All That Glitters

September 3, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, essayist Anne Taylor Fleming considers the relationship between an architect and his city.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Here in this vast sprawl of old cottages and nouveau mansions lives the quirky little house that Frank Gehry built for himself and his family on this quiet Santa Monica Street back in 1977. He didn’t really build it, nor did he renovate it. He re-conceived it, leaving the original two-story pink house inside and building a new chain link and corrugated tin house around it. The neighbors were offended and upset. But Gehry, who had already been a working architect for 20 years, saw it as his breakthrough, a witty, chaotic montage of new and old, a metaphor for a city that routinely paves over its past.

Fast forward another 20 years and the man who fashioned that private house is at the peak of his powers, considered by many the world’s best and most original architect. His crowning achievement is this branch of the Guggenheim Art Museum, on the gritty industrial waterfront in Bilbao, Spain. It’s Frank Gehry writ large, an undulating mix of titanium and limestone, his signature-mixed metaphor of hard and soft, of buildings as sculpture. The problem for Frank Gehry is in his hometown. For over 40 years he hasn’t been able to do his thing here on a large scale. And that difficulty goes right to the heart of how this city sees itself and doesn’t see itself. Everybody talks about how trendy Los Angeles is, how cutting edge modern.

From the seaside circus that is the Venice Beach Boardwalk, where the nouveau hippies do their freaky things, to Rodeo Drive, where the nouveau riche do their flashy thing, L.A. in the mind of the country and often in its own mind is the hottest, happeningest, hippest spot. But at the same time there is a strong conservative streak that runs through the heart of the city, a city that was founded by relocated Midwesterners who built solid industrial fortunes in business and journalism and shipping. They built a city with a tough, take-no-guff police force and a pin-striped, downtown establishment that wants very much to be taken seriously by the rest of the country, an establishment yearning for cultural recognition. And I’m not talking pop culture, movie stars and movie studios, but hard core high culture–museums and concert halls. These are the moneyed folk who decide who builds what in LA. And up till recently, Frank Gehry was considered too much a maverick, a risk.

Richard Meier got the go-ahead to design this big new museum, the Getty, which sits atop a hill overlooking the San Diego freeway. And I. M. Pei is responsible for this building, an elegant limestone curve on a Beverly Hills corner that houses one of the city’s top talent agencies–neither building fantastically daring. But then in the late 80’s Frank Gehry finally did get a nod from the establishment to design the new Disney Concert Hall downtown. It seemed the city was finally going to reconcile its two sides; that the establishment was going to embrace the irreverent at last. People swooned over Gehry’s model, a quirkily embracive hall that seemed to float in time and space. Almost immediately, the Disney project bogged down in egos and finger-pointing and cost overruns.

But now the city has roused itself anew, raising a vast new sum of money to plow on with the building. Clearly, L.A.’s civic ego and self-image have been irritated and embarrassed by the critical excitement over Bilbao, a cutting-edge building, built on time and on budget, rising in a tough, old Spanish seaport, while here in the sunny Futureland we can’t seem to get our act together. Disney Hall is much more than the story of an architect and his city. It’s the story of the city itself and the warring sides of its own soul, the entrepreneurial and the artistic, the past and the future, precisely the tension that Frank Gehry’s own little house, recreated 20 years ago now, so clearly embodies.

I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.