architecture, money, ethics, and las vegas

Another Gehry project; this one is in Las Vegas. Yes he delivers the classic Gehry form, the captivating undulating metal draped over a steel structure generated from Gehry’s sculptural mind and some help from complex computer programming. To be honest, I am not interested in discussing or debating the form, the space or whatever else about Frank that gets him in the news daily. What struck me was the cost; more specifically the cost per square foot. (Total cost/Total area = cost per square foot) Perhaps this method is not a great measure of cost, value or anything else. But it is a common tool used to compare one building to another regardless of actual size or construction cost.

As I read about it in the Building Design and Construction February 2011 issue, I finally did some math and yes, it made me think. According to several sources, the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas NV came in with an $80 million price tag for its 61,000 square feet. Well, that translates to $1,311 per square foot. In this same article, a series of other medical research facilities and hospitals were listed and as I did the same math for each one, they ranged from $410 per square foot to $600 per square foot. One was below that range and another slightly above it. Now one other frame of reference to give you is buildings in my region (Pittsburgh PA) generally range from $150 per SF to $350 per SF for new construction. The vast difference in the range depends largely on the complexity of the program and equipment (i.e. labs, healthcare equipment) the degree of the complexity of the form (simple box or crumpled sculpture) and the richness of the finishes. So Mr. Gehry’s building is approximately four times this range and two to three times the cost per square foot as the other medical research facilities listed.

The April 2011 issue of Architect Magazine also features Mr. Gehry’s and Mr. Ruvo’s building. Which architectural journal doesn’t? After resisting the Las Vegas architectural climate for all these years, Gehry was persuaded to take this commission. According to the article, Larry Ruvo, a Las Vegas beverage entrepreneur, made a deal with Gehry. “Gehry would design the building if Ruvo would stretch the research mandate to include Huntington’s disease, which Gehry has long championed. With Gehry signed on, Ruvo—who had lost his father, Lou, to Alzheimer’s—tried to enlist a research institution that would occupy and run the building.” The Cleveland Clinic delivered. So far a seemingly noble persuasion on the part of Gehry to extend the role of the building.

My question is did Ruvo want to spend this much or did he just write a check when the bid came in? According to this article, Ruvo considers this building a “necessary marketing tool” that would show doctors he was not “underfunded” in his quest to cure a disease. The rental potential of the activity center provides “a steady income stream, playing host to weddings, galas, and other upscale happenings.” In fact, one big gala brought in close to $20 million in one night. In the words of the owner, he wouldn’t have garnished the necessary attention to receive the research grants without this building.

So, does that justify the expense? …sounds a bit similar to professional sports teams paying big for the big player to win the big championship.

Now hold that thought before we hurl more darts that Frank probably gets on a day-to-day basis. I just noticed another pricey research facility. The Ray and Dagmar Dolby Regeneration Medicine Building is located in San Francisco and was designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects. According to Architect Magazine, this structure of only 68,500 square feet came in with a $91 million price tag, or $1,328 per square foot. Wow, and this one has no crumpled up forms, but if you look through the photos, the site was a very difficult one to manage.

A few more recent projects, price tags and costs per square foot according to costs and area from recent issues of Architect and Architectural Record Magazines.

So here’s the dilemma in my mind and the questions I ask. Could the Ruvo Center (or any of these others) have been built for less and the remaining funds donated or committed to the actual research or education for which the building was designed to house? In other words, if these series of previously mentioned medical facilities were designed for $600 per square foot (on average) then could $40 million to $50 million cover the construction cost and could $30 million to $40 million have been given by Ruvo to researching the deadly diseases? Or is it necessary to buy big to attract the necessary ongoing research money from outside sources. What about educational or institutional projects. Should all of the institution’s money go into sticks and bricks, especially with increasing tuition rates everywhere?

Can architects make really great architecture without requiring ridiculous budgets? Are we that clever? Is our design ability linked solely to exuberance and excess?

Should the architect accept the commission knowing it might be of excess? Is there an ethical responsibility here, especially knowing degenerative disease research needs funds desperately?

I am not one to dictate how someone ought to spend their money. However, this one raised some real questions to think about.

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architecture, money, ethics, and las vegas

5 thoughts on “architecture, money, ethics, and las vegas

  1. One wonders if similar hand wringing took place in the days following the dedication of the Salk Institute, or the consecration of Notre Dame de Paris…or Ronchamp, or the opening of the Vietnam War Memorial…or the East Wing of the National Gallery…or Thorncrown Chapel or….

    These are really important questions for which there are no easy answers. In this case, however, I think there are some good indications that the angels are on the side of the donor, the architect, and institution that will occupy it.

    Cost per square foot is about as good an measure of value for buildings as percentage of construction cost is for design fees. Let’s all get up in the morning and ask the gods for the courage to be exceptional…not merely average. Do any of us really believe we are called to be good enough?

    1. One might argue that if a great breakthrough occurs in terms of research, it was worth it. However, the accolades goes to the doctors and scientists, not the owner or architect. Great research could occur in a concrete block box. This game is about money and who has it.

  2. Edward says:

    In my opinion, hard to compare G’s work with Corbu and Khan. Neither of them had a “signature” style, but instead chose to deliver the most appropriate solution for the client and the building’s site.

    While Bilbao may be a beautiful sculpture that serves it’s client and informs it’s site. This train- wreck looks forced and contrived! Sorry for debating form, but it’s hard not to.

    It used to be that the most prominent buildings were churches and cathedrals – monuments to our creator, The Master Architect – meant to inspire us and get us closer to Him. We also had high government institutions and king’s palaces, meant to honor those in authority, as it was believed that authority was God given. Now we build monuments to corporations and art museums.

    If we think about the cost per square foot of Sainte-Chappelle, the Duomo at Florence, Tha Palace at Versailles, we recognize that it was an appropriate use of funds and labor.

    While a brain research facility should inspire it’s users as does Salk Institute, it is hard to justify what has taken place at Lou Ruvo.

    But the real test, is the test of time. Let’s come back in 25 years and see how it has endured. My bookie has advised me not to place money on it!

    1. Based on Gehry’s track record for building performance, I won’t place any bets on his work. I do enjoy the boldness he has and I am not questioning his style if people want it. The Salk Institute is a great analog in this argument. However, I’d have to research its costs in context of its time. But again, could an exciting building have been built for less money with more money going to the ones who will find the cure? The architect just makes the place for it to occur. Even if the architecture inspires the researchers, the cost is still a question in my mind.

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