November 20, 2003
Gehry Spoken Here
Disney Hall may well be Frank Gehry's crowning achievement in Los Angeles -- and for good reason. Approaching The Walt Disney Concert Hall from the corner of First Street and Grand Avenue, the stainless steel walls reach into the air like a conductor's arms. The interior is even more striking, an intimate space filled with light and color. Disney Hall has every chance of becoming more than a concert hall -- it stands to become a destination. Like the Getty, which is now visited as much -- if not more -- for the building than the art inside, Disney Hall is sure to draw visitors who care not a whit about the music. There are public gardens on the outside. Patina restaurant has relocated to Disney Hall and will also operate a lower priced cafe. Visitors will be able to dine at both without buying tickets to a performance.
However, not everyone is a fan. A friend of mine, an architect, calls Gehry's work "ugly." He argues that architects often reflect their times and Gehry's work may reflect these times, but when all is said and done, the buildings will remain ugly. Disney Hall aside (which I believe is beautiful by any standard), it is true that Gehry's work is sometimes as much about the materials and the process -- the rules he is breaking, or the very fact that he is breaking them -- rather than pleasing aesthetics. In this, Gehry is in keeping with many of the artists with whom he identifies.
When I first arrived in Los Angeles, I didn't really get Gehry's work. Cardboard chairs? Harsh angles? Plywood and chain-link? Exposed pipes? Big deal. Even when I got it, I didn't appreciate it. Yet, over the years, I have found myself surrounded by Gehry's work. The more I contemplate it, the more it seeps into me. By now, I regard Gehry's work not so much as architecture as poems spoken in a language of his own, a dialect of Santa Monica, Calif., USA.
Most weekends offer me a mini-tour of some of Gehry's local work. Driving back from my daughter's gymnastics class, I pass by the giant Claes Oldenburg binoculars on Main Street that Gehry designed as part of the former Chiat/Day building, an act of whimsy making a statement about a business. Nearby is Edgemar, a retail complex that Gehry designed in 1988. How radical this jumble of forms must have appeared; today it seems almost conventional. Watch any child playing with blocks, and you will get how Gehry references his own childhood. As Santa Monica's Main Street passes City Hall and dead-ends into the Santa Monica Place parking lot, the shadows of parked cars can be seen through the chain link. They seem to form a painting that changes as the light plays on them. The more I look at it, the more it moves me as a work of pop art.
A meal at New York Bagel in Brentwood affords a chance to see Gehry's version of New York City's Chrysler Building hanging from the ceiling, which tickles me every time I visit there. A trip to Douglas Park brings us past Gehry's home, "the fortress" encircled by chain-link and other Gehry touches. It is easy to understand how, when Gehry first remodeled his home, neighbors were offended. Offense is also part of Gehry's vocabulary.
It is no longer popular to reference the achievements of French culture, but in Gehry's work one finds French accents, homage if you will, from the sweeping curves of Le Corbusier in Gehry's curved metal to cubism in his reassembled building blocks. Yet Gehry has absorbed these elements into his Santa Monica vernacular much as Michael McCarty (of Michael's restaurants) created a California cuisine, inspired by a Gallic reliance on fresh produce and ingredients.
For a long time, Gehry was outside the mainstream. There is no question that, at some level, he remains a rebel, at odds with his past, the establishment, looking to stick his thumb in the eye of some giant. Gehry wants, as the French say, to "epater les bourgeois."
This, too, is very Californian. People come to California to break the rules. It is a state both of the right and the left wing. It is as much the home of Prop. 13, Ronald Reagan, the recall and Arnold Schwarzenegger as it is of surf culture, millionaires in hybrid vehicles, holistic healing and Tom Hayden. What binds these disparate voices is their nonconformity and their belief in California as the place where dreams can be realized.
In moving to Los Angeles, there is a process of acclimatization. East Coast pundits can riff on "going California" with all the yoga, chai lattes and plastic surgery references -- but really, understanding California is about being able to see another aesthetic. California is about choice and even chaos. As you drive down the streets, there is every style of house you can imagine, sometimes one on top of the other. This could all veer towards ugliness, a characterless and undistinguished suburban sprawl. Instead, Los Angeles is a collage, distinguished by moments of beauty, grace and even whimsy.
All this is expressed in Gehry's work. Much of what he pioneered -- metal roofs and glass fronts, exposed pipes, lofts and boxes, are now commonplace. Gehry is of Los Angeles: his works speaks of the territory and for the city. The time has come to claim Gehry as our own. Maybe we should post a sign: Gehry spoken here.