The 86-year-old architect, who lives in LA, was commissioned by the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation (LA River Corp), a nonprofit entity created by the city in 2009 to improve the river corridor and make it an "attractive outdoor destination." He started working on the project last year, although his involvement had not previously been publicised.
The selection of Gehry seems to make "zero sense" given his portfolio, wrote Christopher Hawthorne, the LA Times architecture critic, in an article published on Sunday.
"Though Gehry's firm has taken on a few masterplans, including an ill-fated attempt to redesign Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn for the developer Bruce Ratner, the office is best known for virtuoso stand-alone buildings including Walt Disney Concert Hall and the new Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris," Hawthorne wrote.
Gehry told the LA Times that he was approached by LA River Corp board members in 2014. "They came to see me and said they were heading up a committee for (Los Angeles) 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," said the architect.
Local residents often bemoan the river, which has been described as an "unsightly and neglected drainage channel." In the late 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers covered the bed and banks of the free-flowing river in concrete, essentially transforming it into a canal. Its primary function is to direct stormwater to the Pacific Ocean to help prevent flooding in LA.
The river typically has only a small stream of water and has become a source of "industrial and residential discharge," according to local accounts. Environmental groups have long advocated for the river to be returned to its natural state.
The city approved a masterplan for the river's revitalisation in 2007, and Gehry will reportedly update that scheme.
Gehry told the LA Times he accepted the commission under one condition: that water reclamation be the focus of the plan, as opposed to design interventions.
The architect proposes that the river be used to store and treat stormwater, rather than simply channelling it to the sea. This would enable the city to reduce the amount of water its imports from other parts of the western US, in turn saving money. Funds could then go toward creating a riverfront park.
Gehry has assembled a team that includes Richard Roark, a partner in the Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm Olin; Henk Ovink, a Dutch water-management expert; and consultants from Geosyntec, an engineering firm that is headquartered in New Jersey.
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"The Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation (LA River Corp) could not be happier that Gehry Partners has agreed to bring their world-renowned vision, thoughtfulness, and foresight to the Los Angeles River," said the organization in a statement. "It truly marks a significant turning point in the life of one of Southern California’s most underutilized open spaces."
Gehry made headlines around the world last year after declaring that "98 per cent of what gets built and designed today is pure shit," during a press conference in Spain.
His recent projects include the new Facebook headquarters in California's Silicon Valley. The social media company has since commissioned two further buildings from Gehry on neighbouring sites.
Top image of LA River courtesy of Shutterstock.