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  1. Wealth
November 1, 2007

Men of Steel

By Spear's

One of these men is the most celebrated architect of our age. The other is the most creative car designer. One is transforming the way we look at buildings. The other is doing the same for cars.

One of these men is the most celebrated architect of our age. The other is the most creative car designer. One is transforming the way we look at buildings. The other is doing the same for cars.

In the seering California sunshine the glistening steel curves of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles seem to sweep you up off the sidewalk with the promise of style, music – and a good time. Folded up in the metal vortex of America’s best-loved new building, you lose yourself. It’s not just the heat or the rippling aquatic light flowing off the silvery skin. Surrounded by the bland glass and steel blocks of corporate America, Gehry’s bendy structure seems to be talking to you, questioning your idea of what a building should look like.

Today, someone who knows a thing or two about bending metal is standing outside the entrance. It’s Chris Bangle, BMW Group’s chief designer. He’s waving his arms and talking nineteen to the dozen, his words pinging off the steel panels that drape, bend and burst into the sky. ‘Look at the light control. Look at the shadow. We’ve got highlights, reflection, balance, colour harmony. The curves create emotion. Each one is intimate. Hell, it’s just like a car!’ Bangle puts his hands together, as if praying to the imaginary God of Gehry, looks up to the sky and says: ‘Respect, you know, respect.’

A grey BMW Z4 pulls up outside the concert hall. Out steps Gehry, wearing a light blue shirt and blue cotton trousers and an ‘I could be one of the construction guys’ crumpled navy jacket. He shakes hands with Bangle and the two men walk inside and sit in the curved wood and marble auditorium, doing the small talk that designers do. ‘The building is really great,’ says Bangle. ‘Come by for a concert sometime,’ Gehry replies. ‘I’d love to,’ Bangle says. Gehry asks: ‘My wife and I need to get a new car. What should we get, another BMW, right?’ ‘Yeah,’ Bangle replies. ‘Try the 7-Series and the 5-Series, too.’

But the two men are not here for small talk. They are here because they have something big in common – something so big that it is transforming the way we look at cars and buildings and pretty much everything in between. The pair boldly, some say recklessly, challenge the conventions of design. They create new shapes: not shapes that just look different but shapes that are different – curves that we could not have imagined a year or two ago that reach beyond the technical and aesthetic constraints of the 20th century, using brand new materials and manufacturing processes.

The two North Americans work with steel, titanium and ceramic to forge their unique sculptural styles. For Gehry, it is explosive, exuberant curves. His Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is the most recognisable architectural icon since the Sydney Opera House. For Bangle, it is the interplay of snarkiness and softness.

You can see it in the slashes of the Z4 roadster, the soft, flowing lines of the 5-Series, and the imposing sculpture of the new CS sporting saloon concept car, unveiled earlier this year at the Shanghai Motor Show. Each man has worked in the other’s field. Gehry has studied car design and Bangle takes his design team on architectural tours of Istanbul and LA to generate fresh ideas. In spite of the criticism they attract, they insist on doing things their way. Mostly, they get away with it.

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The pair leave the auditorium, that is the home of the LA Philharmonic, and begin chatting in the concert hall’s green room. Gehry, at 78 the older and better known of the two, begins by staking out a little common ground. ‘I like to create motion, a sense of movement in buildings,’ he says. ‘It is very similar, I think, to what you, Chris, are doing with your cars. The quality of the shapes you create generates an emotional response from people similar to a building like this one.’

Bangle nods, looking pleased at the compliment from a man almost 30 years his senior. ‘One of the similarities between our different worlds is that there is a love of understanding form and shape. Any fool can draw a straight line but there is no one who understands surface and curve like you, Frank.’

Mutual expressions of professional respect out of the way, the odd couple relax. The more they talk, the more it becomes clear that what they are discussing is more than just design. They do not see their work – cars, buildings, interiors – as mere products; they regard them as works of art that provoke as strong an emotional response as any painting or sculpture. ‘Ninety-five per cent of the structures in our cities I would not call architecture,’ says Gehry. ‘They are just buildings, boxes. They are not anybody thinking anything. They are not even close to the issues that matter. For me, a building should be uplifting. The surfaces and spaces should engage people emotionally, in a positive way.’

Bangle nods. ‘Ninety per cent of vehicles out there are dead. They are a-u-t-o-mobiles. They are a horizontal excuse for an elevator. That’s all the emotional attachment most people have to them. They see them, they ignore them – unless they are in front of them in their lane. Yet a building like this – and, I hope, our cars – you can’t ignore because you want to look at them. That’s what culture is defined by. That’s artistry.’

As they try to create new, emotive shapes, the two men have developed a new design lexicon. Gehry describes the swooping titanium tiles of his buildings as ‘scaly fish’. Bangle uses the term ‘flame surfacing’ to describe the way light flows over the swoops and curves of his cars. Both liken their designs to flags in the wind or the billowing sails of a yacht.

In a world of low-cost, bog standard design, such originality is rare. Where do they seek out the new? What inspires them? Gehry looks back in order to look forward. ‘I look at painting and sculpture from the Greeks and the Romans. Michelangelo used to play with the folds in fabric. He would take fabric and lay it out over a model and he would get highlights on the surfaces from the light. I like that.’ ‘That’s intriguing,’ says Bangle. ‘We talk about folds a lot in car design. When we were doing the Z4, someone said the exterior metal looked “like cloth draped over the naked muscles in a classical sculpture”.’

Hearing two ultra-modernists talking about naked men in togas sounds odd. If what they do is rooted in the past – in the kind of classical art that is universally admired by the public and art critics – how come so many people find their work too modern? Each man has been bitterly criticised for being too avant garde, too clever for his own good. Gehry has been publicly condemned as a modernist ‘prick’. Websites, run by disgruntled BMW fans, accuse Bangle of ‘spannering’ the Munich marque’s traditional design and call for his dismissal.

‘People are not used to seeing dramatic, new challenging forms and they often react badly at first,’ Bangle says. ‘When we released some of our cars, the reaction was like we’d opened the door to the anti-Christ. It takes time for people to shake off what they are used to and to appreciate innovation.’ ‘Architecture is no different,’ sympathises Gehry. ‘When I first went to Bilbao, people were culturally very conservative. They kept giving me these books on Basque classicism. They hated my designs, at first.’

How do they handle the criticism they attract at almost every stage of the design process? ‘Oh. It’s easier for me,’ grins Gehry. ‘I’m freer than Chris to say and do what I want. He’s got to go to focus groups, which would drive me crazy. That’s a horrible way of working. Giving people a choice of three different types of the same thing and letting them criticise you, that’s really bullshit.’ Bangle laughs. ‘No. Not me. They don’t let me anywhere near focus groups.’

Gehry goes on: ‘When it comes to criticism I try to be nice. That’s the best way.’ Bangle nods. ‘Frank’s right. You have to be patient and to remember that you are looking at something that is more than just an object. You’re looking at the culture of architecture, the culture of cars. That takes time to change – sometimes longer than you’d like.’

You can hear the frustration in his voice. Bangle believes that BMW – like Gehry’s LA-based architectural practice – is one of the few firms that is looking forward and using new design techniques, new manufacturing processes and new materials to revolutionise design. While other companies reprise the past with retro styles, BMW wants to look ahead, to create new sculptural exteriors and flexible interiors both for its own cars and its sister brands, Mini and Rolls-Royce. He points to the design of the new Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupé and the forthcoming Phantom Coupé as the edgiest-ever ‘take’ on a modern luxury grand tourer.

‘I get frustrated when I talk to my colleagues in the world of car design because I honestly don’t feel that anybody really seriously wants to look forward and see what new technology allows us to do,’ says Bangle. ‘The modernist’s visual vocabulary is based on the tools that were available – the lathe, the 2-D mill – of the past. And they do make nice shapes, but the true modernist should be working in a multiple axis. What we should be asking is how can we make cars better and make them apply to our current culture and current lives. The design community should deal with the digital vocabulary of the day.’

Does Gehry agree? Has architecture ever found itself stuck in a rut, reliving the past instead of embracing the new? ‘Absolutely,’ he says, pushing his messy white fringe off his face. ‘When the first Bilbao models were first shown to the public, most architects were into the post-modern thing – regurgitating Greek temples every five minutes – so, naturally, the letters to the editor were nine to one against me. They called my design “broken crockery”. They said “Gehry’s nuts”.

‘But you’ve got to stay with it. It’s like being an artist who is looking for something, something intuitive that is hard to explain. Slowly, it evolves and after a while everybody gets it. When a building is presented as a fait accompli, the response is fantastic.’

Gehry’s experience of initial rejection – followed by acceptance, respect and finally acclaim – echoes Bangle’s travails. In spite of the early criticism of his cars, most have finally been accepted as setting a new standard in automotive design. Car magazine recently acclaimed Bangle as the most influential designer of his generation and rival brands, notably Mercedes and Lexus, have begun to echo some of his emotional expressionism, notably the side-hinged boot-lid, nicknamed ‘the Bangle butt’. ‘It can be frustrating but the more new models we release, the more people appreciate what we’re doing. People see the Z4 or the 5-Series and they say to me: “Now I understand the 7-Series much better.” Funny thing, huh?’

As they look ahead – ahead of the curve – and challenge yet more conventions, what do the pair think is ‘right’ for now and for the future? What will be the icons of tomorrow? ‘If you try to second guess what the world is going to think in 30 years’ time, it’s hopeless,’ Gehry says. ‘One thing I will say, though, is that the buildings I have done, that have held people’s interest from the beginning, have an honesty and integrity. If you do something that is not a gimmick, it does seem to last.’

What is honest and gimmick-free now? The two men agree that the clean lines and simple, minimalist shapes of the past are giving way to a more complex, busier visual style. ‘Design goes in phases,’ says Bangle. ‘Sometimes simple shapes predominate and sometimes the visual density increases. In the 1950s, for example, car designers added all sorts of stuff – chrome fins, gills. In the 1990s super-simple shapes dominated. We’re at a stage now where we’re trying to get away from the super-simple and move to something more visually dense. We’re going to see more humour and new innovative shapes.’ Can he give an example? ‘Yes. The soft metal folds on the exterior of the new 5-Series – splines – came out of the modern world of fashion, not the old-fashioned world of folded metal box cars. They are fun and genuinely innovative.’

Gehry agrees. After the war we were cleansing ourselves of a lot of stuff that the Victorian era produced. So, minimalism – simple shapes – sort of made sense. It was good for the soul. But now it is contrived. Why? Because time has moved on and we now have the ability to use new technology to create greater feeling and density. It’s not that plain, simple surfaces painted white, or neat, symmetrical cars are bad. They’re not. It’s just that they’re no longer relevant to our times.’

Talking of time, it’s getting late. The sun has turned the steel panels of the Disney Concert Hall a shade of burnt orange. It’s time to go. As they head for the car park, the fellow travellers resume their small talk. Who, they wonder, has the harder job. ‘We get paid more, I think,’ says Gehry. ‘You do,’ Bangle sighs. Gehry wants to gossip about Ford design chief J Mays, whom Bangle has known since his student days at Pasadena Art Centre College of Design. ‘I did some work for Ford and I submitted my fees to J Mays for designing a car and he fell off his chair. He thought it was horrific. I asked for a million bucks. And that’s cheap.’ Bangle laughs: ‘That is cheap.’

When the pair reach the car park and Gehry climbs back into his grey Z4, Bangle says: ‘This was enjoyable for me. I’ve learnt something here today. I appreciate that.’ ‘Me, too,’ smiles Gehry. As the BMW heads off down the 10 Freeway towards Venice, another Z4 roadster comes the other way, its flowing grey steel reflected in the exploding curves of the Concert Hall. Both the car and the building look like sculptures – sculptures you can use. ‘It’s hard to see where one stops and the other begins,’ I say to Bangle. The designer smiles. ‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘They both catch the curve.’

Frank Gehry
Frank Gehry was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1929. He moved to Los Angeles in the 1950s where he worked as a truck driver and put himself through architecture school at the University of Southern California.

Among his most celebrated buildings are his house in Santa Monica, constructed using materials scavenged from local street corners, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which was launched with a $50 million (£24 million) gift from Lillian Disney, Walt’s widow.

The Disney Concert Hall was designed before the Guggenheim Bilbao but cost overruns and political wrangling delayed its construction. One of his most recent buildings is in Britain – Maggie’s Centre, an NHS cancer unit at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee. He recently entered a competition to build a new town hall in Metz, France. The brief was to build ‘a Frank Gehry-like building’. His entry was rejected. He is married and lives in Venice, California.

Chris Bangle
Chris Bangle was born in Ohio in 1956, the son of a travelling salesman. He wanted to be a Methodist preacher until he joined the Pasadena Art Centre College of Design in 1977, where he studied product design. After leaving college, he got a job as an interior designer with Opel, the German subsidiary of US motor giant, General Motors. He moved on to Fiat, where he designed the muscular Fiat Coupé and ended up as head of Fiat Centro Stile in Turin.

He got the top job at BMW 15 years ago and immediately set about updating the firm’s sober design language. Critics accused him of recklessly redesigning a range of cars that consumers and critics admired and that broke sales records each year. Supporters, including Italian fashion designer Miuccia Prada and rival car designer Peter Stevens, describe his work as ‘risk taking’ and ‘brilliant’. He lives with his wife and teenage son in Munich.

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