October 23, 2003
Making L.A. Real
This weekend the story of Los Angeles, and its future, is all about one building, the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Critics have already hailed our new symphony hall as a triumph of design, determination and a marriage of form, function and acoustic feng shui. But more significantly, in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles is finally acknowledging Frank Gehry's central role in our culture. One building, as Gehry taught us with Bilbao, can change a city (even as the destruction of buildings, such as the World Trade Center, can change not only a city, but a nation -- even the world).
Real estate touches our lives so pervasively that sometimes we take its impact for granted. The buildings we live in, the ones in which we work, what we see as we make our daily rounds -- their shape, the materials they are made of, their density, how we interact with them and the light and air -- all aggregate to inform the character of our city. Some of this is planned, some is happenstance, some is just business.
So this column is about real estate and two men: Frank Gehry and Larry Field, friends and, on occasion, partners, who shape this city. Gehry is the man of the moment; Field is best known in real estate circles. In some ways they couldn't be more different -- in politics, temperament, personal interests. Yet, both are men who see, in the jumble of Los Angeles, what is real.
Real estate: Gehry builds it, transforms it, makes it usable, memorable. Field buys it, leases it, develops it. Real estate has fed their families, made them rich. Neither was born here, but both have made Los Angeles home.
Field was born in the Bronx and moved to Los Angeles in 1965. He had been in the real estate business in New York and started out by managing some downtown commercial properties. Very quickly he realized that Los Angeles was a real estate bargain. Even in the best areas, such as Mid-Wilshire, commercial property sold for $10 a square foot while in New York comparable properties went for $25-$40 a square foot. He also realized that Los Angeles was one of those cities, like New York, that people from all over the country and all over the world moved to when they had made money elsewhere. Over the last 30 years he has developed more than 1 million square feet, primarily on the Westside. His company is called NSB, and Field is often heard to say "not so bad," which is exactly how he has done.
Around the beginning of 1977, Field bought two square blocks of commercial property on Main Street in Venice, seven and a half acres, for $1 million. One day, he got a call from a young architect, Gehry, who wanted to buy a parcel of the Venice property. That's how they first met.
For his part, Gehry moved to Los Angeles from Canada with his family as a teenager. Although he went east to MIT to study, he wasn't interested in playing by East Coast rules. He came back to Los Angeles and eventually settled in Santa Monica, where he lives to this day.
At that time, art collector Fred Weisman wanted Gehry to build an art museum to house his collection. In no time, Weisman, Gehry and Field joined together to develop the parcel as museum, commercial space and below market artist's studios. However the Jewish community from the Venice synagogue came out in force against them saying they threatened the senior citizens' community. They abandoned the project. Field' property became home to Gold's Gym, The Rose Café and the Gas Company building. Gehry eventually sold his parcel to Jay Chiat who in turn had Gehry build the Venice landmark, the Chiat/Day Building, which many (including my daughter) call "the binoculars building."
A few years later, when Gehry and artist Chuck Arnoldi wanted to buy a building at Brooks, they asked Field to be a partner in return for investing his money. Field explained that Gehry didn't need him; the bank would finance the purchase. As Gehry says today, "He could have been greedy. He could have inserted himself. He didn't. He was very generous."
Field and Gehry became friends. Field does not know many artists; Gehry does not socialize with many real estate developers. Their friendship allows them to speak honestly and openly to each other about family and work -- about things that are real.
Now more than 30 years later, they are finally partners in a real estate deal. When Gehry needed new offices, he called Field. Field found them a giant Playa Vista warehouse that BMW used to own. Gehry took the back half and has his offices there and is designing the front as two office spaces -- there are many Gehry design touches -- an interior street between the front and back halves, a garden and a cafe (which will be run by Field' daughter, Lisa, who has a catering firm). The front offices are under construction and will be ready by January. At the same time, Gehry has asked Field to be a director in his new company, Gehry Technologies (the design software Gehry pioneered).
"After all these years, I wanted to give something back to Larry," Gehry said recently.
Field looks at real estate and he sees what could be there. Gehry is famous for using everyday materials: chain link, plywood, cardboard. He has made metal curve in ways even Uri Geller could not have imagined. Both men have had an enormous impact on the character of the Westside. They are able to see what sometimes we can't or what we take for granted. They make it real.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.