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Where the wind led them

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

Diller said he understood such an attitude from his years in the entertainment industry, in which only a fraction of the projects you envision become a reality, and some that do get made make you wish you could hide. Diller figured that Gehry’s “quirkiness” was one reason he’d not gotten a building done in the city but saw that as an advantage for IAC’s project. “I, of course, thought, ‘I’ll certainly get his attention, since it’s his first building in New York,’ ” Diller explained. Plus, “it was not a building of gargantuan scale.” It might actually get done, in other words.

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It was not Diller who first reached out to the architect but Diller’s development partner, Marshall Rose. And Rose initially asked Gehry merely to recommend some young architects. “I gave them a list and then I followed up with some of them, and they never had gotten calls,” Gehry said. “Finally I got called, and they said they really wanted to do it with me. I said, ‘OK. I guess so.’ ”

The zoning envelope for the site -- a former truck garage between 18th and 19th streets, across from the Chelsea Piers sports center -- dictated the basics of what he would do: a 10-story building basically of two large blocks, a broader block as its base, then a narrowing block on top. And a terrace. Diller liked to have lunch on the terrace outside his old office, near Carnegie Hall. So they’d need one outside the executive floor here. “You don’t build a building for yourself,” Gehry noted. “It’s much more fun to get into their idiosyncratic needs.”

That said, from the first doodles Gehry made in his office, it looked “like the sweep of a sail,” said Diller, who still has the original squiggles, along with a cardboard model of the building, one of more than 50 they went through, according to the architect.

They wrangled over one matter for a year and a half, the whiteness issue. Diller wanted the headquarters that color, just like sailcloth, but also wanted the outside to be glass.

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“He got hung up on the building being all white, which, of course, you can’t do with glass,” Gehry said. “Soon as you have clear glass, from the outside, during daylight, it reads dark. So that was a fact of life.”

The answer, or partial answer, was frits -- white dots in the glass. The problem was, you couldn’t have them everywhere, because people inside would see dots when they looked out. So they left the area at eye level clear, giving the structure a striped look in the daytime -- mostly white, where there are the dots, but with dark horizontal strips at eye-level on the various floors. When it gets darker outside, and the office lights come on, the stripes disappear, as they do in morning light. Other times, the blue sky and clouds are reflected off the double-glazed 12-by-5-foot glass panels, which were torqued into place, bent 3 1/2 inches each, to provide Gehry’s trademark curved surface.

Except that the exquisite reflection-effect was not in evidence when Gehry last visited the site in January. “All the glass was dirty and the reflections weren’t there,” he said. Diller might want to have those washed before Gehry comes back to see the finished product.

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Don’t box him in

“Open and light,” Diller said as he strode through the work floors still being decorated. “We did not want to build a box.”

That it’s not. The first employees -- there will be 400 eventually -- were still trying out the slew of conference rooms in unimaginable shapes and sizes, their slanted glass walls looking out on other lines of the building or surrounding brick structures or even, far to the east, the spire of the Empire State Building.

They also were plotting how to add more tables to the seventh-floor employee cafeteria, where the food is free and a telescope by the glass can zoom in on the Jersey shore across the Hudson or, to the south, the Statue of Liberty. The cafeteria has been an instant hit.

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But Diller wasn’t sure about the sixth floor, the one for corporate honchos. It’s more traditional, less open. If he could do everything over, he’d probably ditch that “one foot in the old world,” he said.

He was considering moving his own office down to the third and using the executive floor mostly for ceremonial occasions.

Diller said IAC’s headquarters will have cost, when all bills are in, about $150 million. The financing was made easy by New York’s $8-billion tax-exempt Liberty Bond Program designed to revitalize Lower Manhattan in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center towers a short drive down West Side Highway.

“So that’s the building!” Diller said. “Breathtaking!”

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And with it up and open, Gehry and Diller have each concluded that the other was not so difficult, after all.

Gehry now has other New York projects that may well become realities, including the massive Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn, high-rises and a basketball arena on 22 acres.

Diller said if he behaved almost like a “normal person” in their long collaboration, that might be because he had his more personal building job to consume his obsessive energy over those same years -- the new sailboat, completed only last month. He wouldn’t say how long it turned out, just that it’s “really big.”

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paul.lieberman@latimes.com


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