Since the Los Angeles Times broke the news that the LA River Revitalization Corp has enlisted Gehry Partners to lead a new master plan effort for the Los Angeles River, there have been a slew of negative responses: the Friends of the Los Angeles River have refused to endorse the Gehry effort, reactions collected by the Architects Newspaper ranged from skeptical to angry, and Alissa Walker at Gizmodo did not mince words when her headline declared “Frank Gehry is the Wrong Architect to Revitalize the Los Angeles River.” These responses raise real and legitimate concerns - progress on the LA River has been years, if not decades, in the making. There is already a master plan, prepared by Mia Lehrer and Associates, and the US Army Corps of Engineers approved a plan to restore 11 miles of the river, known as Alternative 20, just this past July. There are worries that this new effort could threaten the current approvals and funding.
Frank Gehry is an easy target for criticism. His buildings can be polarizing, and his detractors are quick to seize on any defect. Details are trickling out slowly, but a recent presentation to reporters revealed that the plan would eventually identify locations for parks and real estate developments, as well as establish a unified design theme for future improvements such as pedestrian and bicycle paths. For his part, Gehry has emphasized the water reclamation aspects of the project - an especially timely subject in drought-stricken California. And in an interview with Frances Anderton on KCRW’s “Design and Architecture,” Gehry was quick to clarify, “It’s not a building, I’m not doing a building!”
We don’t yet know exactly what Gehry has in store for the L.A. River, but here are 5 reasons he just might be the perfect choice for the job:
1. Gehry adds Visibility
Even in Los Angeles, the river is an afterthought for many people, but Gehry’s involvement will bring more attention and more notoriety (just look at the flood of coverage over past month). The city of Los Angeles is already committed to spending $500 million on the Alternative 20 plan, and some estimates suggest the final cost to the city could be as high as $1.3 billion. Having a recognizable name like Frank Gehry involved will help the city raise funds to support the project.
2. Gehry Brings Technology
Modeling software from Gehry Technologies will be a major asset for the LA River efforts. L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne reports that Gehry’s office has already created a point-cloud three-dimensional model of 70% of the river. Tensho Takemori, one of the lead architects on the project, says that once the model is complete, it “will give us an objective starting point for the river that everybody can work on.”
3. Gehry Brings Experts
Architects are trained to be generalists, which, by definition, means they are unlikely to be experts in anything. One sure sign of a successful architect is the quality of the team they assemble, and Frank Gehry is no stranger to bringing in experts: the one aspect of the Disney Concert Hall that is universally praised is the acoustics, designed by expert acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota. For the L.A. River project, Frank Gehry has assembled a highly regarded team of experts, including the renowned landscape architecture firm Olin, Dutch water expert Henk Ovink, and engineers from Geosyntec.
4. Gehry's Plan is Comprehensive
Existing plans for the river are incomplete. Alternative 20 only addresses 11 miles of the river from Griffith Park to Chinatown. The existing master plan only applies to the 32 miles of the river within the Los Angeles city limits. There are also other plans developed by Los Angeles County, and the city of Long Beach. Gehry Partners’ task is to establish a strategy for all 51 miles of the river, including coordination and outreach with the 15 municipalities it flows through. And rather than starting from scratch, Gehry has said their efforts are building on the existing plans.
5. Gehry is Free
So far Gehry Partners has been doing this work pro-bono. Very few others could take on such a monumental task without getting paid.
There is certainly cause for skepticism, and Takemori acknowledged the concerns, saying “I know it’s really hard at this point - people are struggling because they think of our office as producing images.” Gehry Partners was not an obvious choice, but there are also plenty of reasons to be excited about the possibilities. The true test will be the results of this master planning effort, and whether they can inspire action from politicians and donors without undoing the progress that has been made. It will not be easy to please Gehry’s critics.
Despite Gehry’ notoriety for iconic buildings around the world, no other living architect’s career has been so famously linked to Los Angeles. What better way to cap off that career than with a project that has the potential to have a significant, lasting impact, and remake the identity of Los Angeles?