Campus Is Willing to Live Without Gehry

Times Staff Writer

As Alan Hess toured the UC Irvine campus talking architecture and design with the university’s building director, he paused in the engineering quad to admire a blockish stucco structure.

Its plain outer walls were punctured with large windows and thick gray beams. Designed by Frank O. Gehry, the 19-year-old building was a fine example of the renowned architect’s early work, Hess said.

But what the architecture critic didn’t know was that school officials intend to raze the building to make way for something bigger.

“I think it’s much too early to start tearing down many Frank Gehry buildings,” Hess, who has written nine books about 20th century architecture, said later.

Gehry is one of the world’s revered architects and an icon in L.A.'s design community. Yet the work of the architect behind the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles and the titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, is not out of reach of the wrecking ball.


In Santa Monica, the Gehry-designed Santa Monica Place shopping mall is likely to be demolished. To many residents, the enclosed mall never really fit into the outdoor beach aesthetic of Santa Monica, and there have been few tears shed so far about its possible demise.

And the jury is definitely out on the UC Irvine building.

Some see the structure -- known on campus maps simply as Building 310 -- as worthy of preservation; others have a ho-hum impression of the building.

Standing in front of the Gehry building this week, Jeremy Roth, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student from Mission Viejo, grimaced.

“Does this look like an architectural masterpiece to you?” said Roth, 22. “It’s all rusted, the paint’s all messed up.... It’s an ugly little building.”

Roth recalled attending material-science lectures in the building’s auditorium, where students sitting beyond the second row complained about not being able to hear the professor.

“It’s hard to hear because the ceiling’s all shaped funny,” Roth said, pointing to a large triangular skylight.

The UC Irvine building and the Santa Monica mall may not be the only Gehry creations to face extinction. Because many of his early works incorporated materials such as exposed plywood and chain link, they might not last that long. That means Gehry’s work will probably raise philosophical questions in the near future, said Jay Platt of the Los Angeles Conservancy.

“If we have to start replacing the materials, will it have the integrity of the building that he built?” Platt said.

Officials at UC Irvine say their decision to tear down the 17,800-square-foot Gehry building and a nearby structure designed by Rebecca L. Binder was a practical one. The roofs leak, the ventilation systems are failing and the structures have dry rot.

“Both buildings are deteriorating to the point that they’re not adequate to serve the teaching and research needs of the campus,” said Richard Demerjian, UC Irvine’s director of campus planning.

The school took into consideration that one of the buildings was designed by Gehry but found that renovating the building would cost more than the original construction.

The building that will replace the structures will be about 150,000 square feet -- five times the size of the current ones.

“It’ll provide a lot more space and much higher quality space,” Demerjian said.

The $47-million state-funded project will be reviewed by the UC Board of Regents this month. If approved, construction could begin in July.

In the meantime, preservationists and architecture scholars are urging UC Irvine officials to reconsider.

“It is embarrassing to me as a UC professor that a UC campus would consider such a move,” said Thomas Hines, professor of history and architecture at UCLA.

“It’s not a campus with that many distinguished buildings, and this certainly is one.”

The move also puzzled Richard Weinstein, professor of architecture at UCLA.

In June, UCLA awarded Gehry a medal for lifetime achievement, the university’s highest honor.

“This is somebody that the University of California has singled out as someone of international stature and significance,” Weinstein said. “It would seem to me that a sister institution in the University of California would sort of honor that recognition and make a civilized effort to discuss the project [with Gehry] and explain why they have to tear it down.”

It’s not lost on Gehry fans that the architect lives in Los Angeles and deserves, in their estimation, the opportunity to weigh in on the design work that’s practically in his backyard.

“He’s one of ours. He’s an Angeleno,” Weinstein said.

“A courtesy should be exercised there.”

Gehry was unavailable for comment.

Santa Monica and vicinity is home to several Gehry works, including his famous residence and Chiat/Day building in Venice, with its distinctive binocular facade.

Gehry’s Santa Monica Place mall has been eclipsed by the more popular outdoor Third Street Promenade shopping center nearby.

A developer has proposed replacing the enclosed mall with a large commercial and residential complex, although those plans have met with some community opposition.

Preservationists say advocating to save architecture from the recent past is always a struggle. Many think too little time has passed to seriously judge the work.

Some say that every piece of work by an architect with the stature of Gehry should be carefully evaluated before it’s ripped down.

“It’s not just that it’s a name-brand architect,” said Hess, who visited the Irvine building last week. “It’s an interesting example of his work from that period ... before he became as famous as he is now. It’s a very good Frank Gehry.”

The Irvine building is from Gehry’s contrast and collision era in which the architect used a mix of materials --plain gray stucco, structural beams and steel sheeting -- to create a blend of unexpected textures and shapes. Weinstein, who is acquainted with Gehry, thinks the architect would be saddened to see his early work torn down.

Gehry might look back and see in a building he did 10 years ago the beginning of an idea that came to fruition in Disney Hall, he suggested.

Still, nothing lasts forever.

“I don’t know of any great architect that hasn’t lost some of his buildings,” Weinstein said. “That’s what happens in the kind of society we live in. We change; our needs change.”

Even some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings were destroyed at the beginning of the last century. One, the Larken building in Buffalo, N.Y., was torn down to make way for new development. But 100 years later, the property serves as a parking lot.

Yet, as some wring their hands, others take a more pragmatic view.

“This is a school,” said Roth, the mechanical engineering student, “not an art gallery.”