Gehry's work is enabled by a software tool known as CATIA, which stands for "computer-aided three-dimensional interactive application." Gehry discovered it while experiencing a frustrating false start on the Disney Concert Hall, which he first designed in 1990. The hall's curved facades seem almost tame post-Bilbao, but back then, such warped structures had never been realized. Gehry was trusted to serve only as the design architect at the time; an executive architect was hired to translate his two-dimensional designs into detailed construction documents. Based on those documents, which did not accurately represent Gehry's plan, projected construction costs spiraled out of control, and in 1994 the client balked. In the meantime, Gehry's partner Jim Glymph had joined the firm and, exploring ways for Gehry to better document his designs in three dimensions, found CATIA.
The program was originally developed in France by Dassault Systmes to assist aerospace engineers in building complex curved shapes. Although CATIA is now the industry standard for auto engineers, it is not generally used by their colleagues in the design department. That's because the software's strength is in making fine mechanical and engineering adjustments; it doesn't allow for intuitive sketching and image-driven studies. CATIA is a parametric system: The relationships among components are built into the model. When a designer makes a change, all the other components that are affected by that change are adjusted automatically in a sort of ripple effect-the axles lengthen, for instance, when the car gets wider. The software can also simulate the behavior of various materials under stress.
Gehry still starts his design work by making sketches and physical models. But as the building's form solidifies, those prototypes are digitized and converted into CATIA models. This gives Gehry unprecedented control over not only design but construction: Contractors download the CATIA models directly into milling machines, laser cutters and other computer-controlled manufacturing equipment.
The hope is that Gehry's tech-assisted daring will yield a car that's as fresh and surprising as his buildings. But the goal is not a Bilbao on wheels. The car's engineering is being developed by a team of MIT students-from the Media Lab and the school of architecture, along with one stray neurobiology postdoc. They are looking beyond aesthetics to features such as novel chassis designs, new suspension systems, alternatives to the seatbelt, and hubless wheels.
GM has collaborated with several unlikely designers in recent years. In 1992 the company unveiled the 1,400-pound Ultralite concept, developed with aviation pioneer Burt Rutan. The innovative aluminum structure of last year's Cadillac Sixteen was built in partnership with Alcoa. And the sporty Hummer H3T was created with help from Nike.
"Anytime you ask a nonautomotive designer to create a car, you end up with something different," says Frank Saucedo, design director of GM's North Hollywood studio. "The stuff Gehry is doing in his buildings, those motion-induced shapes-a car designer thinking about aerodynamics would never make that, so we may see a very fresh vocabulary emerge."