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L.A.: Gehry’s laboratory

Special to The Times

When the Walt Disney Concert Hall opens for business next month, the world’s eyes will be upon it, partly because the concert hall is expected to rejuvenate the fortunes of downtown Los Angeles, partly because the building looks like a giant space tulip (incongruous truths worthy of its quiet yet provocative architect) but mostly because that architect is Frank O. Gehry.

Gehry has called Los Angeles home since he was a teenager and has been making unlikely and fantastic buildings here for 45 years. He is the latest in a lineage of showman-builders that includes Abbot Kinney, Frank Lloyd Wright and, yes, even Walt Disney, and his best known works, such as the Loyola Law School campus and his own house in Santa Monica, are beloved fixtures of the city. But there are many more besides -- more than 50 buildings in Los Angeles County alone, each worth inspecting for its own sake and as a marker of his shape-shifting career.

Local interest aside, familiarity with Gehry’s career behooves us precisely because he is, just now, the best known architect in the world. At 74, he has surpassed the other titans of his generation (I.M. Pei, Richard Meier, Michael Graves, Peter Eisenmann, to name a few) to become the mad scientist and chief salesman of architecture’s future. His work since the 1997 opening of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, hailed as brilliant by many but dismissed by some as ego-driven “blockbuster” architecture, knows no bounds of whimsy -- just look at the exhibition “Frank Gehry: Work in Progress” currently at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Structural engineering is only now catching up with his visions. And in his profusion of ideas, his breaking down of the modernist box, Gehry has done more than any other architect to put the L.A. style, if such exists, on the international map. (R.M. Schindler and Richard Neutra fans will protest, but in retrospect they seem Bauhaus purists reacting to all that sunlight.)

Not too long ago, Gehry was designing jewelry store-fronts in Redondo Beach. A latecomer to architecture -- he studied chemical engineering, drove trucks and served in the Army before opening his own practice at 32. Frank Gehry took a circuitous route to Frank Gehry.

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A Jewish-Canadian immigrant from Toronto, he has adopted L.A.'s protean propensities with relish, one day playing the no-frills contractor, the next the aesthete. He used to think in 2-by-4s and unfinished cement. These days he borrows software from the aerospace industry to mock gravity with titanium. He still considers himself as much a sculptor as an architect, and has done much to blur the boundaries between the two disciplines.

Return of the native son

The Disney Concert Hall marks a kind of redemption of L.A.'s prodigal son. After a mid-career apex in the 1980s, Gehry suffered name-burnout in the ‘90s as the concert hall, originally set to begin construction in the mid-'90s, turned into a one-man city budget sideshow.

His reputation abroad growing, Gehry effectively packed up and left town, pursuing commissions and perfecting the “undulating metal” style, as it’s often called, from Spain to Germany to Korea.

Now, 12 years after his last major project -- the former Chiat/Day building in Venice -- was completed here, the Frank Gehry show has rolled home, and a strong argument can be made that that undulating metal is, somehow, distinctly of L.A. The concert hall calls to mind the ocean and the desert, an elaborate sound stage and a junked Cadillac. A monolithic confection, it would seem to solve, if just for a moment, the central dilemma of L.A. architecture, whose only constant is change: It is at once mobile and monumental.

The urban fortress

The hallmark of Gehry’s generation of post- and neoModernists, if they have one, is “stylistic pluralism.” His compatriot Robert Venturi summed it up in the 1966 manifesto “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.”

Flying in the face of a half-century of clean form-follows-function lines, Venturi wrote, “I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning.” Gehry answered the clarion call, but his buildings only partly fill the bill.

Calling him a stylistic pluralist is like calling the Who guitarist Pete Townshend an instrument pluralist. Gehry doesn’t pluralize styles; rather, he smashes them. As Gehry will admit, his work bears traces of L.A. architects from the Greene brothers to Schindler to Craig Ellwood, of Europeans from Le Corbusier to Alvar Aalto, and, beyond architecture, of plastic arts movements from Dada to Expressionism to Pop Art to Minimalism -- but only in the way that a blender drink bears traces of fruit.

His early buildings are often nondescript or confounding. Take for instance the home of the Faith Plating Co. (1964). It’s difficult to believe that Gehry was behind it. True, he designed only the second-story addition. Nonetheless, the building is brutish. Flat, drab, the exterior is less striking than the construction site currently groaning across the street, which is saying something, because Gehry loves construction sites.

Only slightly less forbidding is the Danziger Studio (1965), where you can at least surmise the residents’ desires -- extreme privacy.

When Danziger was built, for a graphic artist and his wife to live and work in, that corner of Sycamore and Melrose avenues had no big trees. So the effect would have been of a sun-drenched minimum security prison in the style of Wright, rather than a shaded one, which perhaps was more dramatic, in those days when L.A. was burning and rioting itself apart.

In both Danziger and Faith Plating, Gehry has said he was playing with the “dumb box,” as he called it, the stucco-and-plaster cube that makes up much of the city’s landscape. Of Danziger, he said: “I had a funny notion that you would make architecture that you could bump into before you realized it was architecture.”

Little good though it will do onlookers, bear in mind that the studio’s interior was the first in which Gehry left the wood framing and ventilation ducts exposed, in what would become his calling card. Thus, he was playing with deconstruction several years before Jacques Derrida showed up to capitalize the “d.”

An interesting contrast is Chiat/Day (1991), Gehry’s last major completed L.A. project before the Concert Hall. The Binoculars Building, as it is fondly known, with its jutting tree branches and canopy and not-so-subtle reference to surveillance, only seems to whisper keep out, where Danziger seems to scream it.

Gehry had the sculptor Claes Oldenburg, a fellow giant-object fetishist and occasional collaborator, design the binoculars centerpiece (at the 1985 Venice Biennale, Gehry and Oldenburg rode down the Grand Canal in a barge shaped like a Swiss army knife) for the advertising agency’s L.A. headquarters. Gehry has also collaborated with the sculptor Richard Serra, with whom he once schemed to connect the World Trade Center and Chrysler Building in New York via a mammoth metal fish.

Chiat/Day’s main entrance for pedestrians -- through the nape of the binoculars -- is also the main entrance for cars. Gehry had already done this at Loyola Law School (1982), where students must walk through the parking garage to get to class. Unlike the utopian L.A. planners of the Case Study school, for instance, Gehry has never wanted to turn L.A. into a walking city against its will. He knows that, here, cars are just as important as people, if not more so.

For the money, we might agree that Gehry’s converted warehouses beat out his Urban Fortresses for usefulness on a sunny afternoon. Look at MOCA at the Geffen Contemporary (1983) downtown. Originally the Temporary Contemporary, meant only to fill in while the California Plaza MOCA was being built, it is now a permanent museum all its own. As a set of galleries it is flexible and can accommodate any kind of show, but the airy interior is honest and yet novel.

More novel still is the Davis House (1972) in Malibu. Gehry’s first all-corrugated-steel exterior, the Davis House was considered by not a few neighbors and critics an eyesore when it went up. Now it looks like a calmly galvanized manor house in the tradition of Neutra. Someday people may even call it handsome. The interior, as then New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger pointed out, is a study in how to guide people with angles, something Gehry picked up while designing battle practice plans in the Army (he also designed latrines, unfortunately).

The Davis House took three years to plan, as Gehry carefully futzed with every perspective point and sightline, but only seven months to build. It inspired Goldberger to call Gehry’s style “studied slapdash.” (Gehry was in the habit of calling it “cheapskate.”) The Davis House turned Goldberger into a Gehry fan and brought him into view, not always favorable, of serious architecture critics.

“It was exciting in the way that not a lot of architecture was at the time,” said Goldberger, now the architecture critic for the New Yorker. “What struck me was that it was experimental, very different in form from what you’d seen before -- but still comfortable.”

It is perhaps no coincidence that at about the same time Gehry was using raw materials to build the Davis House, chefs such as Alice Waters and James Beard were starting the California cuisine movement, with its emphasis on fresh local produce and threadbare presentation.

If you’re squeamish about peeking into windows in Malibu, visit the Disney Public Ice Center (1993) in Anaheim, which is like the Davis House on steroids. Here you’ll find enough of Gehry’s corrugated steel and plywood infatuations (notice how curvaceous and grand he’s become with them) to last a lifetime.

Some regard the California Aerospace Museum (1984) in Exposition Park as the piece de resistance of his warehouse style. Built in a rush and on a budget (in time for the 1984 Olympics), Gehry knew his first museum would never have the money or space to hold major exhibitions. So he made the interior a monument to verticality and the dream of flight.

Stand on the ground floor and look up through the metal beams, rectilinear catwalks and skylight, and you feel like an astronaut about to board the shuttle. And don’t miss -- as though one could -- the jet affixed to the exterior. No sign, no grand entrance, just a big jet hanging off the wall, a la Robert Rauschenberg. He was able to achieve a similarly soaring effect in a very different building, the Frances Howard Goldwyn Regional Branch Library (1982) in Hollywood.

The flying village

His earliest buildings were planar and his newest buildings are organic, even zoomorphic (he built a giant metal horse head in Berlin in 2001), but in mid-career Gehry was taken with simple geometrical forms: the cube, the cylinder, the cone.

Thus we have the easy town-square simplicity of the Edgemar Development (1988), a high-end mini-mall in Santa Monica and Loyola Law School downtown. Walking in among their spaces, one might marvel that Gehry has gotten as much built as he has, so clear is his delight in the pure act of design. They feel like giant architectural models. One gets the image of Gehry as a kind of baby Brancusi, stacking blocks on top of each other and cutting out big square windows with a pair of scissors. (Gehry once said the main difference between sculpture and architecture was, simply, “the windows.”)

But remarkably, Edgemar and Loyola have an airborne quality to them too. One wants to climb on them, jump off their cubes, hide in their attics. The same goes for the Roxbury Work House (1983), a design studio in the guise of a flying village perched atop a nondescript Beverly Hills apartment house.

At Loyola, as at his own house in Santa Monica, Gehry’s boldness with raw materials approaches the laughable. Look at the plywood chapel and campanile, or the sheet-metal atrium and bridge at the Casassa building. Who was the contractor here -- the guy from the Home Depot commercials?

It’s worth comparing Edgemar and the Loyola campus, as well as the concert hall, to the Getty Museum, designed by Richard Meier. Observe how Meier’s fanatical geometry and pristine line tend to push the visitor in one direction or another. Compare that to Edgemar, which seems to offer its parts, like a Pueblo Indian village. Would you like to inspect my concrete ramp or glass-and-storm-fence enclosure? it seems to ask.

If Gehry can be said to have an egalitarian side, it can be seen in the increasing candidness of his spaces. This reaches new heights in the concert hall, where much of the interior will be open to pedestrians during the day, in an attempt to create what Gehry has called a “living room for the city.”

The dingbat and the perpetual construction site

When people don’t know what else to say about his buildings, Gehry is accused of “eclecticism.” Normally this is too simplistic. But in the case of the Norton Residence (1983) in Venice, that seems to be precisely what he was going for. What else to call the combination of green and blue tile, yellow stucco, a driftwood archway and H.C. Westermann-style lifeguard perch? It is a paean to Venice Beach eclecticism and to the dingbat, that bouillabaisse bungalow indigenous to L.A.

Gehry has said, more than once, “Everybody likes buildings in construction better than we do finished.” Doubtless this theory has cost him some commissions. But not many architects have tested their radical theories on themselves. (Venturi’s coup took place at his mother’s house, not his.)

That is what Gehry did when he renovated his own home, the Gehry House in Santa Monica, in 1978, and again in 1992. He’s spent a good deal of his domestic time over the last 25 years literally under construction.

The result is a hodgepodge that only its owner could have conceived of, a living testament to the idea that in L.A. space is time. Walking from the front of the house to the back (with the aid of some pictures of the interior, ideally), one can watch the progression of Gehry’s interests over a quarter century. The house is at turns planar, geometric and organic.

More than any of his works until Bilbao, Gehry’s home exploded the modernist box. It evokes a Malevich painting torn to shreds, or a Rubik’s Cube gone dreadfully awry. Looking at the house, Vincent Scully of Yale remarked that Gehry seemed “supremely contemptuous of traditional urbanistic forms.” Understatement of the year.

Less supreme examples are the Arnoldi Triplex (1981) and the adjoining studios at 322 and 326 Indiana Ave. in Venice, and the Spiller Residence at 39 Horizon Ave. in Venice. Not much of these buildings, now broken up into apartments, can be seen from the street, but take note of the southwest corner of Arnoldi’s second story, which gives one the impression that the staircase was ripped from the interior, covered in AstroTurf, and turned inside out.

The three houses sit next to one another like abandoned tract mansions in various stages of completion. The corrugated-steel spire of the Spiller house, meanwhile, juts out from the surrounding bungalows like a watchtower on a Florentine palazzo.

Before he shocked the world at Bilbao, most people assumed Gehry would be remembered for the deconstructivist aesthetic seen best in his Santa Monica and Venice houses. This could still prove to be true. Gehry’s Perpetual Construction Site of the 1970s and ‘80s helped inspire two decades’ worth of wire-ties and in-your-face wall-studs in everything from Shakespeare sets on London’s West End to Internet offices in San Francisco’s South of Market district.

It’s too early to tell whether Gehry, like Mies van der Rohe or Le Corbusier, will inspire a generation of architects -- he still has styles to invent (Philip Johnson, after all, is 97 and still working). But his influence on our physical environment has proved so profound as to be pedestrian. That exposed beam in the Starbucks bathroom? That’s Gehry’s.

Undulating metal

“Tidal waves couldn’t save the world from Californication,” the Red Hot Chili Peppers once sang, and in the case of Gehry’s Disney Hall, they’re right. His tidal waves of stainless steel are pure Californication.

The concert hall reflects the many phases of Gehry’s career and his many local muses. Standing before it, one can make out elements of the Urban Fortress, the Flying Village, the Perpetual Construction Site. We can see in it not only waves, but sand dunes and sails (Gehry is a devoted sailor); the chimeras of Hollywood and the sleek dreams of the aerospace industry (he has had to poach engineers from Boeing and software from French jet-manufacturers, so alien are his needs to traditional structural engineering); cars and chrome; fierce, fanciful independence (Simon Rodia and the Watts Towers come to mind).

And then of course there’s its sheer incongruity. For though he’ll explain how he spent months calibrating the concert hall’s careful reaction to Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and nearby apartment houses, Gehry loves incongruity. If the imperative of modern architecture was to create “machines for living,” as Le Corbusier once said, Gehry, more than any other living architect, has blown up that idea -- literally. His own house was just the beginning; his creations of the last decade look like mainframe computers and metal presses after they’ve been taken to with a jackhammer.

Gehry has permanently changed our ideas of what buildings can be. Certain critics’ assertions to the contrary, his undulating metal creations do vary widely and react to their environments in carefully calibrated ways.

But already there are worries about the “Bilbao Effect” in international architecture -- the move toward the wow factor, unrelated to environment, made to attract attention and tourists.

Still, Gehry has repeated Bilbao’s success -- not verbatim, but with similarity -- all over the world. Cities wishing to assert their importance or refurbish their fortunes now seem to “want a Gehry.” He has recently designed a line of watches for Fossil and a bottle for Wyborowa Vodka. His office used to consist of three architects; now there are over 100. He works for the Guggenheim organization, recently called by one prominent critic the “Wal-Mart of the art world,” not to mention for Disney. He has bought proprietary rights to the design software they use and this month Gehry Technologies, his new company, will begin selling it to other builders and schools.

So it must be asked: Is Frank Gehry a brand?

The answer, in a word, is no. At worst, he is a plethora of brands, having experimented and challenged himself far too much to be relegated to the singular.

And at best? At best, he is the world’s architect. But first he was L.A.'s.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Gehry: a representative history in L.A. buildings

1. Gehry House

Corner of Washington Avenue and 22nd Street, Santa Monica

2. Santa Monica Place

Broadway at Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica

3. Chiat/Day

340 Main St., Venice

4. Arnoldi Triplex

And adjoining studios, 322 and 326 Indiana Ave., Venice

5. The Spiller Residence

39 Horizon Ave., Venice

6. Norton Residence

2509 Ocean Front Walk, Venice

7. Edgemar Development

2441 N. Main St., Santa Monica

8. Roxbury Work House

440 S. Roxbury Drive,

Beverly Hills

9. Goldwyn Branch Library

1623 N. Ivar Ave., Hollywood

10. Faith Plating Co.

7141 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A.

11. Danziger Studio

7001 Melrose Ave., L.A.

12. Loyola Law School

919 S. Albany St., downtown

13. Walt Disney Concert Hall

North Grand Avenue and 1st Street, downtown

14. MOCA at the Geffen Contemporary

152 N. Central Ave., downtown

15. California Aerospace Museum

Exposition Park

16. Disney Public Ice Center

300 W. Lincoln Blvd., Anaheim


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