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Design for management school is a case study in duality

Gehry's latest is awkward on the outside, mesmerizing on the inside.

October 13, 2002|Nicolai Ouroussoff | Times Staff Writer

Cleveland — The Weatherhead School of Management's new Peter B. Lewis Building at Case Western University, which was dedicated Wednesday, is an imperfect building.

Designed by Frank Gehry, its undulating stainless-steel-and-brick exterior lacks the taut energy of his best works. But once you get by these flaws, its sensuous forms draw you into a dreamlike world that packs an erotic charge.

The squat, four-story building, which houses classrooms and offices, stands at the corner of Bellflower Road and Ford Drive, a main intersection of the university campus. The building is clad in brick on three sides. Gehry's trademark stainless-steel forms spill out of the top of this base, unraveling over the main facade like ribbon candy. A cafe peeks out from underneath a curved metal canopy, facing the main strip. Another panel peels back to reveal the main corner entry.

The brick is meant to echo the more conventional facades of the surrounding buildings. Instead, the composition feels messy. Its brick surfaces bulge and bend, blending into the steel. The tension one expects -- between hard and soft materials -- is missing.

Once you slip inside, however, that awkwardness is quickly forgotten. A soaring atrium carves up through the building, framed by the offices and classrooms on four sides. The atrium is dominated by two vaguely cylindrical white forms that house the main lecture halls. Dubbed the "two Buddhas," their swollen silhouettes, propped up on heavy canted columns, seem locked in a gentle dance.

It is a mesmerizing effect. Light filters down through skylights, animating their surfaces. And as you move up through the space, you circle around these central volumes in a world of increasing intimacy. Views open between the forms; communal lounge areas are tucked into unexpected corners. But the center remains inaccessible -- a void. And even as you enter one of the two atrium forms, you take with you the lingering memory of the other.

That sense of displacement seeps into the mind like a subliminal message. It tells us that life takes place on the periphery, in the cracks and crevices of our existence. And it forces us into a private realm where a more meaningful exchange of ideas can take place. Not a bad lesson for a school.

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