Frank Gehry vs. The L.A. River

Los Angeles has always been an architect’s dream. An open and ever expanding canvas and investors with the money to build on it. Just drive through the windy broken streets of Laurel Canyon and you will see the mismatched fantasies of innumerable architects who played expensive jazz through the desert hills. But there are a few stars that shine brighter and longer than the rest. These architects are given the power to shape the city. Frank Gehry is one of those few that has earned the right to put his stamp on Los Angeles.

You probably know one of his most famous buildings the Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. What you may not know is that he is famous for some of the most artistic building designs in the world. Check out the Hotel Marqués de Riscal in Elciego Spain and the Louis Vitton Foundation building in Paris. He just finished designing the new Facebook Headquarters in Palo Alto California and now he turns his focus back to his resident city Los Angeles.

His name is attached to multiple projects in Los Angeles that are currently in various stages of development. But what is most interesting to me at this very moment is an ambitious project to revamp the LA River. You may not have even known that LA has a river or if you do then you know that it is an unsightly cement pit with a small trickle of a river running down its center. 

Gehry’s vision is to see the river repurposed into a water reclamation center that recycles the water into a useable resource for the city.  This is beyond what was asked of him by a nonprofit the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation (LA River Corp) created by the city to improve the river corridor and make it an "attractive outdoor destination. While Gehry may not be an adept hydrology engineer, but with his fame in the architect world and two firms that he is the head of he will be able to assemble the best of the best to get the job done.

While there are many architects who are more experienced in this kind of work, Gehry brings a personal touch to the project. He understand the history of the place and what it means to Californians because he is a long time resident.


In the late 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers covered the bed and banks of the river in concrete, essentially transforming it into a canal. Its primary function is to direct stormwater to the Pacific Ocean to help prevent flooding in LA. Over the years the river has degraded into a source of "industrial and residential discharge.”

But Gehry isn’t going to start from scratch. "I don't see tearing out the concrete," Gehry said. "It's an architectural feature, and I can see ways of incorporating it into what we're doing.” This type of thinking is why he was chosen. He is a Californian at heart. He got his start designing his own home in Santa Monica. He understands that in LA even our broken down and unsightly landmarks are still OUR landmarks. 

The river has been embraced by the city for what it is a: Dystopian landscape desirable to teens and rebels with motorcycles and fast cars. Here is a list of famous films that featured the LA River. The Grease climactic car race, the Ryan Gosling Drive film also a car ride through the river andT-1000 chases John Connor on his motorcycle down the empty cement river in Terminator 2. There are many more and almost all are a car chase scene.

Hopefully when the revitalization effort is complete the river will be a destination where families can go together for park recreation and new types of films can be shot there like a Jennifer Aniston rom-com but still with a chase scene just now it is through a wooded forest by a stream instead.

Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan 2007