Sunday, October 19, 2003

But I expected the old Frank Gehry.

Exit the front door of my building, turn left, and start walking. Walk through downtown, across Wilshire, up up and up the hill, past the Museum of Contemporary Art, past the Wells Fargo building. If you hit the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion or the Mark Taper Forum, you've gone too far. Chances are you won't get that far, though. How could you just walk by Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall without pausing to look at it?

I spent way too many hours hanging off the chain link fence across the street from the future concert hall, watching the construction of the concert hall parking garage. In fact, I spent one particularly chill, still Thanksgiving morning on that fence, toes wedged in the gaps, freezing fingers wrapped around the links, trying to figure out what was going to happen (not really knowing that it was just the parking garage taking shape at that point, that the concert hall would be across the street). I think I was the only person breathing in downtown L.A. that day, with the exception of the guy who tried to panhandle me (excuse me, but do you think I'd be standing here out in the cold on Thanksgiving morning if I had any spare change? No, I'd be drinking coffee somewhere warm.) The concert hall was still just a rumor back then, absolutely unimaginable by even the best educated and most knowledgeabe architectural historian. Because in 1988, Frank Gehry was still the architect of found objects, of eclectic residential structures and novelty public buildings. Sure, he was awarded the Pritzker in 1989 (1990?), but I don't think anyone realized that he was about to create a museum typology so recognizable that his early work would be consumed by it, and museum and art culture would be dominated by it.

So, the great concert hall is finished, and if anything it's an anti-climax. So controversial in the late 1980s, its path to completion was paved by Bilbao and the EMP. Even Cleveland has it's own version of Gehry's signature design by now. A concert hall that was simply inconceivable 10 years ago is now common place. We didn't have the visual language to describe Gehry's (future) building back then, but now he's offered so many examples, we can simply shrug and say, "Well, it looks like a Gehry, of course." It's so familiar it's almost banal. It's difficult to convey how amazing that is, that a building that had no blantantly obvious predecessors (although I can sure see it in the architectonic forms of the Vitra Design Museum) could not only contrive to get itself built, but manage to make itself common. What other architecture firm has managed this?

I'm not someone to go around spouting about Great Architects. But reading an article on the completion of the Disney concert hall made me pause, remembering the time I spent on the fence, unable to fill in the hole in the ground in front of me with any sort of structure. And now, I'm unable to not fill it in, unable to not imagine what a Gehry building looks like. It's only been ten years, but my visual vocabulary has entirely changed in that decade. And that in itself is a great thing.


No, it won't become iconic, it's won't represent L.A. to the world. Maybe it will prove to the world that L.A. isn't a cultural "backwater" (not my description), but it won't be a symbol of the city. It's too international of a style, it's too familiar already, it's already located in too many places. If L.A. had built it back when it was commissioned, maybe they would displace Bilbao in the public's mind, but it's too late for that. Nice building, built by a local boy, but it will never belong to Los Angeles exclusively or even primarily.

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