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To advocates of the revitalization of the L.A. River, as I am, the disclosure that star architect Frank Gehry has been presumptuously retained to master plan the 51 mile expanse of the waterway has to be disturbing.
To observers of the L.A..’s parochial political and celebrity stricken design scenes, as I also am, the disclosure and the blessing by a haughty City Hall and its synchopants, is not surprising.
This after all is Hollywood obsessed L.A., where style over substance prevails; where indeed the allure of Gehry’s international eminence, and promise of photo ops tends to stupefy an increasingly vainglorious Mayor Garcetti, as well as the celebrity dazed herd.
And then there is the ever avaricious Gehry, who beneath his Canadian rooted modest airs, is very much the L.A. based competitive professional; and despite his 86 years, a hungry tiger pacing in a cage, waiting for the next piece of meat, the next commission.
This is particularly disturbing because, bluntly, Gehry has had little design success beyond his iconic singular structures, which for all their puffed up publicity in turn have shown scant sensitivity to context, climate and community use.
The urban design sensibilities demanded by the revitalized L.A. River is not Frank’s forte, as I have commented in past commentaries, nor has he displayed any flair for landscape architecture, particularly the profession’s increasing concerns for sustainability and public use.
His involvement also is disturbing because the river already has been scrupulously master planned in a long, arduous process, dating back a quarter of a century and involving myriad interest groups.
These have included neighborhood activists, committed environmentalists, public spirited designers and high minded citizens. The broad effort has been very much grass roots, democratic with a small “d,” at times awkward and clumsy but always transparent –something Gehry involvement on the L.A. River to date definitely has not been.
Despite statements to the contrary, Gehry has never shown the patience and fortitude needed to work with affected communities and public interest groups, preferring singular developers or elitist institutions. And he can be quite short with the media, especially if its critical
It is no wonder that the founding non-profit group, Friends of the Los Angeles River, declined to endorse the Gehry City Hall initiative, its respected Lewis McAdams declaring it “ the epitome of wrong-ended planning. It’s not coming from the bottom up. It’s coming from the top down.”
There also was real concern that whatever changes Gehry might wrought to the already approved Master Plan might confuse and splinter its hard won broad support, and jeprodise the critical federal funding pending in Congress.
That would be a tragedy, and something Los Angeles present and future cannot afford. Hopefully, the Gehry initiative will prove a stunt., the architect will withdraw to polite applause, to rest on his many laurels, and the revitalization of the river moe forward.
I’m Sam Hall Kaplan, and this is the City Observed, on 97.5 KBU, and radiomalibu.net