From Aeron to Amen

A little-known Frank Gehry building’s strange path from furniture factory to Christian campus.

If there’s one contemporary architect who has reached levels of critical praise bordering on deification, it’s Frank Gehry. But there’s at least one group—the good folks at San Jose Christian College, in California—that refuses to pass judgment on him. (Naturally they’re leaving that to someone else.) Their utter lack of appreciation for Gehry and his work isn’t because they don’t recognize his aesthetic genius or his seemingly divine gift for abstract form. It’s because they don’t recognize his name.

Or at least they didn’t until they recently bought a complex of his buildings to be their new campus. “We didn’t know who Frank Gehry was,” says Roger Edrington, the school’s executive vice president and the man in charge of the relocation effort. “We’re more on the education side of things, so we really kind of stumbled on it more by accident than by design. Or in our view, God was directing us in this sort of strange way.”

“They were just out trying to find a home,” says Russ Taylor, president of the Fresno-based Taylor Group and now the lead architect of the adaptive-reuse plan for the new campus. “And they stumbled on a pot of gold.”

That’s putting it mildly. Nestled on 155 acres of wide-open space in a small Northern California town called Rocklin, the pot of gold in question is a former factory designed by Gehry for furniture maker Herman Miller. And it has one hell of—er, heck of—an impressive pedigree. Around 1987 Herman Miller’s then CEO, Max DePree, long a champion of great design, tapped Gehry for the project. Gehry asked Stanley Tigerman to contribute a small audiovisual building to the project and enlisted an old college friend, noted landscape architect Peter Walker. This architectural all-star team won the National AIA Honor Award for the project in 1991.

Len Blackford, whose Sacramento firm Dreyfuss & Blackford was the architect of record, says Gehry was “tickled to death with it.” But for all its industrial chic and industry plaudits, the factory seemingly has been a cursed project. It wasn’t plague or pestilence that inflicted the initial damage but the architectural equivalent: a leak. A particularly wet winter revealed a leak at the top of the project’s signature design element—a 75-foot copper-clad trellis—and the finger-pointing that ensued quickly devolved into multiple lawsuits, with designers faulting contractors and vice versa. Concerned that the integrity of the structure was in danger, the facilities manager made the call to have the entire trellis ripped down. “I was shocked when I heard that,” says Blackford, who claims he had no advance indication that it was slated for demolition. “It was so ridiculous, the whole thing. In my opinion, it destroyed the whole campus.” The trellis was replaced with a much smaller design that also allowed for an expansion of the company cafeteria. Gehry, upset at the turn of events, declined to contribute to the redesign.

“Making buildings is a personal thing,” Gehry has said. “You create a relationship with people, and if that changes, or if the people change, the project is not so interesting. The building is a building, but it loses its soul.” Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that this is one of only three of his major projects that he hasn’t personally visited upon its completion.

And now the project’s next chapter (and verse) is about to be written. Herman Miller shuttered the plant in December 2001, and it went unsold for nearly a year before San Jose Christian College made its bid of $18 million. (Escrow was still pending at press time.) The college, which plans to change its name, will relocate to this booming suburb of Sacramento and transform Gehry’s first-ever factory design (Vitra’s factory was his second) into a campus for 1,200 students of religion.

But the early plans promise a further devolution of the original design. The school’s acknowledged naivete, coupled with the architect’s lack of enthusiasm for the original designers, doesn’t seem to bode well for the campus’s historical integrity, but Taylor insists he’s trying. “I don’t happen to be a big Gehry fan,” he says. “But I certainly appreciate what he does for architecture, so I feel some responsibility to try to keep much of what he did intact but still create a functional academic setting.” In fact, Taylor says he’s had to argue to keep the college from tearing off more of the galvanized-steel skin than they already plan to. “But we will have to blow holes in the wall,” he says of the seven entryways, some as big as 34 by 17 feet, that will cut through buildings to increase pedestrian access across the campus.

The landscaping, marked by Walker’s strategically placed large boulders and sloping rock berm, is on the cutting board too. “Gehry wanted to keep a lot of the natural landscape,” Taylor says. “In my opinion, when it’s out in the middle of nowhere as it was originally, you can pull that off. But as Rocklin and Roseville grow out that way, there’s more of the traditional corporate center-type landscaping.” That may be more in line with the Taylor Group’s previous work, which includes a new alumni center for Fresno State University and the local Bingham Toyota dealership showroom. The college turned to the firm on the recommendation of the Church Development Fund, which was helping finance the acquisition. “I’d like to be able to tell you it’s because I’ve got such a great reputation, and they couldn’t get Gehry so they called me,” Taylor says. “But that’s not quite the truth.”

Lastly, if God really is in the details, it’s nowhere more true than in Tigerman’s neoclassical silver-domed audiovisual room, which is proving unexpectedly problematic for the Christian organization. “It looks kind of like a mosque,” Taylor points out. The school is wavering between converting it into either a small prayer chapel or a coffee shop. They’re leaning toward the chapel, but the structure’s perceived Muslim-esque cupola has presented a unique design dilemma. “We want to try to get rid of that image, obviously, for the college’s uses,” Taylor says. The solution: put a small cross on top of it.

The school also plans to build two stories within each of the large warehouse-style buildings and tear off the roofs of the existing structures to let more light into the new “urban village.” They hope to start construction this summer and occupy it by fall 2004. Converting an assembly plant into a campus isn’t easy, Taylor says, but he’s happy to be tackling it—and tackling it alone.

When they first got the job, Taylor and his partner flirted with the idea of calling Gehry “out of professional courtesy” but ultimately decided against it. “I just felt like we probably didn’t need that big of an ego on the job,” he says. “I’ve never met Mr. Gehry, so maybe I’m speaking out of turn, but my sense is that the problems would have outweighed the advantages.”

Surely there must be some of Gehry’s projects that have impressed Taylor? “Uh. No,” he says flatly. “I appreciate the new, well it’s not so new anymore, but the museum in Barcelona, or near Barcelona. I can’t think of the name of it right now.”

Edrington, however, newly educated about Gehry’s status, seems to marvel at the possibility of a return of the prodigal son. When asked if he ever considered approaching Gehry to work with them—and perhaps reclaim some sense of ownership over the project—Edrington says, “We haven’t, no.” And then quietly, hopefully, “Do you think he might?”

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