Dezeen Magazine

Gehry's selection as LA River masterplanner sparks criticism

A Southern California landscape architect is questioning why Frank Gehry was chosen to lead the masterplanning effort for the Los Angeles River redevelopment, citing a lack of expertise and public input.

Duane Border, principal of an eponymous landscape architecture firm in LA, took issue with Gehry's involvement in an opinion piece this week on Dirt, the official blog for the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA).

Border is president-elect of the ASLA's chapter in Southern California.

"The Los Angeles landscape architecture and design community was surprised by the recent announcement that Frank Gehry is creating a new masterplan for the redevelopment of the 51-mile stretch of the Los Angeles River that runs through the city," Border wrote.

Frank Gehry
Frank Gehry

Prior to recent media coverage, "there were no public discussions about this new approach or the selection of the new design team," Border claimed.

Gehry was commissioned for the project in 2014 although his involvement was only recently revealed in a story in the LA Times.

The 86-year-old architect – an LA resident since 1947 – will lead the masterplanning effort for the revitalisation of the river, a barren canal-like waterway that winds through the city.

His team members will reportedly include Richard Roark, a partner in the landscape architecture firm Olin; Henk Ovink, a Dutch water-management expert; and consultants from the engineering firm Geosyntec.

Gehry was commissioned by the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation (LA River Corp), a nonprofit entity formed by the city in 2008 to improve the river corridor and make it a desirable outdoor attraction.

In his opinion piece, Border questioned what will happen to an existing scheme – the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan (LARRMP) – that was approved by the city in 2007.

The LARRMP was conceived by the engineering firm Tetra Tech with input from three landscape architecture firms: Civitas, Mia Lehrer + Associates, and Wenk Associates.

The scheme is meant to serve as a blueprint for how to manage the river and was approved by the LA City Council. Gehry will reportedly update the scheme.

"The plan is deeply rooted in hydrology and ecology, aims to strengthen communities, and features parks, trails, bridges, public and private facilities, and more," Border wrote.

"Landscape architects are uniquely educated in how to best traverse the nexuses between ecology, community, and design," he continued. "The Los Angeles River deserves the attention of landscape architects who have experience analysing and then creating visions for regionally scaled landscape systems."

"Architects such as Frank Gehry can certainly be valuable in this process, but even he admitted he isn't 'a landscape guy', " Border added.

Border said the LARRMP informed a feasibility study by the US Army Corps of Engineers, which is a federal agency.

The Army Corps later issued a plan dubbed Alternative 20, which calls for restoring an 11-mile portion of the river and improving public access. The Alternative 20 plan is now before Congress.

Related content: see all our stories about Frank Gehry

Gehry's appointment not only threatens Congressional approval, but it also portrays a disregard for public engagement and transparency, according to Border.

Border wrote: "The LARRMP was born out of grassroots efforts and planned with intense community participation. During public outreach, specific projects were identified and championed by the neighbourhoods most impacted.

"Any project of importance requires a transparent process, regardless of who leads the effort. To succeed, the design process must be overseen by all stakeholders and experienced practitioners."

Local residents often bemoan the river, which has been described as an "unsightly and neglected drainage channel".

In the late 1930s, the Army Corps 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.

Gehry unveils design for mixed-use development on LA's Sunset Strip
Gehry unveils design for mixed-use development on LA's Sunset Strip

The LA River revitalisation is one of several major projects in the city making headlines and signalling an architectural boom.

On 20 September, The Broad – a museum by Diller, Scofidio + Renfro – will open on Grand Avenue, across the street from Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Gehry has designed a mixed-use development for the same area in addition to designing a five-building complex on Sunset Strip near West Hollywood.

In Beverly Hills, Chinese firm MAD is planning its first US project – a residential block modelled on a hilltop village.