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Buildings have feelings A QA with Frank Gehry

Architect Frank Gehry, left, Brent Saunders and Paul Hoffman, CEO and president of the Liberty Science Center, speak onstage the Liberty Science Center's Genius Gala 5.0.-(PHOTOS COURTESY LIBERTY SCIENCE CENTER)

Liberty Science Center CEO Paul Hoffman said architect Frank Gehry was being honored with a Genius Award because “his body of work stands inimitably at the epicenter of math, engineering, architecture and art, (and) because his life itself is a celebration of science and creativity.”

It’s hard to top that.

But the 87-year-old Gehry did his best, in a brief question-and-answer session with LSC Trustee and Allergan CEO Brent Saunders, at Genius Gala 5.0 at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City earlier this month.

The ‘secret sauce’ of marketing at LSC
The Liberty Science Center has grown tremendously since Paul Hoffman took over as CEO and president. Last year, it had 650,000 visitors and more than 13,000 family memberships — three to four times more than LSC had when he was named its new head in 2011.
How has Hoffman been able do it? He let the audience at Genius Gala 5.0 in on his formula:
“I’m going to tell you our secret sauce,” he said. “It’s to do something that is visually engaging but has deep science attached to it.”
He then showed images of the amazingly unattractive naked mole rat.
“They are so ugly, they are actually beautiful,” he told the crowd. “But they are socially engaging and like to play. We draw you in on that. A normal rat or mouse lives three to four years; these guys live 30 years — and they only get sick the day they die. They do not get cancer or any other sort of cellular aging that we know about. The deep science is that they are being studied to understand why they don’t get cancer.
“That’s our secret sauce: an animal experience that’s so intriguing that you just have to look at it — and then a lot of people want to know more. That’s what do here, day in and day out.”

Brent Saunders: At 87, you’re still designing buildings; a true inspiration to all of us. What excites you now?

Frank Gehry: The next project. It’s a surge. At this age, I get called in on a lot of interesting stuff.

BS: What are you working on now?

FG: I was asked by the (Los Angeles) mayor (Eric Garcetti) to work on the Los Angeles River. It’s kind of a labor of love. It’s 51 miles and it cuts through lots of neighborhoods. It separates parts of the town like a freeway does. We’re trying to figure out how to use the river to reconnect Latino neighborhoods and the African-American population with the rest of the city. This river could be a catalyst in this sort of thing. It’s exciting. Whether it will happen, I don’t know.

BS: Students are often curious about how people got to where they got to. What obstacles (did you face) and how did you overcome them in your career?

FG: Oy, vey. I arrived in California at 17 years old. My father had lost whatever he had and we were very poor. I became a truck driver and I could only go to night school. I took a class in ceramics. I wasn’t very good at it, but the teacher was building a house with a famous architect at the time and he had a hunch. He took me to the job site and I saw this guy … who was pushing steel around, telling people how to move the steel. I must have seemed fascinated (because) my ceramics teacher enrolled me in architecture class.

By the numbers
A look at Liberty Science Center (totals are based on 2015; quotes are from CEO and President Paul Hoffman):

6,825,776
Subscribers to LSC’s Rubik’s Cube page. The exhibition, which has traveled around the world, is headed to China.

650,000
Annual visitors

250,000
K-12 students who visited LSC. The center recently increased its lab classrooms from four to seven and is about to open a state-of-the-art makers lab featuring 3D printers.

91,000
At-risk students who visited LSC. “One of our special missions is to create science education programs for kids that come from economically disadvantaged communities. If we can identify talent, (we can) help them get extra mentoring back where they are.”

13,687
Family memberships

9,436
Students who have watched “live from surgery,” a two-way video conferencing platform in which students are connected to operating rooms and watch a variety of surgical procedures (cardiac, neuro, robotic, knee and hip replacement, kidney transplants).

3,036
Live science demonstrations

1,450
Teachers who participated in professional development programs

110
Number of species of live animals

5
Weddings

1
Ranking among science centers in the metropolitan area

BS: You certainly accomplished a heck of a lot more than skipping a year. Truly impressive. What about computers. I mentioned when I introduced the video that you had designed computer programs to help?

FG: We’re still in it. (Architects have) less and less responsibility; the contractor becomes the leader. You’ve all experienced it. You design something, then it comes in over budget, so you turn to the contractor to help you. That process is pretty pervasive. I wanted to turn that around and control it. And the way to control it, so there aren’t change orders, so you can meet budgets, is by the information you can put together. … You can make airplanes without paper. My mission is to make buildings without paper. That means if you go to the building department, once this gets going, you’ll be able to plug it in and get approvals instantly instead of waiting six months.

BS: My last question. When you think about urban design, what trends do you like and what do you want to avoid?

FG: I think buildings are backgrounds for life; as Shakespeare said, we’re all on stage. Buildings engender feelings. And you have to be conscious that you’re making places with feelings and creating feelings that are making life better. Now, most of the buildings we see around the world, including here, are just buildings. They’re containers, but no one thought about the feelings; that seems to be missing. So I’d like to see a world where that’s considered, where people realize you are an actor on stage in a place and the place can make it more exciting and better; make life a little bit richer.

E-mail to: tomb@njbiz.com

Tom Bergeron

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