Can the L.A. River Surmount the Current Rising Tide of Bullshit?

Frank Gehry’s anointment to spearhead a new iteration of the master planning of the L.A. River continues to muddy the waters.

I had previously commented that Gehry’s involvement in the river was disturbing for several reasons: his lack of planning experience could be calamitous: further, his recommendations could undermine pending funding, and not the least, his star architect ego and servile supporters could corrupt the river’s hard wrought cooperative spirit.

But some reasoned river advocates are urging Gehry be given a chance; that he could bring needed attention and prompt needed private funding; and he, or more likely the competent team he has assembled, might add something to the effort. So what if there is already an approved master plan that took a decade to craft; it can be improved.

OK, I reluctantly agree, especially if there is a chance it might benefit the river’s revitalization. Let’s see what he does, if anything.

And having observed Frank for nearly 40 years, if his effort doesn’t match expectations, consistent with his m.o. he’ll probably just blame politics, the river corporation, FOLAR and the unappreciative community, someone in his office, and of course the carping media. Anyone but himself.

But I do feel compelled to lend some perspective if not a little needed churlish candor to the prospect of Gehry’s attempt at planning, taking to heart a cue from another commentator, Jon Stewart, who declared in his popular television program’s finale, beware of bullshit.

This is good advice certainly in the current political burlesque, and also I would add in the current planning and design arena. Prompted and polished by a gaggle of marketing and public relation pros, our celebrity architects and their wannabes do seem to have down the crowd-pleasing catch phrases.

Now clichés to the discerning, these include the absolute imperative for design to be “sustainable,’ “user friendly,” and “contextual.” (For how they are used in sentences just audit any urban planning confab.

You have to listen carefully what they are saying, but more carefully look at what they are doing or designing. Sometime it is just the opposite. That is what I liked when I moved on to become a television reporter, where the adage was, don’t tell me, show me.

I remember too well Gehry during the intense competition for Disney Hall hyping his design as the city’s living room, and how it would be open to the community and energize the adjoining streets.

It was one of the reasons why as the critic then for the L.A Times I championed the design, only to see the public garden sited a poor inaccessible three stories up, the critical First Street frontage an unfriendly wall hiding a private patio for the patrons, and the corner stairs a stage for automobile commercials. Street access and egress is compromised, as is the lobby.

Still, the hall is a striking piece of sculpture, an iconic design popular among tourists for selfies and for those who can afford tickets to be seen. Its urban design is not very urbane.

Also I have to be wary of Gehry’s dependence on technology, in particular touting his team’s 3D mapping of the 51-mile waterway, and how it could aid a sweeping master plan vision.

I personally hope Gehry and his entourage spends a little less time at their computers and at self-congratulating conferences, and more time experiencing the river and its adjoining communities.

I am reminded of a lesson from a landscape architect I once worked with, Dan Kiley, who when I rolled out the maps of a park restoration project, suggested instead we walk the site. “Listen and look and it will tell us what needs to be done. Not some images on paper. Beside it always good to get out of the office.” Good advice


City Observed Launch

Intro: Here in Malibu, as part of our local news package, today we inaugurate an occasional commentary, the city observed, by long time resident Sam Hall Kaplan, a venerable print and broadcast journalist., teacher, author and activist.

Text: This being my initial commentary, I thought a review of some pending planning issues would offer an introduction to my professional perspective and personal prejudices.

Locally in Malibu, there is a constant parade of proposals before the Planning Commission and City Council that deserve attention, for I am convinced that cities are shaped and misshaped not by the sweeping plans heralded by political pronouncements, but by small projects, weighed one at a time.

For an illustration, we have the city of Malibu spending a half a million dollars plus on a study of urban design guidelines for the Civic Center, now not much more than a scattered collection of suburban mini malls and an isolated library, city hall and empty park.

The over the top retail stores and restaurants are popular among tourists, but not particularly residents. An attractive folksy village, which most residents say they want, it is not.
However conscientious the paid consultants, the study seems headed for a diffused debate, and then the shelves of city hall to collect dust.

More pertinent, and personal, are those seemingly less important planning items, such as an application by the new owners of an oceanside house on Cliffside Drive house to remodel it into a questionable Modernist styled structure.

Unfortunately, the remodel will compromise the blue water views of several homes on the landslide of Cliffside, and therefore is being protested by the streets strident residents, my neighbors. The city’s Planning Department has recommended the commission reject the application at an upcoming hearing.

Other controversies smolder, small and big, locally and beyond: does Malibu need, or want, another supermarket; the dearth of affordable housing in Southern California, the challenge of traffic, mass transit, and street life, and is spending one billion dollars on a vanity redo of LACMA the best way to serve art and the public?

Keep tuned. I’m Sam Hall Kaplan, and this is the City Observed, on 97.5 KBU.FM,.

You’ve been listening to the latest addition to our public radio news team, Sam Hall Kaplan, whose experience includes metropolitan reporter for the New York Times, architecture critic for the L.A. Times, Emmy award winning TV commentator, for Fox News, on air on KCRW, KPCC , among other radio stations, and generally a nosy newsy with a bent for design and planning, in Malibu, and everywhere.