Frank O. Gehry: Work in Progress
Ever since Cecil B. DeMille filmed The Squaw Man in a barn at 1521 Vine Street in Hollywood ninety years ago, thereby shifting the nascent movie business westward from New York, Los Angeles has been a center of at least one other great American art form. For a century now, L.A. also has been a seedbed of architectural innovation, as can be seen from the original and influential houses designed by Greene & Greene, Irving Gill, Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra, and Charles and Ray Eames. Much as those architects helped shape what is understood today as the California way of life, not one of them was native to L.A., let alone the state.
In the 1930s, there was a fresh infusion of sophistication in L.A. as Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, and Billy Wilder reestablished their careers in Hollywood. During World War II, Thomas Mann and Lion Feuchtwanger found a congenial if unlikely haven there from the horrors of Hitler’s Europe. And for decades after that invigorating influx of Continental refugees, Los Angeles became one of the liveliest centers for modern music in America. (Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky were both at the Brentwood Farmers’ Market one Sunday and cordially snubbed each other over the grapefruit.)
Still, Los Angeles has long suffered from a collective inferiority complex. It has tended to regard the creative achievements of other cities, most notably New York, as intrinsically preferable to its own. That myopia persisted when it came to perhaps the most extravagantly gifted of all Los Angeles– based artists of the past quarter-century, Frank Gehry, who like his great forerunners there was born elsewhere (in his case, Toronto), but moved to the city in 1947, when he was eighteen. By the mid-1980s the disparity between Gehry’s burgeoning international reputation and lack of recognition in his hometown began to seem disproportionate.
Although Gehry knows more about the creation and display of modern art than any of his present-day coprofessionals, he was repeatedly passed over for the most conspicuous California cultural commissions of the period, including the Getty Center and the museums of contemporary art in L.A. and San Francisco. His chances seemed dim when, in 1988, he was named one of four finalists in a competition for a new home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The project was funded with a $50 million grant from Lillian B. Disney, widow of Walt, for whom the building would be named, and which wound up costing $274 million.
Since 1964, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has been housed in Welton Beckett’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a mediocre subclassical bandbox in the Lincoln Center mode, infamous for its dreadful acoustics. The new building site, on Bunker Hill across from the Chandler Pavilion in downtown L.A., was meant to help revitalize the heart of a diffuse city that has epitomized the urban sprawl metastasizing so destructively across the American landscape.
The lingering insecurity and philistine obtuseness of Los Angeles businessmen-philanthropists were personified …