Frank Gehry Calls L.A. River "Disgusting," Stresses Urgency of Development Plan

Frank Gehry-Getty-H 2016
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The "star-chitect" spoke Monday night at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Speaking in the concert hall that he himself designed more than a decade ago, world-renowned architect Frank Gehry stressed the issue of public health in the plan to redevelop the Los Angeles River, a multi-city project in which his design and urban planning firm has taken a leading role.

“It’s disgusting,” Gehry said about the southern portion of the river, which extends from Downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach. “If we’re human beings, we ought to take care of it.”

The L.A. River has been indirectly associated with a number of public health problems over the years, including diabetes and obesity, which correlate with the lack of recreational green space around the river, and asthma, which is often more common in industrialized areas.

The river, which was bound in concrete beginning in the late 1930s after a series of damaging floods, is also frequently blamed for wasting water, one of Los Angeles’ most embattled resources. Because the river’s concrete binding was designed to channel floodwaters swiftly into the ocean and away from properties on the banks, the city now loses more than 28.6 billion gallons of water a year, according to River L.A., a nonprofit working with Gehry’s firm and funded in part by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

“We think we can save the city one-third of what it now pays for imported water,” Gehry said in conversation with Christopher Hawthorne, the architecture critic of the Los Angeles Times. The one-on-one discussion took place as part of the Times’ Ideas Exchange speaker series.  

Gehry said he was approached by Mayor Eric Garcetti to spearhead the current incarnation of the project, which has been worked on by many different organizations in the past.

Critics of the plan call it secretive and say that its outward ambitions to address ecological and public health problems are simply a disguise for commercial development interests.  

Hawthorne, in a recent column, wondered whether the project was simply “a Trojan horse, a kind of high-design architectural cover, for rampant real-estate speculation in communities along the river.”

Whatever the economic realities of the project, it will entail a large and coordinated political effort to reach fulfillment, on the local, state and federal levels. Of the 51 miles to be developed, only 32 belong to the city of Los Angeles. The remainder is split between 14 distinct municipalities, all with their own local governments.

Despite moments of urgency, the conversation had several moments of levity, including a few jabs from Gehry at the new Broad Museum, which competes with Gehry’s concert hall for attention on L.A.’s South Grand Avenue.

“It’s not bad,” Gehry said glibly. “It could have been terrible, but I’m not against it.”

August 8, 8:00 A.M. This article originally reported that of the 51 miles of the LA River being developed, 11 fall within the city boundary of Los Angeles. In fact, 32 miles of the river fall within the boundary.