A celebration of the genius of Frank Gehry, the vision of Peter Lewis, and the transformative impact their work has brought to North East Ohio by building the ultimate portal for awareness of the unique value of industrial innovation.

Local Craftsmen Met Gehry’s Challenge

Cleveland’s newest landmark, Case Western Reserve University’s futuristic Peter B. Lewis Building, delivers a message. Frank O. Gehrys’s dramatic design offers the following challenge to American ingenuity: Business management, and the teaching of management skills should focus on the creativity, adaptability and efficiency necessary to succeed in the rapidly changing global economy.

It is exciting to recognize that companies here in Northeast Ohio are already putting those ideas into practice. The construction site itself provided a dynamic demonstration.

The procedure for erecting a building has been revolutionized by Gehry. Those intricate curves of roof and wall require extremely precise placement of their structural elements. Once, a half-inch gap in the abutting of two steel beams could easily be smoothed over by later work. On this project the error tolerance was down to a millimeter. Surveyors, who normally depart after their initial measurements, stayed throughout the construction period, to ensure this accuracy. Working from three-dimensional computer models, they provided laser-guided reference points for every step.

Precision was not the only skill required of the construction workers. They were also asked to work in new ways with familiar materials, and to demand more of those materials than they had ever done in the past. GQ Contracting of Wickliffe, for example, is responsible for the superb achievement of converting drywall into elegant and swooping curves. The interior spaces of the Peter B. Lewis Building have been transformed into light-caressed canyons that flow upwards from ethereally austere open areas. Ed Sellers, chief of operations for GQ, enthusiastically describes his company’s experience. This work, he says, was different from any they had done in the past. The technical innovations they devised, for which they are applying for patents, have been described in numerous international publications.

Steel, brick, concrete and glass were also subject to Gehry’s imaginative experimentation. Consulting engineers Derrick Roorda and Vincent DeSimone have noted, “the surfaces of the Peter B. Lewis Building undulate to a much greater extent than in any of Gehry’s previous designs.” Constant communication and coordination between the architects, engineers, fabricators and contractors allowed for the continuing refinement of the designs right up to construction time. In particular, a new steel framing system was invented that not only provided structural support but simultaneously defined the surface. This was a significant advance over the technique used in Gehry’s famous buildings in Bilbao, Spain and Seattle.

The wavy surfaces posed a particular challenge to Donley’s of Cleveland, which was responsible for the concrete. Different parts of the building required tactics specific to each particular mixture of complex curves. Constructing the walls that lean back on themselves and curve at the same time necessitated creating a completely new forming system.

The R.E. Krug Corporation of Oakwood specializes in architectural glass. It had never before been asked to produce asymmetrically curved windows, let alone as perfectly fitting elements of a curved brick wall. “We had draftsmen on the job for a year, instead of the usual two months,” said company president Dick Krug.

Experiences such as these were common to many of the 18 local companies that contributed their expertise to our shining new icon.

Gehry’s drive to free himself from standard solutions resonated here in Northeast Ohio.

People skilled in our traditional industrial strengths have responded to the infusion of the latest technology and provided the world with a beautiful example of cutting-edge engineering and construction. From those at the drawing boards to those on the site, it has been a multi-layered achievement.

Wayne Miller of Ironworkers Local 17 videotaped the excitement that he and his 24 co-workers felt as they put together the core of the building. Gehry, hearing of this, wrote to thank the iron workers: “I love my clients, and I love designing buildings with them, but my favorite part of it is the construction process and the craftspeople like you and your team that come in and make it all happen.”

It has been a wonderful Cleveland success story.

By Sarah Taylor
From the Plain Dealer forum page, October 17, 2002