Environmentalists Unhappy over Secret Gehry Redesign of L.A. River

Monday, August 10, 2015
Architect Frank Gehry

Los Angeles turned its 51-mile river into a concrete channel under the direction of the federal government in the 1930s after the growing city became tired of floods regularly devastating the basin and the valleys. And now the city wants to restore it with major help from the nation’s foremost modern urban architect, Frank Gehry.   

More than a decade of serious effort to do something with the unusable conduit got a big boost in May 2014 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it favored a $1.4-billion restoration plan for an 11-mile stretch near downtown L.A. known as “Riparian Integration via Varied Ecological Introduction.” That sounds very woodsy, but in reality, there are major disagreements over how to develop the 51 miles.

Public space advocates are vying with commercial interests that envision housing, retail and commercial development along the L.A. River shore. There are estimates that the 11-mile project could generate another $5 billion in investment along the rest of waterway.

Friends of the Los Angeles River is a nonprofit group that has worked since 1986 “to protect and restore the natural and historic heritage of the Los Angeles River and its riparian habitat.” They were pretty happy with the Army Corps’ decision to go with the more elaborate, balanced plans for restoration last year.

They were not so happy when the Los Angeles Times leaked word on Friday that the city had been in secret talks with famed architect Frank Gehry to help design a master plan for developing the entire river. The group said they will not be attending the official announcement scheduled for later this month.

Friends founder Lewis MacAdams thought the Garcetti administration was being a tad too controlling and told the Times, “Last time there was a single idea for the L.A. River it involved 3 million barrels of concrete.” Smack! He also expressed fear that signing up Gehry, and the commitments that might require, could endanger the $1.4-billion deal with the feds.

Gehry, 86, won the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1989 and has designed some of the world’s most iconic buildings, including the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain.

His undulating, free-form style and use of unorthodox materials is unmistakable, but even among some of his fans, like Allssa Walker at Gizmodo, there is a question about how it plays in nature. Walker wrote:

“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.”   

Little is known about Gehry’s ideas. But in a follow-up to its initial story of Gehry’s participation, Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne said the architect’s main interest seemed to be in hydrology, not building buildings. Gehry’s pitch is a project with infrastructure that accommodates rare, but inevitable flooding—capturing, storing and treating water in the Age of Drought—and permanent public access for whatever.

Gehry is working with the nonprofit Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, which was created to coordinate development based on the 2007 master plan. Chief among the master plan’s 10 guiding principles is: “Encourage Community Participation and Consensus.”

Perhaps they can amend that in the revised master plan.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Architect Frank Gehry Is Helping L.A. with Its Los Angeles River Master Plan, but Secrecy Troubles Some (by  Peter Jamison, Martha Groves and Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times)

Frank Gehry Is the Wrong Architect to Revitalize the Los Angeles River (by Alissa Walker, Gizmodo)

Hydrology, Not Landscaping or Landmarks, Is Focus of Frank Gehry's L.A. River Plan (by Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times)

Frank Gehry's Touch Felt on LA River Revitalization (by Jed Kim, KPCC)

U.S. Supreme Court Lets L.A. County off the Hook for L.A. River Pollution (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

History of the Los Angeles River (Los Angeles County Department of Public Works)

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