Last month Los Angeles was promised $1.3 billion in federal funding to transform its river from a cinematic cement chute to an honest-to-goodness urban waterway. That great news has been tainted by today’s puzzling announcement that the city has tapped architect Frank Gehry to lead the redevelopment. It’s a really bad idea.
Specific details are sparse—there aren’t even any official images yet—but according to the LA Times, Gehry was hired by the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corp. to design a master plan for the river.
As probably the most famous living architect on the planet, Gehry is a household name who can surely lend some star power to the project. And that’s important, seeing as most people don’t even know LA has a river. But to me, that’s one of the first red flags—I worry that the project will be eclipsed by his fame.
An image from the existing Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan
But it’s also a strange choice because the city has actually had a master plan in place for the river for a very long time, one which has guided its development—or more specifically, it has kept the focus on the natural habitat, not on bombastic architecture. The Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, which was created by a team of designers, shows respect for human-wildlife balance as it sculpts the river’s path through features like water-aerating kayaking rapids and flood plains that double as soccer fields. Apparently Gehry’s idea is a “broad reworking” of this plan, and that’s scary.
Not that he’s going to clad the entire 52 miles of river in hyper-reflective steel panels OH GOD PLEASE SAY NO. It’s just that Gehry’s work so rarely provides true public space and doesn’t show many gestures to the natural environment—both of which are the most important things the river will need to do.
Let’s take some of Gehry’s best-known works: Disney Hall in LA, the EMP museum in Seattle, and the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain.
And most recent works: The IAC Building in NYC, the Lou Rovo Center in Vegas, and the Foundation Louis Vuitton in France.
Yes, apparently these abstract shapes are inspired by organic things. And many of them have nice gardens tucked into their folds. But look at the relationship between the buildings and the streets. Have you ever walked alongside one of these things? It’s not a friendly feeling. There’s no place to sit. There’s no place to linger. These are fortresses of metal and concrete with mere feet between the walls and the sidewalk. Walls which sometimes melt the trashcans.
And that’s the other thing—Gehry’s work has proven to be a liability, and not just from an engineering perspective. Gehry is polarizing in a way that will not help this very crucial project move forward. People often speak of Gehry in absolutist terms; so much so that he’s forced to respond very publicly to his critics. But nowhere is he more polarizing than LA. You’ve probably never heard of Grand Avenue, the biggest project Gehry’s ever designed for the city of Los Angeles—3.6 million square feet of shopping and dining plus several spiky residential towers, spreading across three city blocks. That’s because it has never managed to be approved due to blistering public opinion.
Gehry has done a lot of great things for architecture and for Los Angeles. I personally love Disney Hall, in all its clitoral tin-foil wackiness. No architect has helped to put LA on the global design map more than Gehry, and we certainly can appreciate his desire to design what will be one of the most defining projects in the city for decades, maybe centuries. He also has one of the most progressive firms when it comes to technology, developing its own proprietary software that I’m sure would help get the job done.
But he is not the right choice for the river. In fact, no single architect is. A letter by longtime river advocate Lewis MacAdams cautioned against letting one man with such a signature style mandate the river’s future: “Last time there was a single idea for the L.A. River it involved 3 million barrels of concrete.” If anything, the people leading the river’s master plan should be a coalition of visionary biologists. Not one brand-name starchitect.
In a city that is already stereotyped for choosing celebrity over substance, this is hyping fame over function. It’s a decision that will come to haunt us—perhaps just as much as the 1930s choice to cement the river over in the first place.
Update: Gehry gives some details of his plan to Christopher Hawthorne: “I don’t see tearing out the concrete,” Gehry said. “It’s an architectural feature, and I can see ways of incorporating it into what we’re doing.”