Frank Gehry is the Wrong Architect to Revitalise LA's River

By Alissa Walker on at

Last month Los Angeles was promised more than one billion dollars in federal funding to transform its river from a cinematic cement chute to a proper urban waterway. That great news has been eclipsed by a puzzling announcement that the city has tapped architect Frank Gehry to lead the redevelopment. It’s a really bad idea.

Specific details are sparse and there aren’t even any official images yet but according to the LA Times, Gehry was hired by the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corp. to design a master plan for the river.

As probably the most famous living architect on the planet, Gehry is a household name who can surely lend some star power to the project. And that’s important, seeing as most people don’t even know LA has a river. But that’s potentially one of the first red flags: that the project will be eclipsed by his fame.

Frank Gehry Is the Wrong Architect to Revitalize the Los Angeles River

An image from the existing Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan

But it’s also a strange choice because the city has actually had a master plan in place for the river for a very long time, one which has guided its development – or more specifically, it has kept the focus on the natural habitat, not on bombastic architecture. The Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, which was created by a team of designers, shows respect for human-wildlife balance as it sculpts the river’s path through features like water-aerating kayaking rapids and flood plains that double as soccer pitches. Apparently Gehry’s idea is a “broad reworking” of this plan, and that’s scary.

Not that he’s going to clad the entire 52 miles of river in hyper-reflective steel panels. It’s just that Gehry’s work so rarely provides true public space and doesn’t show any gestures to the natural environment, both of which are the most important things the river will need to do.

Let’s take some of Gehry’s best-known and most recent works:

Frank Gehry Is the Wrong Architect to Revitalize the Los Angeles River

Frank Gehry Is the Wrong Architect to Revitalize the Los Angeles River

Frank Gehry Is the Wrong Architect to Revitalize the Los Angeles River

Frank Gehry Is the Wrong Architect to Revitalize the Los Angeles River

Yes, apparently these abstract shapes are inspired by organic things. And many of them have nice gardens tucked into their folds. But look at the relationship between the buildings and the streets. Have you ever walked alongside one of these things? It’s not a friendly feeling. There’s no place to sit. There’s no place to linger. These are fortresses of metal and concrete with mere feet between the walls and the pavement.

In a city that is already stereotyped for choosing celebrity over substance, this is hyping fame over function. It’s a decision that could haunt the city, perhaps just as much as the 1930s choice to cement the river over in the first place. [LA Times]

LA River photo by a katz and Disney Hall photo by Gerry Boughan