How Architecture Master Frank Gehry Is Giving Back to Watts

How Frank Gehry Is Giving Back to Watts -Publicity- H 2016
Glenn Marzano /Courtesy of Children's Institute, Inc.

The renowned architect behind downtown's Walt Disney Concert Hall has signed on pro bono to build a 50,000-square-foot campus for the Children's Institute International, a social services organization for kids affected by violence.

The quintessentially Los Angeles idea of having Frank Gehry build a trauma center for the Watts-based Children's Institute Inc., a social services organization that serves kids affected by violence, came to Gelila Assefa Puck while she was, of course, driving. Says the Ethiopia-born fashion designer (and wife of restaurateur Wolfgang Puck), who sits on the board of the 110-year-old group: "I thought, 'How amazing would it be if we could get a notable designer?'" She felt strongly that the neighborhood still haunted by the race riots of 1965 could use a new kind of notoriety. The agency recently had bought a plot at 102nd Street and Compton Avenue. "Our main goal was to create a beautiful, welcoming space that would become a hub of community activity for the children and families of Watts, [and] take away any stigma with receiving clinical services," says CII chairman Charles P. Diamond.

From the outside, Gehry seemed like a long shot. Though the lyrical swirls of his Walt Disney Concert Hall may be only 2 miles from CII's site, the distance between — economically and socially — is much greater than the 5,000 miles separating L.A. from Paris, Prague and other cities hosting Gehry's bold designs. Then there is the work: For every critic who praises the architect's buildings, there's another grumbling that they ignore the environment. Residents complained that the sun reflected off Walt Disney Concert Hall heated up condos across the street (the arches have since been sanded). The building destined for 8150 Sunset Blvd. has been met with protests from WeHo residents; L.A. City Councilman David Ryu wrote that "elevations are out of scale" and "traffic impacts ... significant." Gehry's L.A. River involvement has fanned gentrification fears, yet artist Steve Appleton, who has worked with Friends of the L.A. River and in Watts in the '90s, insists: "I drive through, and there’s a dearth of high-quality public spaces and institutional involvement; it’s admirable that he's there."

Puck, who has known Gehry and his wife, Berta, for years, isn't surprised by his signing on. She laid her proposition before Gehry over lunch at the Hotel Bel-Air. "We explained what the agency does and what we stand for, and he gave me a handshake right there," offering to work pro bono. "He cares very deeply about the community." Adds Gehry: "The people whom I met from CII made an impression on me of their commitment and deep feelings about the children that they could help with this facility. ... It was without hesitation that I said yes." Of his design — a series of two-story, garden-surrounded buildings that echo the modest scale of the neighborhood, their shiny roofs the only Gehry-esque note — he says: "This building is not fancy but has all of my heart and soul in it. I worked hard to make spaces for the kids and families that would use it so that they would feel special." Adds Diamond: "One of the unique aspects is the sense of togetherness Mr. Gehry has created, even in a 50,000-square-foot campus." Puck tears up just talking about breaking ground in 2018: "After he accepted, I was in shock. Now the second step will be to see other buildings move in and change the community. That will be my biggest dream come true."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.