Sunday, January 28, 2007

Ouroussoff: Gehry faces a developer's constraints in L.A., too

Let's try to decode New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff's new take on Frank Gehry's latest Los Angeles project, in a handwringing essay today headlined Corner of Art and Commerce in Los Angeles. Ouroussoff sets out the question:
Designed by Mr. Gehry for the New York-based Related Companies, the master plan for the site, a choice parcel directly across from Disney Hall, provides a case study for one of the most pressing issues in architecture today. Can the bottom-line world of mainstream development produce something of architectural value at enormous scale? Or is Mr. Gehry simply there to provide a veneer of cultural pretension?
(Gehry rendering via New York Times)

Ouroussoff seems doubtful that Gerhy can achieve his goals, echoing his essay last June in which he lamented some of the compromises involved in Atlantic Yards but offered only the gentlest of criticisms of the starchitect.

Ouroussoff details Gehry's challenges and compromises in drawing up plans for Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles, a retail, residential hotel, and entertainment complex that will be evaluated next month by the county board of supervisors and city council.

The project, Ouroussoff writes, "may reveal just how willing the city is to address the deep social rifts beneath the area’s newly polished surface."

At the very least, however, it shows that the local political bodies will have some power in shaping the project, rather than the handoff to the unelected Empire State Development Corporation that Mayor Mike Bloomberg sought for Atlantic Yards.

Cost means changes

Earlier, Gehry and his client, the Related Companies (developer of the Time Warner Center in New York) were on the same page, but now they're at odds:
Meanwhile Mr. Gehry and Related have engaged in a quiet tug of war over how open the development should be to its surroundings. In an early version of the design, the two residential towers were set at the site’s northeast and southwest corners, visually framing the complex and anchoring it into the surrounding skyline. A series of two- and three-story retail buildings, loosely stacked upon one another like a child’s building blocks, were scattered along Grand Avenue, creating an informal street wall that served as a counterpoint to the flowing stainless-steel forms of Disney Hall.
...Over the last year, as Mr. Gehry struggled to contain rising construction estimates, his boxlike forms became more static, lending the design a more formal symmetry. The proposed facades of the two towers (one 22 stories, the other 45), which originally included fractured planes of glass that gave the impression that they were coming apart at the seams, are also less dynamic, forming a polite backdrop to Disney Hall across the avenue.


However, the developers nixed Gehry's cascading staircase, which would have linked the project to the busy street life nearby. He's tried to fix that, Ouroussoff writes, with some new details, but that doesn't quite work:
But the towering block-long facade that faces Olive Street is an eerie echo of the clifflike 1980s-era corporate plazas just to the south. And he still faces the challenge of overcoming the social apartheid of downtown Los Angeles: high culture separated from low, upper-middle-class concertgoers from working-class Latino shoppers.

Gehry's compromises

Ouroussoff considers Gehry's awkward position, in which he evolved from an outsider-ish "populist hero" to a "global name" working for cultural institutions "open to architectural experimentation" (think Guggenheim Bilbao). Gehry says he has more leverage today with mainstream developers than he did two decades ago.

However, as in Brooklyn (unmentioned in this essay), Gehry's no free agent. Ouroussoff writes, in closing:
But the Grand Avenue development may ultimately say more about the limits of any architect’s power than about Mr. Gehry’s elevated status. Scanning a collection of study models for the plan at his office recently, I asked whether he might draw on his early history — the cheap materials and crude populist aesthetic that could be used to break down the avenue’s sense of exclusivity — for inspiration here.
In other words, why not pick up the thread he discarded years ago rather than try to create glamour on the cheap?
Mr. Gehry paused for a minute. “My question has always been how well the developer could adapt themselves to this mixed ethnic neighborhood,” he said. “It’s uniquely L.A. and it’s very powerful, and the push-pull is about how do you do that. Hopefully it’ll happen over time.”
If not, he may have to stick to clients whose values better match his own.


Which clients?

Ouroussoff didn't take the opportunity to point out that a superficial sharing of values--Gehry said last January that "Bruce Ratner is also politically like me"--may not paper over professional conflict.

Ouroussoff last June wrote about Gehry's Atlantic Yards design:
The problem is not that Mr. Gehry's layout won't work, and it is a notch above the conventional. But given the clout he has, he had the opportunity to propose a far bolder design. I still hope he will revise the master plan, which is, after all, in the earliest stages.

He hasn't. Or, more to the point, the project was approved mainly as presented six months previously.

Ouroussoff wrote:
Whatever Mr. Ratner’s ambitions, a mainstream developer is not about to promote radical changes in local housing policy. And Mr. Gehry is an architect, not a politician. But he has a public responsibility to put his formidable talents to full use.

If Gehry has a public responsibility, why has he been so combative in public? Why hasn’t he met with the community? Why did he not, as he would have preferred, get other architects to design parts of the project? He remains constrained by his client.

So the question Ouroussoff might have posed to Gehry is this: how much are you willing to compromise your professional ideals to complete an ambitious project, especially one with a building you call your "ego trip"?

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