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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

A Gehry imprint

The new proposal for Grand Avenue's first phase has the architect's trademark loose forms. But will infighting drive him off the project?

June 12, 2007|Christopher Hawthorne | 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.

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