Welcome to the Peter B. Lewis Building!
Fast Facts
  • Groundbreaking: April 29, 1999
  • Dedication: October 9, 2002
  • Architect: Gehry Partners, LLP
  • Structural Engineer: DeSimone Consulting Engineers, PLLC
  • Contractor: Hunt Construction Gtoup, Inc.

Home of the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, the Peter B. Lewis Building stands as an architectural landmark in Cleveland’s University Circle neighborhood. Featuring the sculptural profile, gleaming stainless steel siding, and gravity-defying angles that audiences have come to associate with the architect Frank Gehry, our building both sets our school apart and, quite literally, reflects our prestigious surroundings. Our immediate neighbors include the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Botanical Garden, Severance Hall, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and more.

The origin of the Peter B. Lewis Building lies in Lewis and Gehry’s long friendship. The two had worked for years to find the right opportunity to execute a project in the Cleveland area when Weatherhead’s need for a new building arose. Gehry has said that his collaborative relationship with Lewis constituted a laboratory for techniques that he implemented in designing the Peter B. Lewis Building. He said, “We were so experimental with new glass systems and wall systems and materials. It was the equivalent of a MacArthur grant to study all these systems and materials that had never been used…. It led to Bilbao and to Weatherhead.”

The shifting slopes of the walls and ceiling — which Gehry has compared to frozen custard — will reward you with countless fascinating views if you make sure to cast your eyes skyward from time to time. The roof closely follows the shape of the ceiling. With its roller-coaster curves in shining stainless steel, the exterior reminds some of crumpled tin foil, others of a waterfall. Gehry revealed that the design of the exterior depended on the interior layout, which, he said, “was all done in great detail before I did any of the wiggly [exterior metal] stuff. So the ‘wiggly stuff’ plays very close to the bone of the functionality.”

The dynamic appearance of the “wiggly stuff” is indebted to Gehry’s abiding interest in fish. He has playfully suggested that this came from his childhood fascination with the carp his grandmother would put in the family bathtub as she prepared to make gefilte fish. But Gehry has also said that he strives for “a sense of movement that I saw in Greek sculptures, and I realized that the fish had it.” Gehry draws on favorite artists, like Picasso, Matisse and the sculptor Klaus Sluter, to infuse an impression of movement in his work.

Gehry chose to incorporate red brick into the exterior, as well, in keeping with more traditional campus buildings nearby. Plain Dealer architecture critic Steven Litt wrote of the Peter B. Lewis Building, “The design shows you don’t have to imitate your surroundings in order to fit in. That’s a great lesson.”

Behind you is the Glass Lounge. Before you, the floor opens into the well of the Lower Level. Look across the atrium, and you’ll catch sight of what looks like a bubble resting atop an ice cube. It’s actually a skylight that allows daylight into a classroom on the lower level. Among Frank Gehry’s architectural signatures is an interest in introducing natural light wherever feasible. As you follow the tour route, try counting the skylights. How many are there?

Your eyes wander over snow-white surfaces that intersect and overlap at unpredictable angles. In the middle ground, to your left and right, are two large masses that appear to hover in the center of the atrium. This is no illusion; these two structures are, in fact, freestanding, supported by concrete tripods and connected to the exterior walls only by slender walkways. Within them are large classrooms well suited to lectures and presentations. Gehry even managed to work skylights into these, so a shaft of sunlight can surprise students in the back row. Called “the pods” by some, Gehry also nicknamed these structures “Buddhas” because they reminded him of sculptures of the sitting Buddha. It’s said construction crews shortened these to “Boo” and “Duh.” Which is which? Well, no one can seem to remember.

Perhaps you thought of scaling a cliff face or boarding an old sailing ship as you climbed the staircase panelled with honey-colored Douglas fir. This material, used throughout the building, darkens naturally over time, and when new desks are built for repurposed spaces, wood that dates from the original construction is used wherever possible so that the colors match.

Across the atrium, behind what looks like a shard of glass embedded in the floor, you’ll glimpse what Gehry calls a “collision space” — a sudden opening, furnished with comfortable chairs and a coffee table, where faculty and students may “collide” at random, striking up conversations that — who knows? — could produce new and fruitful ventures. Faculty and staff offices, classrooms, breakout rooms, study carrels and, of course, collision spaces are distributed throughout the five stories of the building to encourage chance meetings.

Gehry’s inspiration for the interior was desert rock formations in New Mexico and Utah carved by ancient rivers. Imagine yourself at the base of Bryce Canyon, or walking along the bottom of a glacial crevasse. Shafts of light — represented here by fluorescent tube lighting — flicker down the sides of the crevasse as you pass. There’s a story that Gehry wanted real cracks to the exterior, but when this proved unfeasible, he designed a lighting effect that highlights the curvature of the walls, much as a stroke of makeup does a cheekbone. The building itself could be considered a work of art, so additional decoration on the walls of the atrium is minimal.

The 72 flags above you represent all the nations from which Weatherhead students have come. We are proud to attract talented students from all around the world. Recent Weatherhead initiatives have included expanding our master’s programs in finance and in positive organization development to China and India respectively. We now offer a one-of-a-kind Global MBA that brings together students from Weatherhead; students from Xavier School of Management (XLRI) in Jamshedpur, India; and students from the School of Economics and Management at Tongji University in Shanghai, China. Each cohort spends a semester in Shanghai, a semester in Jamshedpur and a semester in Cleveland — part of our effort to educate leaders with a global mindset.

If you’re wondering why you just took two different elevators to descend two stories, the answer lies in the Buddhas. Boo, Duh, and nearly all of the classrooms in the Peter B. Lewis Building have two entrances. Inside rooms 201 and 202, which are housed within the freestanding pods, entrances at the rear minimize disruption by latecomers.

The steeply tiered seating within classrooms 201 and 202 is responsible for the fact that the second story on the west side of the Peter B. Lewis Building is at a significantly lower elevation than the second story on the east side. (Hence the special elevator that serves the east side). This anomaly, in turn, pulled the pods away from the walls and into the middle of the atrium.

Head into the atrium underneath the two stacks of classrooms towering like Lewis Carroll’s toadstools after Alice in Wonderland has had a taste. The tripods on which the Buddhas rest are weight-bearing; they splinter and rearrange themselves within the classrooms, but they penetrate all the way to the roof.

You are standing in front of a vast, wood-paneled wall. Or not. This building is relatively small considering the number of people who work and study here. One feature that was sacrificed in the interest of reducing its footprint was a conventional auditorium. But Gehry designed an elegant alternative: a movable wall that slides away to create space for seating up to 300 people and slides back in place to wall off a multipurpose space. This approach exemplifies the kind of left-field creativity that design can teach traditional managerial thought. Another example came when Gehry had to reduce faculty office dimensions. After determining that faculty craved space not to accommodate large meetings but to store books and files, he simply built bookcases to the ceiling with a nifty ladder attached — a simple yet surprising alternative to the usual solution (build a bigger building). It’s worth noting that this floor also features the first design studio to be included in any business school.

I’ve taught at Wharton, I’ve lectured and taught at the best business schools all over the world. This is the single best teaching space on earth.
— Fred Collopy, Vice Dean and Professor of Design & Innovation, on Room 02

Peek inside 02, a signature classroom. Gehry met with all of Weatherhead’s stakeholders to discuss their needs and the classroom layouts best suited to teaching and learning. His team fielded hundreds of requests from faculty — and addressed nearly all of them. Gehry began by asking faculty, “What is a classroom? How does a classroom work?” His team then presented a dozen models of classrooms based upon these conversations, and faculty voted on their favorites. A few professors were passionate advocates of the round model, promising that if it proved unpopular, they would teach all of their classes there. They need not have worried; the room is among the most popular spaces campus-wide for classes, meetings and conferences.

Some visitors liken this oval classroom to Paris’ Panthéon — with a teaching station in the middle. Thomas Jefferson’s conference table at Monticello has also been cited as a source of inspiration for what we think of as a democratized classroom.

The professor is never more than a few feet away from any student, promoting interaction. The students’ proximity, and the fact that they surround her on all sides, keeps the professor on her toes. Students, meanwhile, are encouraged to jump up and use the whiteboards to sketch their ideas.

You first put your dream on paper, then we start agonizing over it.
— Frank Gehry

To figure out how to construct the building’s complex surfaces and structures, Gehry adopted computer modeling software that was used to design France’s Mirage jet fighters. Yet these shapes were first molded by hand.

Gehry and his team build dozens (or hundreds) of models of a project and digitize some of the more successful. It is a laborious process, and it can lead to some client confusion. It’s said that each time Gehry presented a model of the Peter B. Lewis Building, he did so with the disclaimer: “This is not what it will look like.” The nature of Gehry’s process is to push decisions about the final design almost to the start of construction — and occasionally beyond. That such a process can be successful subverts the typical managerial mindset that calls for an expedited decision and for sticking to it at all costs.

Working with Gehry was an instructive experience for Vice Dean Fred Collopy, PhD, and Richard J. Boland Jr., PhD, Elizabeth M. and William C. Treuhaft Professor of Management. Collopy and Boland co-edited the seminal book Managing as Designing and were among the scholars who pioneered the integration of designing practices (like reframing questions, challenging standard protocols and rapid prototyping) into traditional management skills.

Can a unique setting help inspire a climate of creativity? Peter Lewis said of this building, “The future of business belongs to those who constantly embrace change, risk and explore new ideas. The building is a place where people cannot help but think differently. It challenges the students, the university and the city of Cleveland to break boundaries. The status quo is not acceptable here.”