Architecture

The Los Angeles River: Frank Gehry’s Most Ambitious Project

The Los Angeles River runs through an industrial area in Vernon, just south of downtown L.A.
LISA CORSON
The Los Angeles River runs through an industrial area in Vernon, just south of downtown L.A.
Frank Gehry is working to revitalize a three-mile stretch of the Los Angeles River’s concrete channel into scenic parkland. It could be the architect’s most ambitious—and riskiest—project ever.

These days, when you ask Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry how he’s doing, he deadpans, “I’m 90.” His response, however, is worth more than a chuckle: it recalls a story about a nonagenarian who, when asked why he was planting saplings, answered, “For the next generation.”

Gehry is planting a sapling of his own, and it’s a big one. In the middle of the sprawling Los Angeles Basin, just north and south of the confluence of the Los Angeles River and the Rio Hondo, he is planning to build a series of wide elevated platforms above a three-mile stretch of the existing concrete L.A. River channel. These platforms will span the river and become outdoor fields for public parks, programmed with social, cultural, and recreational activities. The panorama of this real estate, the sheer ground it covers, requires a very wide lens just to photograph and an even wider imagination to grasp and design. The scale is nature’s, not man’s.

It’s the project of a lifetime for a social liberal like Gehry, who believes in the power of architecture and urban planning to build and lift up communities regardless of class and income. And while it could take another lifetime to finish, the design strategies developed here could serve as template ideas for other sections of the 51-mile-long river.

L.A. County supervisor Hilda Solis, architect Frank Gehry, and then–lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom (from left) visit the L.A. River in South Gate in 2018.JONATHAN ALCORN
L.A. County supervisor Hilda Solis, architect Frank Gehry, and then–lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom (from left) visit the L.A. River in South Gate in 2018.
THE CONCRETE COFFIN

Unexpected twists and turns brought Gehry to a part of town most Angelenos know only by whizzing past it on the 710 Freeway. Unless you live in South Gate, Lynwood, Bell Gardens, or Cudahy—four of the Gateway Cities between Los Angeles and the harbor—you probably don’t even know there’s a confluence of what used to be two wildly erratic, flood-prone arroyos. Gehry himself probably didn’t know it until about 2014, when he was quietly commissioned by River LA, a nonprofit group founded by the city in 2009, to develop a plan for restoring the river. The following year, two nature groups—the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy—with enthusiastic support from Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, provided $1.5 million in funding for the nonprofit and the architect to produce the Los Angeles River Integrated Design Study, a comprehensive countywide appraisal of the river and the adjacent communities, from the upper San Fernando Valley to the harbor.

Gehry’s fame instantly trained a spotlight on a river with a history of being ignored, but the problem with the apparent public relations masterstroke was that designers and community groups were already toiling away on upgrading the river and, with sleeves rolled up, advocating for the removal of the concrete embankments and riverbed in order to restore natural habitat. Some, like the long-established Friends of the Los Angeles River, were already planning to naturalize the “concrete coffin” that the Army Corps of Engineers had laid in 1938, designed—like the contemporaneous Pasadena Freeway—for speed, to shoot stormwater out to sea. FOLAR and other groups had already initiated a bike path, kayaking excursions, and cleanup campaigns along an 11-mile section of the river known as the Glendale Narrows, located within the city’s boundaries and roughly 20 miles from the confluence with the Rio Hondo that would become the focus of Gehry’s attention.

Inviting the nation’s most famous architect to the table was like asking Ernest Hemingway to dinner: Wouldn’t he suck up all the oxygen in the room? Despite Gehry’s aw-shucks, who-me? demeanor, many folks already at the table thought he’d prove to be a carpetbagger who snatched away their projects and dominate ongoing conversations. He was going to pee in their river.

In 1995, the poet and performance artist Lewis MacAdams, who had cofounded FOLAR a decade earlier, had publicly declared the storm channel a river when, in front of cameras, he physically blocked the Army Corps of Engineers from bulldozing trees growing in the Glendale Narrows, located on the shoulder of Griffith Park. His mediagenic activism helped kick-start interest in a river that had been hiding in plain sight, as Angelenos realized that the river could be something more than a big concrete drain. In 2007, the city finally produced the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, complete with design proposals and landscaped renderings aimed at turning the channel into the kind of naturalized waterway that would have captivated William Words-worth, the English Romantic poet.

Birds linger in the Maywood area of the Los Angeles River.LISA CORSON
In 2009, Frank Gehry was commissioned by the non-profit group River LA to develop a plan for restoring the river. The project has presented endless challenges and turned Gehry and his team into “river nerds.”
A WINDING COURSE

Gehry, however, has never accepted a wheel invented by someone else, nor would he design a new one prematurely. He needed to study the subject before reaching any conclusions. “I had no preconceptions when we started,” said the quiet-spoken Pritzker Prize laureate during a recent chat in the plywood-paneled conference room of his Marina del Rey office warehouse. Seated on one of the scrolling wooden bushel-basket chairs he designed for Knoll, he was wearing his customary chinos and black cotton T-shirt.

During the first phase of his involvement, Gehry and his associates became river nerds, inventing their way through a study that grew episodically as they uncovered information and documented facts, layering the data into an information grid. “We meandered our way through it,” said architect Tensho Takemori, Gehry’s partner in charge of the office’s river team, about how the architects puzzled the grid together. They logged data into a matrix keyed to the river’s entire length, including the wide swaths of the city on either side—the river, after all, was not an island.

The architects identified and analyzed nine issues: flood-risk management, water recharge, water quality, greenhouse gases, ecology and habitat, open space and parks, public health and social equity, arts and culture programming, and transportation. In June 2016, they posted the results of their study, titled the Los Angeles River Index, online at lariverindex.org. Groups working on other restoration projects could add their own findings of their own projects as they wanted.

During the data-gathering process, Gehry’s interest migrated to parts of the river not already occupied by other imaginations. The cities south of Los Angeles beckoned. The index revealed that parks in this underserved, densely occupied working-class area would benefit the local population, whose life expectancy lagged a decade behind that of residents of more affluent, less polluted neighborhoods just 10 miles away. He started meeting with mayors and civic groups. They welcomed him.

Homeless camp in the Long Beach section of the Los Angeles River.LISA CORSON
Constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1938, the L.A. River’s “concrete coffin” was intended to shoot L.A.’s stormwater out to sea. Today, homeless camps line this Long Beach section of the river.

During this time, the city of Los Angeles and the Army Corps of Engineers, with a $1.4 billion budget, jointly proceeded with the LA River Ecosystem Restoration Project in the Glendale Narrows. They acquired land adjacent to the river for habitat restoration, including marshes, aquatic habitats, and riverbanks, without increasing levels of flood risk. The renderings were beautiful. What could be wrong?

In October 2016, however, Gehry spotted an article in the L.A. Times that cited a fresh Army Corps of Engineers floodplain analysis stating that roughly 3,300 parcels in the Ecosystem Restoration Project were at risk for flooding in a 100-year event, including the communities of Atwater Village and Elysian Valley. The habitat restoration and newly acquired land only maintained existing levels of flood control without improving them. The corps’ project resulted in a naturalized river that had the capacity for a 9-year event but not for 100-year storms, which appear more likely given extreme weather conditions precipitated by climate change.

Meanwhile, the corps’ findings set off a chain of events. The corps was legally obligated to inform the city about its conclusions on the Ecosystem Restoration Project, which would require FEMA to update its flood map and would trigger flood insurance rates to rise for existing homeowners in the new 100-year floodplain.

By participating in habitat restoration, the government’s engineers were undercutting their own mandate for flood control. There was a disconnect between their approaches to the river, naturalizing the channel and maintaining the concrete: the right hand disagreed with the left.

“How could they be saying this?” asked Gehry, incredulous. “So we called the Corps of Engineers and asked, Which is it? Widening the river, putting in grass—you’re trying to battle Mother Nature. Their report unraveled our thinking.”

Reality sank in, at least for Gehry: the existing, much reviled concrete coffin actually worked well, and he concluded that its shape could not be reconfigured and naturalized wholesale along the river’s entire length. To do so would defeat flood management and endanger riverside communities and their economies.

Still, the genie was out of the bottle. The prospect of transforming this major underused artery into a city-changing natural and recreational asset was compelling and irresistible. Gehry searched for another solution. “Why not try to separate the flood control from the recreation?” he mused. “That’s when we started exploring the idea of platforming some locations along the river.”

From then on, Gehry concluded that he had to abandon the idyllic visions of Wordsworth and leave the concrete in place. Some part, even a large part, of the 2,300 acres of airspace above the channel could be captured for recreational real estate with platforms that bridged the river from bank to bank, at a level more or less equal to the elevation of the surrounding city. Basically, he was advocating a double ground, the bed of the river and the platform above. Building platforms would add land to the city without the cost of purchasing it, which would set the city back a sizable portion of its $1.4 billion budget for the restoration project.

The brilliance of the platform idea was its simplicity. The river as a flood-control channel would be left intact. The platforms would add large amounts of free land made possible by air rights already owned by Los Angeles County. A staggering amount of parkland, more than two and a half times the size of Central Park, could be added to the 14 cities the river flowed through.

“We met with Lewis MacAdams,” said Gehry. “He said he wished he had thought of it.”

Here, a kayaker paddles through a lush section of river in the Frogtown neighborhood. Architect Frank Gehry's plans to revitalize the river include a series of wide elevated platforms that would provide parkland and outdoor space for social, cultural, and recreational activities. LISA CORSON
Here, a kayaker paddles through a lush section of river in the Frogtown neighborhood. Architect Frank Gehry’s plans to revitalize the river include a series of wide elevated platforms that would provide parkland and outdoor space for social, cultural, and recreational activities.
WHERE THE WATERS MEET

Gehry has a habit of looking in spots where other people haven’t. Early in his career, he made architecture out of the ordinary materials that no one else noticed. Chain-link fencing, wired glass, and corrugated metal became the stuff of his imagination. In the context of the L.A. River, he gravitated to underserved drive-by towns where the confluence of the L.A. River and the Rio Hondo, too big to notice, presented a unique opportunity.

These cities also exercised a special magnetism on the Gehry office, because the data it collected revealed that they had the greatest need and would benefit most from an improved river environment. “We were accumulating a body of knowledge that was looking for a client and a project,” says Takemori. “We started looking at that area and meeting people during 2016 and found a lot of local willingness to engage us about what the river could become.” The office, known for its iconic designs, was now in the business of building a coalition and finding a client for its project.

The two rivers converge in an unglitzy, uncelebrated cityscape of modest tract houses long since broken in. This was fertile territory for Gehry, who even as a starchitect thinks of himself as an outsider and sides with the underdog. Perhaps he had special empathy because his wife, Berta, hails from Panama, and the areas are largely Latino or African American.

In 2016, Gehry—contributing his own time pro bono—started to engage with the Speaker of the California State Assembly, Anthony Rendon, who as representative of the 63rd District, in southeastern Los Angeles County, became an advocate of Gehry’s work in his area. Rendon became the Garcetti of a part of the river that was outside the city of L.A.’s boundaries. With Rendon’s endorsement, there was now state-level support and with it the potential for serious funding.

The Los Angeles River running through Vernon, located south of downtown.LISA CORSON
A master plan for the river is expected sometime next year. Architect Frank Gehry is already considering locations for affordable housing so that those most impacted by changes to the river aren’t displaced by gentrification.

“I was delighted that Frank wanted to be so involved,” said Jorge Morales, the mayor of South Gate. Perhaps Morales was thinking of the impressive building Gehry might bring to his city, but more immediately, what brought Gehry to South Gate and surrounding towns were data that pointed to health conditions. Mayor Morales was a case in point. He grew up in South Gate, where he is now raising his family, and he has had asthma since childhood and later developed diabetes, two conditions whose rates the L.A. River Index found were disturbingly elevated there owing to pollution, limited access to open space, and diet. Morales welcomed Gehry’s talents as an architect of trophy buildings, but Gehry didn’t arrive with iconic designs dancing in his head: he was aiming at environmental remediation for South Gate.

It’s the rare public servant who takes career risks, but Mark Pestrella, the county director of public works, was among the officials, stakeholders, and citizens the architects met during scores of meetings in 2016 and 2017. Pestrella was open to new ways of thinking about the river. Gehry would call him and suggest they meet “to bounce ideas,” recalled Pestrella, “to talk about L.A. and urban design and the river’s role in it. He’s had a tremendous amount of meetings. Frank was very sincere, very respectful of every community. He surprised the hell out of me with his commitment to this. Others complained about the government, giving it a black eye, but he didn’t do that, and went about in a listening process. He said, ‘We want to do this.’ ”

The county had published its own master plan for the river back in 1996, but after 20 years it was time for a revision, and the meetings with Gehry gradually changed Pestrella’s thinking about making a project for the public rather than just another public project. Through their meetings, Pestrella realized that what he needed was an architect to help develop a new approach. “Civil engineers work on the box, but that’s not intuitive for human beings,” says Pestrella. “Who builds for people? We have to solve public service first, then solve the box. Who but architects do public spaces for people? Gehry brought to the table a human design perspective that was missing from all the studies.”

The L.A. County Department of Public Works then invited teams to choose a group to draft proposals for a new master plan. “We won the competition,” observed Takemori, “partially because we accepted and respected the river as is.”

The Los Angeles River spans 51 miles and passed through 14 cities. EMILY UNDERWOOD
The Los Angeles River spans 51 miles and passed through 14 cities.
A RIVER FOR SOCIAL CHANGE

Everyone agreed that the river channel of 1938 had served the L.A. Basin well. But the idea of nature and what Pestrella calls “the ethic of water” had to be factored into designs and “intertwined,” he said. “In fact, there is always water in the river, and it’s about 20 feet wide and 3 or 4 feet deep, and it’s very clean.” Pestrella added that the river as it exists supports “a tremendous ecosystem,” including the diverse urban cultures through which the entire river runs. “Any design has to honor and even cultivate those distinct communities.”

The confluence project emerged as the most feasible but also the most ambitious and audacious: two football fields wide, 30 to 40 feet deep, three miles long. Platforms bridging the two sides of the river would serve as common ground, connecting now-divided communities that would turn toward the river rather than away from it.

Gehry still has yet to lift a pencil. But design ideas, he says, are starting to coalesce as the architects work on delivering the new master plan by the middle of 2020. “Ideas for what can happen will emerge over the next year,” he says.

Besides his virtuosity as a designer of buildings, Gehry has demonstrated a social virtuosity in bringing together a coalition of politicians and stakeholders that includes the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Michael Govan, and the music and artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, who is an advocate of El Sistema, the music-education program that brought classical music to Venezuela’s disadvantaged. Gehry has even anticipated the downside of river improvement—gentrification—by identifying more than a dozen parcels for construction of affordable housing, to ensure that the people who’d benefit most from the new L.A. River aren’t displaced.

A sketch of Gehry’s platforming concept for a three-mile stretch of the L.A. River, which would create acres of parkland above the existing riverbed.OLIN/RICHARD ROARK
A sketch of Gehry’s platforming concept for a three-mile stretch of the L.A. River, which would create acres of parkland above the existing riverbed.

Gehry is basically adapting El Sistema’s motto, “Music for Social Change,” into “Design for Social Change.” His project is deeply informed by the nine issues addressed in the L.A. River Index, including arts and culture programming. Without completely naturalizing the river, Gehry will include such riverly features as walking trails, bike paths, and green pockets. Gehry is not anti-nature or anti-water. He’s simply creating large-scale, open-space parklands unrestricted by the demands of flushing huge volumes of water through reclaimed riverbeds.

Like many architects, Gehry has broadened the task at hand to its widest implications. By using the design of the river as a catalyst for building communities, he has expanded his field of design beyond the river itself—and beyond engineering—into a network of activities and infrastructure that promotes everything on the index’s list of issues, from culture to health to transportation. He has laid the groundwork for expanding a linear river into a delta fanning widely into the neighborhoods touched by the river.

The broad, shallow arroyo riverbeds that once covered the Los Angeles Basin never traveled well-defined paths. They varied their routes from storm to storm, spreading widely and unpredictably. In a sense, the nine issues of the index, as manifested by the cityscapes beside the river, take on the spreading patterns of an arroyo. Like the Ecosystem Restoration Project in the Glendale Narrows, Gehry’s is basically an ecological project, only the habitat he is cultivating is organic, green, and life-giving in an urban way, less Wordsworth and more like America’s poet of the city, Walt Whitman.

Joseph Giovannini, a Harvard-trained architect, was born in Lincoln Heights, a short mile from the L.A. River. He has no Huckleberry Finn memories whatsoever.