If you were to ask for the name of the one building that has made Los Angeles proud and given us architectural bragging rights, you would get the same answer from almost everyone: Walt Disney Concert Hall. Admittedly there are some rare gems tucked among this sprawl of undistinguished houses, cookie-cutter McMansions, and stolid public structures, but what sets our collective hearts singing is Frank Gehry’s swooping, shimmering wonder on downtown’s Grand Avenue.
So why, I ask him, given that reception, haven’t there been more such offerings? Is it me, or has the landscape gone bland again? The 84-year-old Gehry is showing me around his huge studio in Playa Vista. It is cavernous but inviting, reminiscent of an airport hangar. Groups of young architects are quietly talking or staring at computers or bending over models, repositioning with dexterous care tiny chairs or miniature human figures. Gehry calls himself a reluctant tour guide—he has, I note, the strong yet self-deprecating ego of a true master—but he evinces a deep if low-key enthusiasm for all the projects he is pointing to: the vast Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park and the Guggenheim museum in Abu Dhabi, both under way, as well as the now-stalled Eisenhower Memorial that’s destined for the National Mall in Washington, D.C. There is also a ravishingly lovely sailboat he is designing for a real estate magnate and a small concert hall in Berlin. He bends to scrutinize a model of the latter, indicating the elevations and angles. Gehry lights up when talking about classical music, for which, he says, he has only the talent of a devoted listener.
But, I say, looking around at the displays, none of these is meant for L.A. He shrugs. “Los Angeles doesn’t take architecture seriously,” he says, “though I guess you could say that about most cities.”
“What about Disney Hall?” I ask.
"That’s just one building,” he says with amusement.
There is nothing peevish in his attitude toward this place. He is a fan, waxing a bit protective of our image: “It’s easy from outside to portray us as La-La Land, still easy for Europeans to come here and make jokes about us.”
Gehry does not want to contribute to that derisive stance even as he quibbles with our vision. He was born in Canada but moved to L.A. in his late teens. He is a product of our freewheeling environment and has an affection for it.
“This city suited me,” he says. “I have had access to everything here. The art scene—Ed Ruscha and Billy Al Bengston are still friends—was very embracing of me when I needed it; the architectural scene was snooty to me in the beginning. In the ’60s, when I started, you could play under the radar. New York wasn’t interested. Europe wasn’t interested. We were experimenting, and I was able to develop my own language that had some character to it.”
Even the annoyance we have come to most lament—the traffic, the necessity of constant motion in order to navigate the vast distances—offered the budding architect inspiration. “It led me aesthetically to look for a sense of movement in the work,” Gehry says. “I was upset about postmodernism and the tendency to regurgitate Greek temples. I thought, OK, if you’re going to go back, I’ll go back 300 million years—before man—to fish. That’s how fish forms became part of my vocabulary. It wasn’t just that my grandmother brought home fish.”
Despite the artistic excitement of the ’60s, architecture began playing it safe, Gehry says, leading to a number of unexciting public buildings. LACMA, he notes, is a prime example. Designed in that decade by William Pereira after the mayor opposed the more creative Mies van der Rohe, it was in effect a riff on Lincoln Center, as was the Music Center being constructed across town. That became the model for cultural sites here, Gehry says. We weren’t confident enough as a city to go for our own style. We imported it from the east, nice, sturdy, safe structures that didn’t challenge the eyes or the head or the heart and didn’t reflect the diversity and tumult of our unique turf. The 1980s update to the museum by the firm of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer was, most Angelenos would agree, equally tepid and unaffecting. The structure doesn’t stir anything inside; it is neither imaginative nor inviting. Now we have a prospective upgrade by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. It is clearly intended to be more daring though, on first look, it’s also determinedly weird, an outsider’s effort to capture or appeal to this quirky metropolis.
We have to wait and see, Gehry says. What we’re looking at now is preliminary. None of us knows what the final design will be or whether the museum will ultimately find the funds for it. He obviously wants the best for his profession and for what it can contribute.
“There are a lot of questions about whether architecture is art,” he says. “The people who ask that think pretty tract houses are architecture. But that doesn’t hold up. I don’t think all buildings have to be iconic, but the history of the world has shown us that cultures build iconic buildings for their major public buildings. I always say simply, ‘I’m an architect,’ but history shows that great architects were artists, like Leonardo and Michelangelo.”
On this score, Gehry says, Los Angeles has let itself down. He also believes that we keep making mistakes by trying to conform to old ideas of what a city should be. Case in point: the ongoing drive to give us a bona fide downtown. He finds these efforts—and he himself has been involved in them, specifically the Grand Avenue Project—both anachronistic and premature.
“We can will it into being eventually,” he says. “Maybe in 10 to 20 years. Who knows? I would guess it’s more like 30 or 40. Eli Broad staked his claim on downtown with his museum. But we are having trouble getting the commercial part of it going across from Disney Hall because there isn’t the population yet to serve, to get the kind of stores that should be there. Everyone’s trying. We’re all trying. You want to bet on downtown. You want to get behind something.”
At the same time Gehry says that the city is too big and varied to want or need a single center—a 19th-century notion unsuited to the reality of Los Angeles. For him the heart of L.A. is Wilshire Boulevard.
“I have always thought that L.A. is a motor city that developed linear downtowns. If you drive from Figueroa to the ocean on Wilshire, and you go up and down a few blocks along the way and then go back to Wilshire, you will see that it’s a very ethnically and economically diverse population and that people relate to the iconicity of Wilshire. They say, ‘Oh, I live two blocks south of Wilshire; I live on the Wilshire Corridor.’ There are blacks and Mexicans and Koreans and Poles and Irish and Jews. Everyone is strung along there. I myself live two blocks north of Wilshire in Santa Monica.”
Gehry says that if he’d had his way, he would have put Disney Hall where the Geffen Playhouse is in Westwood and lobbied to have the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels positioned by MacArthur Park, near where so many of its parishioners live. The idea is to make a city that is user friendly and accessible rather than insisting that people assemble at one sanctified locale. “Santa Monica is the downtown of the Westside,” he says, “and they are doing very interesting things there.” He also contends that MOCA should have been built across the street from LACMA, a symbiotic cultural draw, a natural twofer. “There have been,” he says, “missed opportunities.”
What about his own missed opportunities in this city? Is he disappointed that there are not more signature Gehry structures?
“I was interviewed for MOCA,” he tells me. “I was interviewed for LACMA. And I didn’t get either. The frustration lasted about half an hour. I still support both those institutions. There is stuff I would have liked to have done. But there are no sour grapes. I’m happy. I mean, Disney Hall is once in a lifetime. Are you kidding? I could go to the moon and forget it all.”