A Gehry imprint

Times Staff Writer

SINCE Frank Gehry was hired nearly two years ago to design a massive mixed-use project along Grand Avenue, he has clashed repeatedly and sometimes bitterly with the developer, New York’s Related Cos. Barring some sudden rapprochement, it now seems unlikely that Gehry will return for the planned second and third phases of the project.

But the plan, which the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will consider this morning, has turned a significant corner in recent weeks. The latest version suggests it will rise not only as an effective complement to Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall across the street but also as a dramatic architectural presence in its own right.

After bottoming out late last year, when models showed a pair of plain, rectangular office towers largely sealed off from the streets around them, the design has grown richer, more colorful and more reflective of Los Angeles and contemporary culture. The new design includes a pair of L-shaped towers playing energetically against each other -- and against the rest of the downtown skyline -- and framing a dense, multi-level retail plaza dotted with oak trees and other lush landscaping.


Some of the improvement is the natural result of the design gaining detail as it moves from concept toward groundbreaking this fall. But far more than previous versions, this one displays the loose, exuberant forms for which Gehry is known -- and which, presumably, he was brought on to provide.

Still, Gehry appears to be loosening his ties to the development. Reversing an earlier demand that his firm fully control the design of the first phase, he has agreed to let Dallas-based HKS Architects produce the final working drawings that will guide construction. His handpicked landscape architect, Laurie Olin, has left the project.

The architectural progress of the first phase, now budgeted at roughly $900 million, is a reminder that some of Gehry’s best buildings, including the long-delayed Disney Hall, have been the result not just of sustained give-and-take between architect and client but also of substantial uncertainty. Far from a creative genius producing idiosyncratic forms in isolation, as he is sometimes portrayed, Gehry is an architect who thrives on drama and even brinksmanship. This project, from the beginning, has had no shortage of those elements; where they have been lacking, Gehry has sometimes worked to create them.

Although the budget for the first phase remains tight, it has loosened enough in recent months to allow the architect and his chief collaborator on the project, Craig Webb, a bit of creative wiggle room. The architects have given the taller, 48-story tower, which will contain a Mandarin Oriental Hotel along with a health club and high-end condominiums, more personality than it has shown since the earliest renderings. It is now cloaked in an undulating facade of mirrored glass that at several points pulls away dramatically from a boxy structural shell underneath.

In shaping the tower, Gehry and Webb say they are reaching back in part to the skyscraper designs of Kevin Roche, particularly Roche’s U.N. Plaza, finished in 1975 on the east side of Manhattan. But the inspiration is also local. The tower design represents an architectural bridge between Disney Hall and the two mirrored-glass skyscrapers that make up Arthur Erickson’s nearby California Plaza.

This sense of local connection -- an idiosyncratic spin on the idea of architectural context -- is precisely what’s missing in other Related projects, such as the Time Warner Center in Manhattan. For Gehry, the most effective kind of contextualism is surprising and energetic rather than dutiful -- riffing on nearby buildings instead of copying them. That’s the approach he’s taken here, and it will make the tower -- if built in its present form -- the most compelling vertical form on the downtown skyline.

The guidelines of the Community Redevelopment Agency, however, include a recommendation against using any kind of reflective glass, which can cause glare. (Gehry ran into problems with glare at Disney Hall.) Yet strange as it might sound, given the banal reputation of the material, losing the mirrored glass would be a significant setback at this stage architecturally.

At the same time, the architects have made the smaller, 24-story tower, which will hold a mixture of market-rate and subsidized apartments, more distinct in its own right, adding fixed window boxes to its facades along 1st and Olive streets. The boxes, which Gehry has used in European projects, would help give some character and life to the outside of the tower.

Perhaps the most surprising new element in new models is the decorative pattern that Gehry has added to the tower facades overlooking the plaza -- the inside faces of each L. The pattern would take the lush landscaping growing out of the retail pavilions and, as a visual motif, extend it vertically into the sky. It could connect the project not only to the history of murals downtown but also to the nascent revival of ornament in the architecture and design worlds. The pattern, a floral design blown up to skyscraper scale, is something of a placeholder and needs refinement.

The idea of pulling the landscaping up into the air is topped off, literally, in the current design by live oak trees on the roofs of both towers. Though Gehry says he isn’t aware of the reference, the gesture recalls the medieval Guinigi Tower, in the Italian town of Lucca, which is also crowned by spreading oak trees.

With Olin having left the project, the job of refining those and other landscape elements has fallen to Nancy Goslee Power, who runs a landscape firm in Santa Monica and collaborated a decade ago with Gehry on the renovation of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. Related officials insist Power’s job will be to flesh out, not recast, Olin’s scheme.

At the plaza level, meanwhile, the design has made significant progress. Behind the free-standing retail pavilions along Grand rises a dense multi-level collection of shops and terraces. This effectively creates a kind of urban hillside: a third architectural presence with enough height and size to compete with the towers on either side.

At sidewalk level along 1st, 2nd and Olive streets, the models now show a loosely stacked collection of geometric forms. Large, brightly colored concrete panels (where other Related projects might use impressive-looking stone) alternate with expanses of glass and punched-through openings for pedestrians or cars. The retail pavilions themselves, topped with colored-glass sunshades, suggest a dense interplay between closed-off and open-air spaces, between informality and refinement.

It’s still not clear which retailers will fill those pavilions. Related has been hoping that an Apple computer store will occupy the most important retail corner, at Grand Avenue and 1st Street. But Related and Gehry say Steve Jobs, Apple’s chief executive, is interested in putting the same kind of sleek cube on that corner that he has used for other high-profile Apple stores. Since Gehry hates that idea, Apple may wind up in another downtown development.

The overall design has yet to solve some of its most stubborn problems. It is not as open in the direction of Broadway -- and, in general, to the south and east -- as it should be. The facade along Olive Street is still getting the back-of-house treatment.

On top of that, the diverse mixture of forms, materials and colors that Gehry is using here as a means of disguising the project’s bulk remains something of a gamble. In general, Gehry’s most successful recent designs have used a limited, monochromatic material palette -- steel panels for Disney Hall, titanium for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain -- to temper their energetic forms.

And with the details of the commercial block still consuming so much of Related’s energy, planning for the project’s 16-acre park, which will run downhill from the Music Center to City Hall, continues to lag. A team headed by Mark Rios, who has quietly taken the lead on the park, is expected to unveil a preliminary design this fall.

There are those in this city who lament that we’ve pinned too many of our collective hopes on the Grand Avenue development. Certainly it would be a mistake to expect that when it’s built it will feel anything like the beating heart of Los Angeles, or, to borrow Eli Broad’s phrase, like our Champs-Elysees. But the project has proven to be a fascinating measuring stick for the emerging public-private partnership model of urban development. It has provided a remarkable late-career test for the 78-year-old Gehry, who understands that it will help shape his legacy -- particularly as an architect so closely associated with Los Angeles -- but who has grown accustomed to generous budgets and deferential clients.

And it would be a mistake to reject outright the idea that a commercial plaza thick with pricey shops can tell us something meaningful about the future of shared space in this city. Los Angeles is familiar with the notion of playing out public life in the private realm: Look at Universal CityWalk, or the Grove.

In that sense, compared with those retail projects or the aloof California Plaza, the Grand Avenue project represents at least a tentative step by commercial forces back in the direction of substantial engagement with cities and city-making. Gehry and Related deserve credit for gamely challenging the notion that high-end retail spaces have to embrace either an old-fashioned or a numbingly sleek form of urbanism.

The most important question going forward is how Related officials will judge the architecture of the first phase. They may view it as an encouraging sign of what real architecture can bring to a development, in buzz and urban character as well as in sales. But it’s also possible that they’ll see their tumultuous experience with Gehry primarily as a cautionary tale -- a bullet dodged -- and move forward convinced that the risks they have taken so far aren’t worth repeating.