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Where the wind led them

Frank Gehry and Barry Diller's adventurous bonds inspired the IAC.

April 25, 2007|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Motorcycles and sailboats helped Frank Gehry finally get a building here.

The cycles came into play when veteran chief executive Barry Diller, now head of IAC/InterActiveCorp, joined an outing of the celebrity Guggenheim Motorcycle Club in Bilbao, Spain, the home, of course, to one of Gehry's best-known structures, the Guggenheim Museum. "He rides, I don't," recalled the 78-year-old Gehry, who nonetheless got to know Diller on the trip and gave him a personal tour of the groundbreaking waterfront museum.

Diller, whose conglomerate of Internet companies was considering building a headquarters along Manhattan's West Side Highway and needed an architect, said he'd heard that Gehry was "expensive and difficult and ornery."

And what had Gehry heard of Diller, who previously headed Paramount Pictures and Fox Inc.? "I heard he could be difficult ... with a dash of Hollywood," Gehry recalled the other day.

But the two men shared something more than the expectation that the other would be difficult -- boats. Gehry sailed out of Marina del Rey on a 42-footer. That was a dingy compared with the craft Diller favored, but it was something in common. "He's a sailor, I'm a sailor. I knew he was having a sailboat made," Gehry said. "We talked a lot about that."

So it was -- though not quite that easy -- that Diller's company wound up commissioning the renowned architect to design its new headquarters by the Hudson River and how the building wound up looking like, well, the billowing sails of a sailboat, and how Frank Gehry, after too long a wait, got to put his stamp on New York.

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First impressions

"We didn't want to do some opening blowout ceremony," Diller said Monday, which seemed as good a time as any to declare the IAC headquarters officially open, for it was Day 1 there for the boss, who was just back from vacation, sailing on his new boat in the Caribbean.

"Today I'm walking in for the first time," he said. "Of course, all I see is 'unfinished.' "

Behind the front desk, a video wall displayed an enormous satellite-view image of Earth that visitors can revolve with a mouse on the counter. To its left, the wall flashed activity updates from IAC's dozens of ventures -- one moment, the concerts handled by Ticketmaster, then products peddled on the Home Shopping Network, then traffic on CollegeHumor.com. That site was getting 246,300 page views an hour, the screen reported, and Michigan State headed the list of "Most Active Colleges Today."

Around the corner, linen and flowers decorated a long table below a much larger video wall -- 120 feet wide -- showing scenes of the High Line park being created atop 22 blocks of deserted elevated train tracks in Lower Manhattan.

At the High Line groundbreaking a year ago, Diller and his wife, designer Diane von Furstenberg, announced that their family foundation was donating $5 million to the cause. Now Friends of the High Line group was about to have a fundraising lunch inaugurating the ground-floor open area of the IAC Building, whose eastern side overlooks the unused tracks to be transformed into elevated parkland.

"Is this what you're going to see when the people come in?" Diller asked several technicians, gesturing at the park-to-be images on the wall. "Why have you chosen to have the frames so small? Make it big. OK?"

"We can do that," someone said.

Diller instructed them also to lower the automated shades over the glass walls so people could see the images better. Then he did the same in the lobby, specifying which shades he wanted up, which lowered.

Soon after, by a bank of elevators, he had another question, about the up-and-down buttons: "Why do we only have these on one side?"

Two decades ago, Gehry was in line to design a 61-story skyscraper that was going to be built on the site of Madison Square Garden, but that project went poof. The same with a hotel in Astor Place, a building in Times Square and, most notably, the grandiose plan for a new Guggenheim over the East River near Wall Street.

"That I never thought was real," Gehry said. "The depth of the water to bedrock was 250 feet ... and then the Corps of Engineers had a lot to say about putting stuff like that in the water. It was not a real project."

The bottom line was that, although he had designed the interior of a Manhattan town house and the cafeteria inside Conde Nast's headquarters, he did not have a single building in New York even a decade after Bilbao made him probably the most famous architect in the world. He insists he did not care.

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Making it in New York

"New York may not like to hear this, but I didn't really chase after buildings in New York," he said. "No. I never wait for anything. I never pine away for a building somewhere, or a building type.... I just sort of assume when things are right people will call me."

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