James Goettsch Reflects - Design Bureau

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James Goettsch Reflects

Monday, October 17th, 2011

interview by Andrew Schroedter 
portraits by Jim Newberry

Known for building monolithic structures both in the US and abroad, veteran Chicago architect James Goettsch has seen a lot—and learned a lot—in his 42-year career. As his massive, mixed-use project in Abu Dhabi nears completion, Goettsch shares his thoughts on Renzo Piano, Frank Lloyd Wright, working overseas, and the mistakes he’s made. 

I always thought it would be interesting to be an archaeologist. I’m fascinated by the pyramids and the way people lived in ancient cultures. 

It was pretty dismal when I first went to China. The hotels very often had no hot water, the carpet was half-ripped and dirty. But they’re evolving. Now many of the hotels are better than what we have in the US.  

At more than 3,000,000 square feet, the Sowwah Square complex in Abu Dhabi is the largest single project I have designed to date. It includes four office towers and the new headquarters for the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange.

At least we’ve made it through this whole downturn without major layoffs. It’s primarily because we’ve gone where the work is. We’re doing a lot of other work in China and the Middle East. We would like to do more in the US.

I know a lot of people are waiting for China to stumble. But I think it’s going to be a long time before their economy slows. There are many people whose lives still need to be enriched.

We never had to make the decision: Do we do a good job or do we lose money? I had the good fortune when I started off working with Murphy/Jahn. We always found that by trying to excel, positive financial aspects followed. 

I was never interested in Frank Lloyd Wright, except to admire what he had done. But I never saw anybody who followed his path who did remarkable things. 

It’s difficult in our profession to have a sense of accomplishment. I feel good that architecture is so popular, but unfortunately it’s not like the legal profession where there are many more opportunities to excel and achieve success. 

It’s pretty hard not to be influenced by other buildings. I try not to duplicate something I’ve seen, but instead use it as a menu to draw on at some future point.  

Renzo Piano sets the stage for a certain type of building: museums. When he’s done high rises, they have not necessarily displayed the same kind of innovation. He did the New York Times Building, which is certainly a good building, but not necessarily innovative. 

I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Certainly in the beginning, I didn’t work hard enough, and I underestimated the value of personal relationships.

Top architects share a certain confidence and desire to make something happen in the way that they think it should happen.

The one thing I try not to do is give advice. The world isn’t the same as it was when I started out. In some ways, I’m still in that past world and able to get by on momentum.

I wouldn’t characterize myself as successful. 

People always say, “Oh, you’re an architect, you must want to design your own home.” But I never had that desire. I don’t know why. 

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