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Frank Gehry brick façade exposed

Clay Technology magazine
11 May 2016

Known for pushing the boundaries of architecture, Frank Gehry lent his expertise to Australian developers to create a brick façade unlike any other. Natalie Daniels takes a closer look. 

While there are plenty of architects pushing materials to the limits, few push harder than Frank Gehry. His latest building uses 320,000 custom-made bricks to create what he calls ‘a treehouse of knowledge’ for the UTS Business School in Australia. 

Known for cutting-edge architectural designs, including the Walt Disney Concert Hall and Weisman Art Museum, USA, Gehry’s ambitious Australian project is no exception. The Dr Chau Chak Wing facility for UTS Business School is home to teaching and office spaces for up to 1,600 students and staff and is the first building the architect has completed in Australia.

The bricks and mortar used are intricately designed with wriggles and writhes incorporated into the structure, pushing the design limits of brick to new heights. Gehry wrote to the Dean of the Business School, Roy Green in 2009, describing his vision, ‘Thinking of it as a treehouse came tripping out of my head – a growing, learning organism with many branches of thought, some robust and some ephemeral and delicate.’ 

The design brief set out by Gehry intended to capture the heart and spirit of the teaching establishment. The inspiration for the curvaceous façade came from the fold. ‘Throughout history, the fold has been fascinating to philosophers and artists, allowing them to explore colour, form, shadow and light.’ This concept required a complex construction to render the folds and lines of Gehry’s model in solid brick. The ‘fluid’ appearance of the brickwork came from five custom-designed bricks by Australian manufacturer, Bowral Bricks. 

Picking the perfect brick

In keeping with the typical Gehry style, the building showcases two aesthetically distinct external façades. One side is composed completely of brick, inspired by Sydney’s colonial sandstone buildings. Gehry proposed to work with Limousin Gold brick, a dry pressed standard brick, as a tribute to these buildings. The other side of the building is constructed of large, angled sheets of glass to fracture and mirror the image of surrounding buildings. 

Bowral Bricks faced a difficult challenge to produce the number of bricks required for the structural frame. Using a dry-press brick enabled the designers to integrate shapes in the moulds to produce various shapes. The company had never produced such bricks, because of the complex geometric patterns. Bowral created special shaped bricks, Centre Rebate, K Brick, Offset Rebate, the L Brick and the solid brick. In the brief, the bricks needed to be delicate and Bowral took three-to-four attempts to get the design right. The bricks proved so difficult to lay that master bricklayer Peter Favetti came out of retirement to complete the project. Because the walls are curved, and many of the bricks stick out at angles, laying them took five times longer than traditional bricks. 

Bowral described the process, ‘Each of the bricks was laid and a continuous stainless steel wire was placed in the rebates to provide lateral support. A special brick tie with two adjustable nuts on a threaded rod was developed. The back of the tie was slotted into a small box attached to the steel substrate panel. The two nuts were then adjusted to lock the tie between the edge of the rebate and the back of the brick. The leading nut also captures the stainless steel wire.’ 

Squashed brown paper bag

The re-design of the Dr Chau Chak Wing Building is part of the ten-year UTS City Campus AU$1 billion masterplan to deliver a cutting-edge and connected campus for staff, students and the public.

The project is named after the Australian-Chinese business leader Dr Chau Chak Wing, who donated AU$25 million to UTS – AU$20 million to support the new building and an additional US$5 million towards an endowment fund for Australia-China student scholarships. At the official opening, Wing commented, ‘The design is distinctive, full of passion. Frank Gehry is a courageous, tough and wise old man.’ 

Not everyone was impressed – the building’s curvy structure prompted critics to compare it to a crumpled paper bag. However, Peter Cosgrove, Australia’s Governor General described the building as, ‘The most beautiful squashed brown paper bag ever seen’. Gehry responded to critics by disparaging the designs of some other modern buildings. Love it or loathe it – it certainly is one of the most unique and inventive uses of brick in this century. 

Frank Gehry

Anything but ordinary, Gehry has spent 54 years in the industry challenging mainstream architecture to create some of the most renowned buildings in the world. Gehry is best known for his choice of unusual materials and passion for unique architecture. He received the Pritzker Prize in 1989, the world’s most prestigious architecture award. Gehry has received more than 25 national and regional American Institute of Architecture Awards, the Brunner Prize, and many others. Despite his success, Gehry is never fully satisfied with his work. He once said, ‘It can never be perfect. By definition it can’t because we’re defective creatures.’