A visit to the Frank Gehry retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will take you through all of the architect’s greatest hits. There are the early and late iterations of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which placed Gehry’s undulating steel forms at the heart of Los Angeles. There are the dancing forms of the Nationale-Nederlanden building in Prague, known colloquially as “Fred and Ginger” — depicted at LACMA in an elaborate construction made of wood. And there’s the model of the architect’s groundbreaking Santa Monica home: a Dutch colonial-style structure deconstructed with intricate geometric additions and panes of angled glass.
But one of my favorite aspects of the show had nothing to do with models (the show is stuffed to the gills with them). Instead, what caught my eye was a simple panel of photographs that offer a peek into Gehry’s sources of inspiration, as well as some vintage views of Los Angeles. It consists of 20 images snapped by the architect around the city in the early 1970s — informal pictures of industrial sites that serve as studies on materials and form.
There are images of steel armatures used to move heavy goods and the repeating, angular lines of a factory’s pitched roof. One image shows a pair of rounded, almost sensual silos. While another captures the bizarre juxtaposition of a small structure bearing influences of Cape Dutch architecture tucked under a massive industrial building of indeterminate use. Here and there, California mountainscapes work their way into the images.
Gehry cemented his reputation, in part, on using low-brow materials in high-brow design: chain link, wood, corrugated metal — materials that he employed in the radical 1978 redesign of his own residence, for example. The hastily taken snapshots on view at LACMA reveal how much industrial architecture influenced the architect. They also show that factory buildings erected for their functionality and economy are not without moments of tremendous grace.
The pictures also reveal Southern California’s industrial guts. Though L.A. is often painted as a bubbly Bermuda Triangle of entertainment, the city is in fact home to the largest port on the Western Hemisphere and it has more manufacturing jobs than the state of Michigan, according to the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development.
Gehry’s pictures remind us of the important legacy of industry to the region’s history and identity. Now more than four decades old, they also offer an interesting historical record, since some of these structures and industries have probably long since disappeared.
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