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Conducting a symphony in steel

Craig Webb's job at Gehry Partners is to turn the architect's visions into reality. He played a key role in shaping the intricate composition of Walt Disney Concert Hall.

September 17, 2003|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

Craig Webb renders Frank Gehry's squiggles into brick, mortar and steel.

As a senior partner and architect at Gehry Partners -- literally, Gehry's right-hand man -- Webb is helping to shape some of the most prestigious and acclaimed new theater and performing arts buildings in the world, including the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The relationship between the two men is complicated, almost symbiotic. Gehry is the composer, creating the score, but Webb is the conductor, interpreting the big idea.

Gehry hired Webb, who's 22 years younger, to work on Disney Hall before the world had embraced the older man's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, before glossy takeouts in Vanity Fair and the rock-star-like hysteria surrounding the architect. Then, his office was a 30-person, student-based, studio-like firm with two computers, both running text programs. "It was free but somewhat naive," says Webb.

With the practical experience he had gained at Albert C. Martin & Associates and later Barton Myers Associates, Webb was brought aboard to realize the Disney project and bring the firm to the next level. And if he helped transform Gehry Partners, he also found the place "where I'd always wanted to go" -- building buildings at the highest design level.

Not wanting people to stagnate in his office, Gehry told Webb when he hired him: "Five years and I'm throwing you out. I don't want you sitting here wasting your life."

Fourteen years later, and with Disney Hall all but completed, Gehry still relies on Webb to realize his vision.

At the heart of Gehry Partners is its namesake founder. His office in Playa Vista is in the middle of the room, with doors to both business and design.

The 125-employee office is structured like a pyramid, with Gehry delegating creative work to two principal architects: Webb and Edwin Chan, who oversee design and direct project teams. (A younger designer, Anand Devarajan, has recently begun working with Gehry in a similar way.) And while Bilbao was the defining project for Chan, Disney Hall belongs to Webb.

"There's a lot of him in there," says Gehry.

Give and take

The two younger architects represent different sides of the firm. Standing in his office, with windows overlooking the design staff, Gehry has Chan on his left side and Webb on his right. They enable Gehry to travel a lot, visiting clients and project sites.

Until now, the theater projects have been handled by Webb, while Chan has overseen art museums.

"They're different personalities," says Gehry. "When Craig makes stuff, it's more real.

"Edwin is more outgoing with people," he continues. "He seems to enjoy dealing with clients, the personal stuff. It's different than how Craig does it. He is a little shy or reticent, not as gregarious. He gets a little fussy sometimes. Like everybody else, he gets insecure."

A shared knowledge of and passion for the arts is a "common language" between Webb and himself, Gehry says.

The process is a conversational tennis game, agrees Webb, a back-and-forth collaboration in which speed is of the essence: "Here's an idea, where can you take it? It's yes-no-yes-no. But mostly no."

There are many failures along the way -- the creative process is messy. But "once he can see it, and knows it's there, he kind of moves on," Webb says.

Gehry describes the younger architect as intuitive, with good communication and analytical skills and what he calls excellent "hand-eye coordination" -- the ability to see, explore and realize Gehry's ideas. "He can play with me on that level."

Tricky balancing act

Stage director JoAnne Akalaitis worked with both Gehry and Webb on the building of the new Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, in upstate New York, and on the sets for Leos Janacek's opera "Osud," which she staged there. Webb, she says, is not "the guy fixing things in the model." Like Gehry, "he's really an artist, the way he thinks about space -- how space relates to people, to the music, to theater."

Decisions ultimately belong to Gehry, who is tough and challenging.

In fact, rather than tennis, a more apt metaphor for the Webb-Gehry relationship might be Gehry's favorite sport: ice hockey.

"It was hard on my ego at first," says Webb, who adds that the collaboration is still daunting. The two have talked about Webb breaking out, establishing his own firm. And Webb knows that finding his own language, "when the time comes, will be difficult. I have to figure that out for myself."

Interdependency is complicated.

"What's him and what's me, at this point, is impossible to say," Webb says. He laughs, but it's a serious issue. Speaking another man's language so well can mean losing one's own.

Gehry brings up the issue unprompted.

"As I get older, he needs to carve out a niche for himself," Gehry says. "And I'm a big gorilla in his way."

Big challenge in Canada

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