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L.A.: Gehry's laboratory

September 11, 2003|James Verini | Special to The Times

When the Walt Disney Concert Hall opens for business next month, the world's eyes will be upon it, partly because the concert hall is expected to rejuvenate the fortunes of downtown Los Angeles, partly because the building looks like a giant space tulip (incongruous truths worthy of its quiet yet provocative architect) but mostly because that architect is Frank O. Gehry.

Gehry has called Los Angeles home since he was a teenager and has been making unlikely and fantastic buildings here for 45 years. He is the latest in a lineage of showman-builders that includes Abbot Kinney, Frank Lloyd Wright and, yes, even Walt Disney, and his best known works, such as the Loyola Law School campus and his own house in Santa Monica, are beloved fixtures of the city. But there are many more besides -- more than 50 buildings in Los Angeles County alone, each worth inspecting for its own sake and as a marker of his shape-shifting career.

Local interest aside, familiarity with Gehry's career behooves us precisely because he is, just now, the best known architect in the world. At 74, he has surpassed the other titans of his generation (I.M. Pei, Richard Meier, Michael Graves, Peter Eisenmann, to name a few) to become the mad scientist and chief salesman of architecture's future. His work since the 1997 opening of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, hailed as brilliant by many but dismissed by some as ego-driven "blockbuster" architecture, knows no bounds of whimsy -- just look at the exhibition "Frank Gehry: Work in Progress" currently at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Structural engineering is only now catching up with his visions. And in his profusion of ideas, his breaking down of the modernist box, Gehry has done more than any other architect to put the L.A. style, if such exists, on the international map. (R.M. Schindler and Richard Neutra fans will protest, but in retrospect they seem Bauhaus purists reacting to all that sunlight.)

Not too long ago, Gehry was designing jewelry store-fronts in Redondo Beach. A latecomer to architecture -- he studied chemical engineering, drove trucks and served in the Army before opening his own practice at 32. Frank Gehry took a circuitous route to Frank Gehry.

A Jewish-Canadian immigrant from Toronto, he has adopted L.A.'s protean propensities with relish, one day playing the no-frills contractor, the next the aesthete. He used to think in 2-by-4s and unfinished cement. These days he borrows software from the aerospace industry to mock gravity with titanium. He still considers himself as much a sculptor as an architect, and has done much to blur the boundaries between the two disciplines.

Return of the native son

The Disney Concert Hall marks a kind of redemption of L.A.'s prodigal son. After a mid-career apex in the 1980s, Gehry suffered name-burnout in the '90s as the concert hall, originally set to begin construction in the mid-'90s, turned into a one-man city budget sideshow.

His reputation abroad growing, Gehry effectively packed up and left town, pursuing commissions and perfecting the "undulating metal" style, as it's often called, from Spain to Germany to Korea.

Now, 12 years after his last major project -- the former Chiat/Day building in Venice -- was completed here, the Frank Gehry show has rolled home, and a strong argument can be made that that undulating metal is, somehow, distinctly of L.A. The concert hall calls to mind the ocean and the desert, an elaborate sound stage and a junked Cadillac. A monolithic confection, it would seem to solve, if just for a moment, the central dilemma of L.A. architecture, whose only constant is change: It is at once mobile and monumental.

The urban fortress

The hallmark of Gehry's generation of post- and neoModernists, if they have one, is "stylistic pluralism." His compatriot Robert Venturi summed it up in the 1966 manifesto "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture."

Flying in the face of a half-century of clean form-follows-function lines, Venturi wrote, "I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning." Gehry answered the clarion call, but his buildings only partly fill the bill.

Calling him a stylistic pluralist is like calling the Who guitarist Pete Townshend an instrument pluralist. Gehry doesn't pluralize styles; rather, he smashes them. As Gehry will admit, his work bears traces of L.A. architects from the Greene brothers to Schindler to Craig Ellwood, of Europeans from Le Corbusier to Alvar Aalto, and, beyond architecture, of plastic arts movements from Dada to Expressionism to Pop Art to Minimalism -- but only in the way that a blender drink bears traces of fruit.

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