Two years ago, Frank O. Gehry strapped himself into the driver's seat of a V8 Dodge Dakota pickup with bald rear tires and drove onto a skid pad at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, California. It was a clear day, but the pad's surface was wet, and within seconds he was sliding out of control-which was the point. Gehry-the world-renowned architect of the titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles-had come to this Skip Barber Racing School along with a group of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to learn the tricks of the pros: skid recovery, heel-and-toe downshifting and the advanced braking techniques of Formula 1 drivers.
"It was scary," the 75-year-old architect says of the 110-octane weekend. But he wasn't there for the adrenaline rush. He was there to research a new project: building an automobile. Gehry is collaborating with the MIT Media Lab to design a concept car unlike anything Detroit would produce by itself.
The idea is to leverage the Media Lab's knowledge of advanced technologies and Gehry's knack for building the impossible to produce a vehicle that challenges the conventional wisdom of how a car is designed and what it can do. General Motors, a Media Lab sponsor, has signed on to provide technical support. "GM knows how to design automobiles, and it does that very well," says William Mitchell of MIT, a professor at both the school of architecture and the Media Lab, in whose classroom the concept-car idea was concocted. "But it's hard to step out of the box. That was our mandate."
Ever since Harley Earl, GM's first design chief, unveiled the company's earliest concept cars-including the LeSabre of 1951, with its fully automatic convertible top-the industry has used show cars to hint at the future. But prophesies can be wrong. In hindsight, the bold vision of the 1956 Firebird II-a turbine-powered, titanium-skinned prototype engineered for the automated highways of tomorrow-showed a naive optimism. "If you go too far out, you lose credibility," admits Wayne K. Cherry, who recently retired as GM's vice president of design but is on contract to see this project through. "But if you don't go far enough, then why bother?"
Gehry frees walls the way Jackson Pollock freed paint. His swirling, curvilinear forms pushed the technical boundaries of 20th-century architecture and forced steelworkers, roofers and others to reinvent their crafts. Seen from the surrounding hillside, the Guggenheim Bilbao unfurls in metallic waves; closer up, you can see the 0.38-millimeter-thick sheets of titanium almost flutter. Some observers have called it the first building of the 21st century. More recently, Gehry has earned headlines for the steel-clad Walt Disney Concert Hall and for MIT's Stata Center, with its tilted brick towers and crumpled metal.
An unconventional approach to materials has defined Gehry's career, yet it has also earned him derision, especially in the early years, when he experimented with chain link and plywood. "Being accepted isn't everything," he once said. His reputation grew, and in 1989 he won the Pritzker Prize-the Nobel of architecture-though it was the 1997 Guggenheim Bilbao that brought him worldwide celebrity.