Frank Gehry, the Pritzker Prize-winning Canadian architect that even your grandmother in Toledo has heard of, has left an idiosyncratic mark on his longtime adopted home of Los Angeles: Loyola Law School, the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, McDreamy’s Malibu abode and the rubberneck-inducing Binoculars Building on Main Street in Venice. And then, of course, there’s the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a wondrously warped downtown L.A. landmark that’s not just Gehry’s most iconic work in Los Angeles, but anywhere.

However, the most defining project of the elder starchitect's illustrious and at times controversy-ridden career may prove to be one that already exists, having been first designed by Mother Nature herself: the Los Angeles River.

Last week, the Los Angeles Times revealed that Gehry has been “quietly at work” for a year on a comprehensive vision for a revitalized Los Angeles River, a once-free flowing waterway that was channelized in the 1930s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stave off catastrophic flooding. In the years since, the concrete-lined curiosity has been become a favorite haunt of homicidal cyborgs, drag-racing greasers and urban renewal advocates.

The Times reports that Gehry, brought on board by the nonprofit Los Angeles River Revitalization Corp., is working on the scant-on-details project on a pro-bono basis with the hopes to entice the public back to the banks of the 51-mile-long waterway that, to the surprise of many Angelenos was, once upon a time, an honest to goodness river and not a glorified drainage ditch covered in graffiti.

Los Angeles RiverPhoto: David McNew/Getty Images

Calling Gehry’s work “a master plan, in the truest sense of the word,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti likens the 86-year-old architect to legendary American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted: “To have the Olmsted of our time focusing on this, I think, is extraordinary.”

The rub is that Gehry, famed for his shiny and aggressively otherworldly edifices such as Seattle's EMP Museum, the Guggenheim Bilbao and the newly minted Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, is very much not a landscape architect.

L.A.-based Gizmodo writer Alissa Walker joins a sizable chorus of Angelenos confounded by Gehry’s until now hush-hush involvement with the L.A. River redevelopment. Calling a Gehry-headed revitalization plan “a very bad idea” in which his fame would overshadow the river itself, Walker goes on to note that “Gehry’s work so rarely provides true public space and doesn’t show many gestures to the natural environment — both of which are the most important things the river will need to do.”

Gehry’s work has proven to be a liability, and not just from an engineering perspective. Gehry is polarizing in a way that will not help this very crucial project move forward. People often speak of Gehry in absolutist terms; so much so that he’s forced to respond very publicly to his critics. But nowhere is he more polarizing than LA. You’ve probably never heard of Grand Avenue, the biggest project Gehry’s ever designed for the city of Los Angeles—3.6 million square feet of shopping and dining plus several spiky residential towers, spreading across three city blocks. That’s because it has never managed to be approved due to blistering public opinion.

Walker concludes: “In a city that is already stereotyped for choosing celebrity over substance, this is hyping fame over function. It’s a decision that will come to haunt us — perhaps just as much as the 1930s choice to cement the river over in the first place.”

Los Angeles RiverPhoto: David McNew/Getty Images

As mentioned, Walker isn’t alone.

Residents and activists alike have sounded off including, most notably, poet, environmental advocate and Friends of the Los Angeles River co-founder Lewis MacAdams.

MacAdams believes that Gehry’s involvement undermines and could potentially endanger existing efforts to revitalize sections of the largely barren river including the Alternative 20 scheme in which an 11-mile stretch of the concrete-encased waterway near Griffith Park with a fighting chance for full ecological restoration would be treated to a dramatic makeover. Just last month, Alternative 20, which would “reestablish scarce riparian strand, freshwater marsh, and aquatic habitat, while maintaining existing levels of flood risk management,” was bestowed with a full blessing from the Army Corps of Engineers.

“Last time there was a single idea for the L.A. River it involved 3 million barrels of concrete,” MacAdams told the Times of his group’s decision not to endorse the project. “To us, it's the epitome of wrong-ended planning. It's not coming from the bottom up. It's coming from the top down.”

Duck cooling off in Los Angeles River Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

Both city officials and the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corp. are quick to point out that Gehry’s involvement — “a significant turning point in the life of one of Southern California’s most underutilized open spaces” — would not interfere with $1.3 billion Alternative 20 greenway scheme and that public input will play a crucial role in the project moving forward despite the somewhat secretive nature of Gehry's role to date.

Explains the LA River Corp in a recent blog post addressing the controversy:

Frank Gehry Partner, LLP’s efforts will expand upon the decades of important work that has come before, yet will be an integrated approach that knits together all 51 miles of the river. Far from complicating any other efforts, their work will complement those efforts, including the Army Corps “Alternative 20” plan, by contextualizing them in a larger framework, showing how the entire river can work as one ecosystem. LA River Corp is tremendously supportive of Alternative 20, having made many trips to Washington, DC to lobby for its passage, working closely with Mayor Garcetti and others to ensure its approval. We know how important Alternative 20 is to the future of the river, and we know that Frank Gehry Partner, LLP’s work will only serve to make Alternative 20 even more attractive to policymakers.

“At the end of the day, the L.A. River is an infrastructure system,” Barbara Romero, deputy mayor for city services, adds to the Times. “Having someone like Frank Gehry involved elevates it.”

Los Angeles RiverPhoto: David McNew/Getty Images

Christopher Hawthorne, sustainable design expert and architecture critic for the Times, notes that the not-so-enthusiastic response from longtime champions of the river’s revitalization is valid given that Gehry's involvement makes "zero sense" when considering his museum-heavy past work.

Their skepticism is understandable. If the Gehry-led group helps shape a sturdy new consensus about remaking the river as a civic amenity, Garcetti's gamble will have been worth it. If renewed attention to river planning gives rise to a truly substantive public conversation about water policy, drought and climate change in Southern California, even better. If on the other hand it becomes the vehicle for attempts by Gehry's firm to turn out grand, signature infrastructure in the way it has sometimes turned out grand, signature buildings, or generates more photo ops than progress, it will undermine important work on the river that goes back decades.

While city officials believes that an L.A.-based architect with name-brand recognition (he's certainly the only living architect to woo Mark Zuckerberg, have an ice cream sandwich named after him and appear on The Simpsons) will be a boon for the project moving forward particularly when it comes to funding, Gehry himself is quick to distance himself from the Olmsted comparisons made by Garcetti.

Los Angeles RiverPhoto: David McNew/Getty Images

"They came to see me and said they were heading up a committee for Mayor Garcetti and said we have this wonderful river, 51 miles, and that if we could brand it, give it visual coherence, it could become something special," Gehry explains to the Times. "I told them I'm not a landscape guy. I said I would only do it on the condition that they approached it as a water-reclamation project, to deal with all the water issues first." He adds: "I think we're wasting a lot of water at a time when we need it."

The Times goes on to note that Gehry, who is taking a tech-driven, multidisciplinary approach with an emphasis on hydrology, has been in talks with firms and individuals with decidedly more expertise in the field including Richard Roark of Philadelphia-based landscape design firm Olin, engineering firm Geosyntec and, most impressively, lauded Dutch water management guru Henk Ovink. Within Gehry's titular firm, partners Tensho Takemori and Anand Devarajan are heading up the project.

And while other details, including the all-important project cost, are not concrete at this time, the issue of the L.A. River's defining feature, concrete, is. Gehry explains that the river's paved walls will indeed stick around and that he has little interest in reverting the river back to its pre-1930s natural state: "I don't see tearing out the concrete. It's an architectural feature, and I can see ways of incorporating it into what we're doing."

Via [LA Times]

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.