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In Cleveland, shapely building by Gehry aims to shape careers

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

CLEVELAND -- In 1984, the richest man in Cleveland asked Frank O. Gehry to design a house for him.

Frank Gehry in front of the new Lewis Building at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. The structure breaks out of the traditional brick box. (Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette)

Peter B. Lewis, chairman of The Progressive Corp., told Gehry he wanted Fallingwater -- an iconic building that would give him a measure of immortality akin to Edgar Kaufmann's.

Gehry has likened the $6 million commission to a MacArthur Fellowship, because it came with no strings and supported unbridled creativity with no deadline and no budget. Although the house was never built, the aesthetic breakthroughs it triggered, coupled with advancements in computer-aided design, led Gehry in new directions -- and to new forms of expression and construction eventually realized at the Bilbao Guggenheim and elsewhere.

And finally, in a new building at Case Western Reserve University, Lewis gets not only his Fallingwater but also the roiling waterfall itself -- bursting out of a red brick box and spilling onto the sidewalk in great, cascading ribbons of shingled stainless steel.

The Peter B. Lewis Building houses the Weatherhead School of Management, which trains about 1,400 students in undergraduate, graduate and doctoral programs. By picking up $36.9 million of the building's $61.7 million tab, Lewis not only bought architectural immortality but his name writ large -- really, really large -- on the facade.

Weatherhead wants to be among the nation's top 25 business schools (it's now ranked about 50) and has a five-year plan to get there. Gehry's building alone won't elevate it, but it does stake out new territory in a competitive market, radically redefining the notion of what a business school environment can and even should be.

If you go . . .

The Peter B. Lewis Building is open for free, docent-guided tours on weekends through Dec. 29. To register, call 1-216-368-6339 or visit http://www.weatherhead
. To view more photographs of the building, visit the Post-Gazette's Web site.


With its provocative, stimulating, inspirational architecture, the Lewis Building is designed to communicate that in business, it's necessary to take risks -- as Lewis did growing his father's Cleveland business into the nation's fourth-largest auto insurer by specializing in high-risk drivers.

An iconoclast and, by some accounts, a billionaire, Lewis has a reputation for sometimes excruciating personal and professional honesty -- and for measuring the performance of employees and those who benefit from his considerable philanthropy.

Lewis and the Weatherhead School hope the new building also will shape a new breed of businessmen and -women -- people as capable of building ethical business practices and strong communities as they are fortunes.

Lofty goals, to be sure.

On the landscape, however, the Lewis Building is compromised by its prosaic site. Built in the heart of Cleveland's flat, straight-arrow grid, the Case Western campus is a sampler of mostly 20th-century architectural fashion. Lacking Bilbao's spectacular waterfront setting or even the benefit of a decent axial view, the Lewis Building, on a corner lot off the main drag, makes a stab at blending in, using red brick in deference to the three red brick buildings at the intersection of Ford Drive and Bellflower Road.

Because a new law school building will rise on an adjacent lot, the site wasn't as expansive as Gehry would have liked. "The [university] president cut our site in half so we had to pile it up," he said last week in an interview on the day of the dedication. The building grew to five stories, two more than he thought optimum for the neighborhood.

Still, it doesn't read like a five-story building. But the stainless steel waves that mitigate the height by bridging earth and sky are also what make the Lewis Building overpower everything around it. On sunny mornings, the highly reflective steel throws off a glare that, coupled with the marquee-like treatment of Lewis' name, assaults the eye. But Cleveland isn't southern California, so how big a problem can that be? Ultimately, the building's reflective quality may endear it to Clevelanders as they watch it mirror the changing colors and moods of the sky.

This is the first time Gehry has overlapped the exterior metal panels on a building, creating a textured surface that recalls 19th-century Shingle Style houses and Gehry's earlier fish sculptures.

The architect, who admits to being his own worst critic, takes comfort in the Lewis Building's technological advancement.

"These curves are so much more compounded than Bilbao," he said. "This is no small feat, to get it built and still look like a sketch, still have the quality of immediacy." And, as Gehry often reassures about his buildings, "the roof doesn't leak."

A waterfall may not be the first thing people think of when they first see the roof. "Wow!" said a friend when I showed her photographs. "It looks like a box of aluminum foil exploded."

That would be just fine, one suspects, with Gehry, who over the years has taken inspiration for his forms -- and the hollows between them -- from crumpled-up sheets of paper in his wastebasket.

In counterpoint to the cool, sleek skin is the Lewis Building's stunning, intricate interior, a warm, sensual, seductive space that evokes the experience of walking through a canyon, with surprises and delights at every turn. This is architecture as interactive sculpture, one that keeps visitors on their toes and reaching for their cameras.

Offices line the building's perimeter walls on three sides; their windows look into an atrium filled with a pair of curvy classroom towers. The void between the towers and the perimeter walls creates the canyon-like space, deep crevasses that feel at once like an Anasazi cliff dwelling and a funhouse version of a Lower East Side tenement alley, minus the laundry.

Bathed in natural light from above, the walls are defined by subtle gradations of tone, like an Irving Penn nude. Such unabashed beauty surely speaks to a higher nature, and that is no small feat for a church, let alone a business school.

The Lewis Building's good looks are matched by state-of-the-art communication technologies and creative responses throughout to the building program, fleshed out in numerous meetings with students and faculty.

Like the building itself, classrooms are designed to encourage spontaneous communication and idea sharing.

One of Gehry's charges was to make an environment where faculty and students would bump into each other unexpectedly. Hence the unorthodox floor plan -- and the faculty offices, student study rooms and classrooms integrated on every floor.

"Even I get lost in it," Gehry said at the dedication, "so maybe students will ask directions of each other. I hope it creates the background that allows them to interact."

Aimee Girod, a graduate student who grew up in rural Greene County, Pa., said there's "definitely more interaction. I've been president [of the Graduate Business Students Association] since last March and I never saw the dean. Now he has to walk where students are" and is getting to know more of them by name.

The building's energy consumption will benefit from the atrium's natural light and the high thermal mass of the masonry and poured concrete walls, but it incorporates no other energy-saving features -- a lost opportunity to raise student consciousness on another front.

Still, if the Lewis Building plays a role in shaping future generations of business leaders who demand buildings that are as beautiful, artful and challenging as they are functional, it will leave a powerful legacy.

Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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