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How A Graduate Student Discovered A Building Its Designer Hoped Was Lost With Time

A first-year graduate student at the University of Atlanta-Fulton recently discovered an interesting piece of architecture history while conducting research for his mid-term paper in Modern Architecture I. The student, Alex Farnsworth, intended to write on well known architects and their lesser-known early works. Those projects included a bright red blood bank building in New Mexico by Antoine Predock, a house in California by Thom Mayne, and a few other respectable buildings. Farnsworth’s paper though took a drastic turn when he came across a photo of Frank Gehry with Jim Glymph sitting in front of a computer monitor in the late 1980’s. On the monitor was what appeared to be an early version of CATIA, the software made famous by Gehry buildings like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. This photo, though, didn’t show a famous building in the software, but the structure of a familiar shape took form on the screen.

“I saw that photo and knew that it was a strawberry right away,” Alex said. “I couldn’t let it go after that.”

That old, grainy photo led Alex to dig deeper on the structure seen on the screen until he found a building that resembled the one in the photo. It turned out the building Alex found was built just a few years after the photo was taken and he “got very excited at that discovery” and knew he was onto something.

The building he found was the Casa Morango in Bom Princípio, Brazil, a strawberry shaped exterior with a passageway cut through its base that led to a strawberry field. The exterior is painted bright red and speckled with yellow seeds and a green stem to top it all off. The building serves as the gateway and monument marker for Morango, a strawberry produce company in Brazil.

Alex continued his research into Casa Morango but no matter how much he looked into it he couldn’t seem to find any info on who the designer was. He had a friend that spoke Portuguese who helped translate phonecalls to Morango, though no one at the produce company knew much of anything about the building origins. Farnsworth tracked down the contractor company that built the building, though it had been dissolved and out of business for over a decade. He was running short on leads but still wouldn’t give up.

Gehry has been known for some relatively kitsch work in the past like his Binoculars Building and his obsession with carp fish forms, but could he have really designed something to this extreme? Something so poorly done? Alex decided the only route left was to call Gehry’s office and ask them about it.

“I was relentless at first,” Alex told us. “I called and emailed every day. I tried to make it sound like I needed to speak with someone who worked in the office back in the 1980s because I had questions for a paper I was writing about the Edgemar Retail Complex in Santa Monica.” Alex finally got someone at Gehry’s office on the phone but they claimed to not know anything about the fruit shaped building.

Not lacking in grit, Alex saw his last resort as going straight to the top and to be direct. He called and emailed persistently trying to get ahold of Frank Gehry himself, but could only reach his assistants. Until one day, when Alex got a call from an unknown California number.

“I was at the edge of giving up and writing the original paper I had planned on,” Alex said. At that point of nearly quitting, Alex received a call from the big man himself, Frank Gehry.

“I have always worried about when it would come out,” Gehry told Alex on the phone. “I did my best to bury that one and keep everyone involved silenced on it, but in this digital epoch secrets don’t stay hidden forever.” Alex was floored to say the least. He praised Gehry’s work and spilled his admiration for him during their conversation, but he had to ask the single question that was bothering him about that building: Why? Gehry took a breath and carefully proceeded, “We were experimenting with the software capabilities and it seemed a good way for us to test it out,” was all Alex got from that simple question. Though, Gehry did leave him with some parting wisdom, “But that is no excuse for bad design,” Gehry continued. “Bad design sticks around just as long as good design, so make your work count.”

Alex took Gehry’s sound advice and wrote his mid-term paper on the Casa Morango. Despite his best efforts, Alex received an F from the professor, Aldo Freeman, who stated that the strawberry building was outside the scope of their studies. Though Farnsworth will need extra credit to get his grade up, he is proud to have made such a rare discovery and received advice from one of the world’s best designers. Alex will never forget to make his work count.

To see the original photo of Gehry and the strawberry building on the computer monitor, click HERE.

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By the way, April Fools!

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