Frank Gehry was working on the final stages of a clay model of his Sydney building before construction began, and he was unhappy with a vertical section.
In dark contemplation the star architect stood back. Then, he stepped forward with his thumb and forefinger extended and squeezed the clay.
"Now," he reportedly said. "It's finished."
The hands of the star architect, who is based in Los Angeles, are all over his scrunched paper bag of undulating brickwork with its giant glass panels in downtown Ultimo. As the scaffolding is taken down, the Gehry sculpture is being revealed to Sydneysiders for the first time, as the sweeping lines of 320,000 bricks bolted onto its steel frame come into view.
The thumb squeeze story has become part of Lend Lease folklore, a ready anecdote to convey the complexity of their task in constructing the $180 million Dr Chau Chak Wing building for the University of Technology, where work began in December 2012.
Master bricklayer Peter Favetti, 76, came out of retirement for the construction project. Originally from Sicily, he began the family firm in Sydney 48 years ago. He said the Gehry building was the most difficult undertaken in that time.
His son Ray, who now manages the family business, looks up at the north west wall of the brick veneer which soars outwards and inwards in vertigo inducing moments, and he points out the fabled thumb squeeze and shakes his head.
"Put it this way, we had to use some of our most flexible bricklayers to get into the contours he created with his hands," Mr Favetti said. "We weren't able to use string lines here either. Often they had to rely solely on eyework.
As the Gehry lore emerges from a tightly controlled building site, Alison Mirams, Lend Lease NSW/ACT general manager, said the construction required an unheralded level of innovation.
"Gehry has designed a building which they didn't have to construct," Ms Mirams said. "We have had to work out how to build it.
"While the outside of the building and the brickwork looks very complex, the same level of complexity and detailing is actually inside the building too.
"On a scale of difficulty: it's 10 out of 10. The job of a lifetime."
Work is expected to be finished by November.
Work site innovations
- In architecture, shop drawings are made by a manufacturer or contractor to show how a feature or component of a building will be constructed. Usually, a maximum 2000 drawings are made for a large project. For the Gehry project, 100,000 drawings were needed.
- Most buildings are set out with grid lines and dimensions. For the Gehry building this was impossible. The 3D model information was translated live to an onsite surveyor and a foreman to implement in the field using GPS co-ordinates. This technique was used to install the curtain wall panels.
- Young engineers were teamed with experienced foremen. The engineers had a strong grasp on the 3D computing software (BIM) and had to translate the information for the foremen who would implement the elements on site, often using an artisan approach relying on eyework alone.
- The oval classroom comprises man-made logs of glue laminated radiated pine. Weighing up to two tonnes, the timber beams were made in New Zealand. Traditional methods similar for installing structural steel, such as overhead gantry, dogmen and riggers, were used to place these timber giants.