on the building design process but also extends to the fabrication and construction processes that are critical to the creation of unconventional architecture.

Analysis and Conclusions

From a technology perspective, Gehry Partners is an intriguing mix of the high-tech and the low-tech. At one end of spectrum is their over-whelming reliance on the physical modeling process that architects have used for centuries; at the other end, there is the cutting-edge use of the highly sophisticated 3D modeling program, CATIA, that has so far been used only in technologically more advanced industries such as aerospace and ship-building. The use of 2D drafting to generate construction documents, widely regarded in the AEC industry as being on the way out, is very much in evidence at the firm and shows little sign of being replaced by the new BIM applications any time soon. Hand sketching continues to be very much a part of the conceptual design process, particularly by Frank Gehry, and tools such as Autodesk Architectural Studio and SketchUp have been tried, but are yet to make a mark. Tablet PCs are nowhere in sight, and except for the high-end machines needed to run CATIA, the rest of the computers have average to low-end specifications.

Over the years, the design process and how technology is used at Gehry Partners hasn't changed very much. However, the technology itself has dramatically improved, which makes the interaction with it less onerous and a lot more pleasant. CATIA is now more affordable, it runs on the Windows platform, and the latest version v5 has an improved parametric engine and better visualization capabilities, all of which assist the workflow tremendously. Similarly, the physical modeling process has also benefited from rapid prototyping techniques such as laser cutting and 3D printing. However, the amount of effort that goes into this modeling has not changed significantly.

In conclusion, Gehry Partners has, over the course of their practice, developed a process and workflow that works for them and allows them to create the kind of architecture they wish to create. As a result, they carefully manage this workflow and go at great lengths to avoid any disruptions to it, even if that means living with some inefficiencies in their process and the products they use. The technological choices they make have to fit within this workflow, which often makes them late adopters of some technology solutions. Technology is critical to them, but at the same time, they are far from being dictated by it.


My sincere thanks to Reg Prentice, Director of Information Management at Gehry Partners, who took the time to talk to me at length, showed me around the firm, and supplied most of the illustrations for this article. It could not have been written without his help. I also appreciate the discussion I had with Dennis Sheldon of Gehry Technologies, which helped me to better understand what the focus of this new venture is. And finally, I would like to thank the management at Gehry Partners for allowing me to study and publish this article on their firm's use of technology.

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at

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