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Sam Hall Kaplan

Conflicts Cloud Design Awards

October 18, 1987|Sam Hall Kaplan

Winning top honors and a $25,000 check in House & Garden magazine's heralded first design awards program for residential architecture was Frank Gehry with a design of a guest house in suburban Minneapolis.

The magazine later revealed that two members of the five-member jury, world renowned architect Philip Johnson and museum curator Mildred Friedman, were familiar with the project prior to its submission. Both took part in the deliberations and voted for the project.

Suzanne Stephens, a spokeswoman for House & Gardens, called the situation that came to light after the award had been announced "regrettable," and said rules for judging the program in the future would be "tightened" to eliminate any hint of conflict.

The relationships between Johnson, Friedman and the Gehry commission were detailed, but not commented on, by critic Martin Filler in an article in this month's issue which reviewed the history of the project.

"It was a surprise to us," said Stephens, "and does raise the question whether they were predisposed in favor of Gehry, and whether it lent his submission an advantage."

Stephens said that of the 130 submissions that none, for the purpose of the judging, was identified by architect or location. "But of course, in these competitions a few judges recognize, or think they recognize, the style of a particular architect," she said.

"They (Johnson and Friedman) said during judging that they recognized the design, but we did not know to what extent they had been involved until the story came out, " said Stephens. "Then it was too late to do anything about it."

According to Filler's article, Johnson designed the original house on the 12-acre property, and had been offered by the owners the commission to design the guest house. Johnson declined, and though he said he would make a recommendation of another architect, did not.

However, Stephens observed that it was apparent that Johnson knew the site, knew the owners and knew that the guest house was designed by Gehry. "And he has on occasion been an outspoken fan of Gehry's," she added.

According to Filler, the owners, before deciding on Gehry, asked Friedman and her husband, Martin, the director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, their opinions of the architect. This was shortly after the center had decided to mount a major exhibition of Gehry's work, with Mildred the curator, and produce, in association with Rizzoli Publications, a major monograph on Gehry. The two endorsed Gehry and reportedly toured the site during and after construction.

The situation would appear to detract from the merits of the Gehry design, which, from the photographs, looked interesting, and from an award to Patrick Naggar for the interior design of a New York apartment and raises the question of how other projects might have fared in the competition if Johnson and Friedman had declined to vote for the Gehry submission. According to a person who attended the judging, the second choice was a design by Los Angeles architect Frank Israel.

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER is turning out to be a popular refrain when discussing planning issues in Los Angeles these days.

First and foremost, there was the passage of slow-growth Proposition U, then a flurry of bans and constraints on mini-malls and overstuffed apartment complexes, followed by proposals by Councilmen Zev Yaroslavsky and Marvin Braude to better define zoning constraints, and by Councilman Michael Woo to protect selected streets as "pedestrian treasures."

And now, at long last, there is a proposed Mulholland Scenic Parkway plan that includes a variety of controls to reasonably preserve the surviving views and fragile ambiance of the unique mountaintop road.

The plan, of course, is being opposed by a few local property owners, who argue that it will hurt land values. They do not seem to recognize that it was the roadway that lent the land there value in the first place, and it is the roadway, if kept scenic and unique, that will maintain and improve those values. What has been hurting those values is shortsighted greed.

If the roadway is not protected and more obtrusive, gauche subdivisions are built there, everyone will suffer; land values will go down, environmental problems will increase, and the city will lose a unique landmark. The plan and its controls proposed by the city Planning Department are long overdue and should be approved.

Better late than never also was the City Council slapping the wrists of Department of Transportation chief Donald Howery when, in a blatant beauracratic battle over turf, he tried to quietly sabotage the proposal for the Hope Street Promenade downtown.

The proposal by the city's Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) calls for the street's sidewalks to be widened and landscaped (we trust softly and appropriately), to form an inviting pedestrian connection between the Central Library and Grand Hope Park at Olympic Boulevard.

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