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Frank Gehry's ever-changing light

A superb piece on architecture and project management by Christopher Reynolds of the Los Angeles Times describes the work of Terry Bell, who managed the construction of Frank Gehry's Walt Disney concert hall. The hall was designed and planned out with heavy-duty computing--and massive amounts of paper.

The internet version of the article has an excellent video tour of the Disney center.

I saw the concert hall over the course of several weeks a few months ago. The stainless steel cladding, curved and soaring, generates amazing reflected light, so beautiful and changing, from the sun. The new Bard College performance center in New York state near the Hudson River, also by Gehry, generates similar beautiful light. For both buildings, the light is ever-changing, depending on the angle of viewing and the ambient light during the course of the day.

A few weks ago some friends took me flying over Bard College on the way to Storm King. Here's my photograph of the Gehry Building at Bard College:

-- Edward Tufte

I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa when the Advanced Technologies Lab was built. As with most of Gehry's American work, it elicited some controversy among the locals (I now live in Seattle and witnessed the controversy over the Experience Music Project). The ATL in Iowa City is quite beautiful and dynamic. On the side facing the campus, the building appears all-of-a-piece, with what looks like a single, swooping form. From across the river, however, it almost looks like a small village, with many discrete elements each made of a different material; from this side the scale fits in well with its surroundings, not overwhelming the river or the building's neighbors, but adding some complexity and reflecting the light on the water. It's quite lovely.

Here are a few more links about the ATL building. I couldn't find a photo of the campus side, only the river side:
http:// iatl.html

[updated February 2005]

-- M. Jacobson (email)


Note however that "pretty but dysfunctional" is not just a major problem of information display, but of architecture as well.

My understanding is at mit, Gehry wasn't even on the short list. But the search committee was overruled by a believer in architecture as art. And subsequent experience is suggesting the search committee had the right of it.

I suggest one should apply the same standard to architecture that one applies to graphics. Pretty is neither necessary nor sufficient. What matters is how well it can be used.

-- Mitchell N Charity (email)

I would agree with the last respondent that "Pretty is neither necessary nor sufficient. What matters is how well it can be used," but I maintain that Gehry's works meet that standard. I suggest the following recent review of his Bard College building (covered in the last half of the article):

Here's a quote:

"Gehry's work, despite the consistency with which it expresses the priorities of architecture—space-making, responsiveness to a functional program, connections to a particular site—is often misunderstood as primarily sculptural. But when you have what is obviously a fancy front and an ordinary back, not to mention a box in the middle, it is hard to interpret a building as anything but a building."

-- James Tata (email)

'Pretty is not necessary'? Are you kidding me? Thinking only of function is what lead to the disasterously ugly architectural forms of the 1960s and 1970s, which began, to a large extent, with Bauhaus.

This thread began with the discussion of a building as art. Suppose the 'art' caused horribly aucustics in the concert hall. Would you still ooh and aah? If you had wonderful acoustics in the hall, but the outside was a drab concrete box, would ET have made the original posting?

At least for public buildings, architecture should be public art. (Architecture should be art for all buildings, but what somebody does for their own home, for example, is none of my business.) Architecture should also always be functional. Thus, "pretty is necessary, but not sufficient" seams to be the more useful catch phrase. Maybe 'aesthetic' is a better word than 'pretty'?

-- Kent Karnofski (email)

Response to Frank Gehry's ever -changing light

Jorn Utzon's Sydney Opera House is one of the greatest buildings of the 20th C, certainly the most recognisable. To a certain extent it is a building that is not particularly suited to its original purpose.

It is interesting to have a look at what came second and third in the competition. They are at the bottom of the of this link.

[link updated February 2005]

-- Andrew Nicholls (email)

On work of beauty and utility, see today's story in the Times about Michael Graves (and alas his illness):

-- Edward Tufte

I'm a student at Bard, and the building is truly amazing. On a grey and cloudy day, the roof melts into the sky, and on a beautiful sunny day, it ends up reflecting the blue on some surfaces, green on others, and silver on yet others. In my oppinion, it is most striking at sunset, when the whole west side of the building glows orange. Having never seen "Escaping Flatland" in person, I assume both have similar reactions to surrounding light.

I have to disagree with the above comment that "Pretty is neither neccessary or sufficient." In my experience, a design, whether architectural, or any other, is more effective if it's pretty. I don't mean that aesthetics are the only important quality, but that aesthetics are just as important as functionality. In discussing the acoustics of performance spaces, Leon Botstein, Bard's President, said something to the effect of "Ugly concert halls rarely sound good."

-- brendan berg (email)

I noticed someone questioned the effects of 'art' on the functionality of the space. The concert hall is arguably one of the best, acoustically. Gehry worked closely with the acoustician, and managed to create a space that is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also has amazingly crisp and responsive acoustics.

-- brendan berg (email)

i find gehry's work interesting because it brings the 'architecture as art' debate forward. which, as others noted, seems in many respects to parallel the dilemma of information design, however, i would contend that because architecture deals not only with utility but also the poetics of form and space, effects like gehry's ever-changing light, are more than just "pretty" or even aesthetic.

there is an interesting essay on a UC Berkeley competition that is worth taking a look at.

it argues that part of the failure of the much recent architecture to provide meaningful experiences results from its emphasis on vision rather than other senses. parallels to information design? one has to wonder.

-- justin michaelson (email)

More on beauty and functionality in public architecture from The Guardian, one of the best sites for arts criticism around:,11710,997553,00.html

-- Edward Tufte

Another article about the Bard College performance center:

Robert Campbell, "Designed by Gehry, a New Arts Center is a Performance in Itself", Boston Globe, August 10, 2003.

[link updated February 2005]

-- James Tata (email)

Arts Journal provides a good collection of reviews of Gehry's Disney concert hall in Los Angeles:

-- Edward Tufte

A Gehry is going up in Chicago's Millenium Park off Michigan Ave. about 3 blocks from where I work. It's amazing to see the substructure as it is being built.

-- Jeffrey Berg (email)

Frank Gehry recently unveiled his plans for a facelift of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

[link updated February 2005]

-- David Montgomery (email)

View Productions ( has been releasing new viewmaster sets of architectural subjects, one of which is a 3 reel set on Frank Gehry. I haven't looked at the Gehry set yet but I do have two of their Frank Lloyd Wright sets, their Charles and Ray Eames set, and the one reel one Gaudi's park. I highly recommend them for remotely getting a better sense of the feel of some of these spaces than one gets from a two dimensional photo.

-- Michael Ivester (email)

One responder mentioned the publication of Gehry's work on View-Master reels. As publisher of this set, I should mention that these are stereoscopic, third-dimension photographs that are particularly accurate and dramatic in rendering the reflective qualities of the metal buildings. The set referenced includes three of Gehry's very early metal projects (including one no longer extant), but we have also stereo-photographed the Disney in construction and hope to publish this in 2005. The Gehry set (and the other View-Master packets) can be seen at

-- Michael Kaplan (email)

I took your course yesterday in Boston and this article reminded me of what you said about making sure that a publisher is kept on track when printing your work. I used to work at the Harvard Design School and heard similar stories about architects trying to keep their projects intact through the building process. Sometimes, in the case of architects who are serious engineers, builder changes could be life-threatening (like frame joints that were bolted instead of welded).

This article is about the Disney Concert Hall reflecting the sun into nearby homes, heating them up 15 degrees F, and blinding residents (not permanently, of course. I think).

"Architects for Gehry's firm blamed the problem on the type of steel used on the Founders Room and an error made during construction. The Founders Room is clad in a glossy, mirror-like steel that reflects the sun more brightly than duller, brushed steel used elsewhere.

Architects considered the impact of the shiny steel on neighboring buildings, but during construction the curving sheets of metal ended up facing a slightly different angle than plans called for, Gehry partner Terry Bell said."

The second paragraph sounds like a too-convnenient explanation, but it might just sound offhand because of the writing style.

So far, I think the plan is to grind the steel to a duller finish, which will hopefully give it a silkier sheen like the Bard performance center and reduce the glare in the neighborhood.

-- Joseph Balsama (email)

As a former employee of the Experience Music Project, and as a lover of both art and architecture, I'd like to comment on Mr. Gehry's balance of aesthetics and functionality.

While I certainly would not want to go back to drab neo-Bauhaus functionalism, it would be considerate of an architect to remember that individuals must work and inhabit these spaces. There are simply amenities that those people need. Simple things an architect can do like placing bathrooms on all floors of a museum. Not doing so is very user unfriendly, especially to those with special needs. Giving appropriate space to limited access areas like storage rooms and computer closets is another example. Allowing for these niceties would greatly enhance the usability of a design at little to no impact on the aesthetics of the overall form.

That being said, I find Gehry's overall philosophy of shape and light to be appealing and fascinating. I just wanted to give some real-world criticism, since these threads are equally concerned with function as they are with beauty. Thanks for providing the forum to do so.

-- Sean Lanksbury (email)

"Pretty is neither necessary nor sufficient. What matters is how well it can be used." I strongly disagree with this statement from a previous respondent.

As designers we must realize that design is not limited to the medium, but rather the entire experience. No matter what you design, from buildings to clothes and websites to cars, you must design for experience. A successful experience is the result of the seamless union of pleasing visual design with ease of functionality.

After recommendation from a friend who worked for Frank Gehry, I started to study his unique approach and was fascinated by the process he takes to first strive for functionality, and then strive for visual design. He realizes there is a need for both of these elements.

In an interview with Architectural Record (link has been retired) Gehry talked about the Case-Western building. When describing the approach to the design he said:

"Each faculty group had a requirement for their offices and they were worried about where their desk would be. So we made a design of an office right on detail with their furniture and everything, book shelves etc. and so that made them understand that we understood their problem. Now, once you do that, then if I deform and move the building and change things, at least they know I've committed myself to honoring those criteria."

Later in the article, Gehry comments on his multi-medium approach to architecture. He says:

" it looks like we are tearing up paper and I just roll up the paper and throw it all out. Its good. It is not like that. It is much more precise and careful. So, we work from the inside out.

Now, it takes a long time. It is like watching paint dry and I will move things. Sometimes it goes too far and then we pull back. And that is why we have such a neat archive, because we record it on a daily basis because I know that I go too far and I want to go back and I want to recall things so we can rebuild. So, I can go back and say two weeks ago, that picture. Rebuild the model and then they know how to do it."

I believe Gehry's process clearly outlines three principles that can help us achieve successful designs.

1. Show you understand the problem

2. Work from the inside out

3. Archive everything

It would be easy to strictly design for function. However, I think that there is a direct relationship between function and visual design. As society becomes focused on the entire experience rather than just functionality, we must find ways to deliver both functional and visually pleasing designs.

-- Sarah Doody (email)

The Walt Disney Concert Hall's performance space is sonically amazing. The first season of the LA Philharmonic in the new Hall has been a great success. Many of us can't get enough of it and are buying more subscription series simply because we love the sound and don't mind the cramped quarters in many seating sections. Acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota deserves as much credit for the building, considering that it is a concert hall, as Gehry.

The interior public spaces are, in my opinion, a mess. Lots of low ceilings, insufficient public amenities, and a peculiar aversion by Gehry to lighting the place properly. The preconcert lecture area is flashy but doesn't serve its purpose well and the cafeteria's odors permeate far into the building (although mercifully not into the auditorium, itself).

--- Ravi

-- Ravi Narasimhan (email)

"Ever-Changing Light," indeed.

"The architect Frank Gehry is fully prepared to sandblast portions of the $274 million Walt Disney Concert Hall in response to a new report that found that the building's skin produced excessive glare, his Los Angeles firm said yesterday."

From the "New York Times", Dec. 2, 2004. Full story is here:

[link updated February 2005]

-- Peter Pehrson (email)

I just ran across the response from March 9 2004 about the Experience Music Project not having bathrooms on every floor. I'm a practicing architect and published writer on architecture and while I don't know the details of bathroom planning on EMP, I can say that in my experience working on a large museum project, the architect is often overruled on just these sorts of practical issues by the institutional administration. Architects aren't immune from these sorts of mistakes, but there is plenty of precedent for buildings committees sacrificing amenities in favor of more expensive details that will be seen by the public.

I can also say that as a follower of the many innovations in Gehry's office, his process of programming, (laying out spaces and uses within a building) is unusual and the most rational of any architect working today. Basically he has his staff cut out squares of paper with the approximate square footage of each room needed in the building and then he arranges them to achieve rational relationships between those rooms. Then the same exercise is done in three dimensions. Once these block models are completed he begins to wrap and shape them into the sculptural compositions that begin to Gehry's signature buildings. Because Gehry does not (as many architects do) start with the sketch of the exterior or facade into which the program must be squeezed, he's certainly capable of much greater flexibility in the arrangement of spaces. And therefore it's difficult to imagine that he would cut out a bathroom simply because it didn't fit.

EMP is a special case though. There was a very tight schedule driven primarily by an impatient client, Microsoft Paul Allen. There are several reasons the project might have shortchanged the bathrooms, but in this case it might simply boil down to time. There was not enough time to do the building well.

For more on the innovations of Gehry's office have a look at my interview with Jim Glymph (a partner in Gehry's office) in the December 2000 issue of Architecture.

-- andrew cocke (email)

Frank Gehry to Peter Rice

A common thread through many of the posts on this topic is the engineer Peter Rice;
he worked on several of the projects mentioned above.

In his book An Engineer Imagines (which uses sidenotes a la Tufte)
he says:
"This is the positive role for the engineer's genius and skill:
to use their understanding of materials and structure to
make real the presence of the materials in use in the building
so that people warm to them, want to touch them, feel
a sense of the material itself and of the people who made and
designed it..."

Essay on use of Steel in 20th Century Architecture

The Imaginative Engineer
"Three themes run consistently through Peter's work: Innovative
use of materials and structural form, strong creative collaborations,
and successfully challenging the building industry to construct
beyond conventional boundaries."

Peter Rice - Irish structural engineer

-- Tchad (email)

How timely of Kindly Contributor Tchad.

I met yesterday with a structural engineer and architect concerning a barn and shed that we're building this summer at Hogpen Hill Farms in Woodbury, Connecticut. It will be a long slender shed of metal and glass for tractors, gators, chain saws, greenhouse, and repair shop--all attached L-shaped (creating a courtyard) to a barn with animals quarters, stalls, hayloft and racks for bamboo drying.

I had imagined that we might try a stainless steel roof for the barn (with curves ala the sculpture Hogpen Hill #1) until I realized that no one, other than people flying overhead (perhaps PhilG in his helicopter), would ever see. Why not make a real sculpture instead?

So now we're looking at zinc siding with expressed metal structural elements or perhaps grayed wood with expressed metal structural elements. The tension here is to make something wonderful (an exemplar for the spaceland book and video?) and to make a practical farm shed and barn quickly, which we need for this summer. The general idea is to use conventional metal and wood but in an unusual way, with skewed ends (trapezoidal not rectangular floor plans) combined with curving roof-overhang cantilevers for a gently Ronchamp-like look from the ground. The fortunate thing about the sculpture Hogpen Hill #1 turned into a roof design is that that the sculpture generates a curved and torqued look with only 2 flat (as in a roof) elements.

-- Edward Tufte

Hogpen Hill Barn

Do you have any drawings? It would be interesting to see...

This is a building at the Parc Andre Citroen in Paris.


Alternatively, have a look at this school in Burkina Faso:

Gando Primary School

The roof might be interesting for you because it would be cheap to build and
would allow light and air to flow in and out.

-- Tchad (email)

Beautiful Burkina Faso school

Two words: snow load.

It's easier to do elegant and different architecture in warm climates (without insulation issues, without snow loads, and without all that heat escaping out the top of a high roof).

But surely something interesting can be done for our barn within the constraints of New England weather.

-- Edward Tufte

Go the entirely opposite direction: steep extended eaves with a thatch overlay?

Photo: nellee100
A potential variant with expressed metal: a rectangular frame larger than the roof, thus the roof could be guyed rather than trussed. Or just make the uprights taller, keep the beams inside the roof. Angle the uprights outward slightly. All sorts of variants on this. Guying is generally lighter than trussing and the prestressing that is inherent to a design under tension introduces all sorts of physical and mathematical harmonies.

You could even make it like the post-war Japanese bridges, with a single upright, in this case, it would be in the courtyard a little back from middle, where the center of gravity would be for the whole roof. Build the roof first, on the ground, running wires to the upright. Then hoist the roof and raise the walls under it.

Going off on a tangent . . . restricting Flickr searches to photos with creative commons licenses invariably increases the quality of photography, if one will only take the time to render a photo credit.

-- Niels Olson (email)

The Disney Concert Hall, the Sosnoff Theater at Bard, and Millenium Park are all featured - in 3D - in our latest View-Master set. The Disney in particular was great fun photographing stereoscopically.

-- michael kaplan (email)

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