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Architect Gehry Sets Sights On Napa Valley

Wednesday, 12 Sep 2007 | 3:56 PM ET
Craig and Kathryn Hall
Craig and Kathryn Hall

Silicon Valley is certainly not short on big money and big personalities. But every now and then, I get the opportunity to go to that other newsmaking valley north of here, Napa Valley, to hook up with other names in the headlines. And this is a story that has all the makings of a blockbuster.

When it came time for Napa Valley power couple Craig Hall and his wife Kathryn to take their boutique winery to that next level, their first stop on their journey brought them to architect Frank Gehry. He's known for his unsurpassed ability to express movement in world-famous structures like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. He blends technology, nature, and creative detail, and the Halls thought he would be the perfect match to the kinds of wines they're making.

"You want to have a space to share your wines. That is really an experience and that's what I think we are creating here in this facility. An experience," says Kathryn, a former ambassador to Austria under President Bill Clinton. "There is a lot of pleasure in the experience of making things and seeing them built and seeing people use them and enjoying them. That's great pleasure," a reflective Gehry tells us in a rare, lengthy sit-down interview about this latest project.

Billionaire investor Craig Hall, with a $300 million stake in American Airlines , among numerous real estate holdings, was clear on his plans for the new facility: "We would like to see it being an inside/outside building, respecting nature with lots of glass and wood." And that's precisely what Gehry offered up: a $100 million, 110,000 square foot winery "experience" scheduled to open three years from now. "Frank sees things that most of us never see. And the he sort of brings you along," Kathryn says.

Gehry's Disney Concert Hall took 16 years to complete, a project only possible after computer technology proved his unique, complex designs could be transformed into an actual building. The same thing happened with the Hall's winery project, which all began with a single scribble on a piece of paper as Gehry was leaving the property after seeing it that first time.

From there, his team of designers, engineers and staff architects get to work, building hundreds of tiny models to see what the building will look like in 3D.

"The models are like little kids playing with toys, so as you work on the models, it brings you back to the child in you and to be a child is to be creative," says his partner Edwin Chan. If Frank is the pencil, industry experts have said, Chan is the eraser, charged with transforming Gehry's wild concepts into something buildable.

"It's a simple idea, it's not a rocket science idea," Gehry tells me in his Santa Monica, California studio. "It's complex, but it's not that hard."

The winery's signature structure will be a must-see wooden trellis enveloping the building as if you'd thrown a burlap blanket over it; a design so striking that it stops visitors in their tracks, even as it emphasizes movement.

"The trellis, which is sun protection, actually becomes the building ephemeral in a way. That was interesting. We have not done that before," he says. Gehry's designs respond to the torrid pace of the modern lifestyle, and his creativity makes sure his structures don't get lost in the madness of motion. "The scene we are in is one of airplanes and cars, boats, everything is moving fast, fast, fast. So the idea is to express movement like in an airplane, like in a car, in a building. It appeals to me as an idea," he says.

The winery will be stunning, but most of all, it'll be memorable, like Gehry's other well-known creations. "You see the damn thing finished and you say, I couldn't have been that good that I did that," he says.

FYI: I'm out of the office tomorrow (Thursday) but will be back on Friday with more blog posts.

Questions? Comments? TechCheck@cnbc.com

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