Just Subtract Water: The Los Angeles River and a Robert Moses with the Soul of a Jane Jacobs




CHINATOWN, THE MOVIE, made abundantly clear that the history of Los Angeles hinged on the history of water — the lack of it and the getting of it. Or, as LA’s legendary water superintendent William Mulholland once (dryly) observed about channeling water from the Owens Valley: “If you don’t get the water, you won’t need it.”

Today Los Angeles is again thirsty. A record drought threatens our yards, our showers and way of life, and the LA River — including its watershed — finds itself plunged in an intensified water crisis long in coming. The problem and opportunity of just what to do with the river and its watershed represents a question of historic dimension and epic scale for the Southland, and as with any issue of such scope, there are many collateral questions, not least social engineering. The river divides the east and west sides of town as it links the Valley to Long Beach, and redesigning the 51-mile river can stitch east and west together while linking north and south in a mending process with deep cultural and social benefits.

In a region defined and divided by mountains and 10-lane freeways, the river is perhaps the only unifying transect that can connect so many diverse neighborhoods and jurisdictions. Like Wilshire Boulevard, though more than three times as long, a reinvented river could act as both an urban spine and civic plaza, organizing and linking the communities it crosses.

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Los Angeles’s entire urban and suburban drainage infrastructure is engineered to capture and send storm water into the river swiftly, and then on to the Pacific. One goal now on the table, almost as counterintuitive as reversing the flow of a river, is to limit the amount of water streaming into the storm channels in the first place. Better to subtract the water from the infrastructure in order to let it seep into the aquifer and recharge the water table, reducing the need for importing water. Over the next 20 years, proposed storm water capture programs can reduce the water the city buys by 10 percent to 20 percent, and the annual bill on the imported water by upwards of a hundred million dollars.

When the Army Corps of Engineers designed the river channel after the devastating flood of 1938, it deepened the river and lined the flume with smooth planes of concrete to hasten the flow and prevent flooding. Another upside to limiting the amount of water that reaches the river, besides recharging the aquifer, is that throttling down the volume, avoiding the great gushes, frees up river-bottom real estate for possible public and recreational space: the flood-control channel takes on civic potential. Ecologically, less volume also allows a slower rate of flow, and more time for water to percolate into the soil and participate in natural cycles. For cities downriver, and ultimately the ocean, limiting stormflow reduces pollution.

We already have a starter reinterpretation of the Army Corps of Engineers’s river in the verdant, soft-bottomed 11-mile Glendale Narrows between the 134 and the 110, where rock substrata push groundwater up through a soft, unpaved bottom, forming the pools and wetland of a “gaining” river. River activists convinced the Army Corps of Engineers to stop mowing down vegetation, even though friction from vegetation retards flow. The Tongva Indians lived for millennia along this stretch and would find today’s habitat in the channel familiar. Double-crested cormorants and exotic, long-limbed egrets are among the 100 visiting bird species that would keep Audubon busy.

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Restricting the volume of H2O is one way to spring the monolithic channel from its concrete girdle, but other reinterpretations of the Glendale Narrows are emerging that are competing with the idea of blanketing the river with “nature.”

Despite the inviting views of the Narrows glimpsed from the Los Feliz Boulevard bridge or the bike path along the river’s shoulder, you can’t easily get into the river there. The uncomplicated way to access the channel itself is to head over to the Sixth Street Bridge, park, and sneak down (illegally) through the long tunnel directly under the bridge (better do it soon because in January demolition of the bridge starts, to make room for the new Sixth Street Bridge, designed by Michael Maltzan).

There you find another reality — not the lush, painterly Constable or Gainsborough of the Narrows but a scene of striking monumentality and minimalism. The tunnel opens onto the reason the LA River works as a pipeline: shaped at about the time the Pasadena Freeway was also engineered for speed and volume, the channel is literally streamlined for the 25 mph currents that course through the channel during a heavy inundation: no jogs in the embankments; nothing but occasional weeds growing through the armor; bridge supports shaped like prows to cut the flowing water. Compared to the lush banks upriver, the scene is dystopian, earning the dark movies that have gravitated here for tough, tense, sexy urban sets: To Live and Die in L.A., Grease, Grand Theft Auto, Terminator 2, The Italian Job.

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But if you squint past the graffiti, tufts of weeds, and tipped-over shopping carts, a more structured and grander architectural reality emerges. You just have to flip a mental switch. The sun-bleached landscape of concrete with the flat river bottom is pharaonic, with embankments sloping at angles that recall ancient pyramids, and their scale. The space between the embankments, about the width of a football field, is amphitheatrical: the amplitude provokes awe. In the middle of this monumentality, the low-flow channel actually carrying water — a steady stream of treated wastewater — is only about 15 to 20 feet wide and a couple of feet deep, but the flat concrete riverbed has set the stage for many movies based in a popular American culture and subculture of drag racing, graffiti, T-shirts, Brylcreem, and John Travolta.

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The movies have mythologized the river and tattooed our collective cultural memory as the public imagination has shifted, via entertainment, from the rural to the urban. It’s an unexpected form of beauty, radically different from the kinder, gentler, more sentimental Romantic version in the Narrows a couple of miles upstream.

From here, look up and down the river and see classically detailed pre–World War II concrete bridges, most built by the almost forgotten LA City Engineer Merrill Butler, monumental but largely unsung landmarks marching in succession and receding into the distance as far as the eye can see. Spatially, this trench cut through the city is magnificent, imperial in scale. Even the area where Tongva Indians camped 3,500 years ago near the confluence of the LA River and the Arroyo Seco, now a homeless encampment, is impressively Roman, crossed with monumental freeway overpasses — the Pasadena and the Golden State — that recall aqueducts when seen from beneath.

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Archival photographs taken in the late 19th and early 20th centuries show the LA River as a spreading arroyo of sand and gravel, crazy-quilting the basin for much of its length. It coursed into Santa Monica bay in the early 19th century before shifting to the Los Angeles Harbor, leaving Ballona Creek in its wake on the Ballona Creek watershed. The LA River as it eventually ran from the Valley toward Long Beach was never a miniature Hudson or Mississippi or Nile — wide, flowing, and storied — but a rugged and dry wash for most of the year, crisscrossing the alluvial fan and changing course and direction in a swath eight miles wide in places.

The character of this indeterminate river of changeable mind, alternately casual and violent, was transformed big-time after the 1938 deluge, when 3 million barrels of concrete were dedicated to a single purpose: flood-control management. From Canoga Park in the west San Fernando Valley down to the harbor, its wild, open, and sprawling Zane Grey character vanished into a canyon of concrete.

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Photo via the LA Public Library photo collection

The river in this form was not designed as a social amenity. The goal-oriented engineers conceived the LA River as a highway for floodwater, to be left virtually vacant otherwise, for most of the year. For some, the river has seemed entombed by a brutal material cast in cold, hostile geometries. After a storm, the river was also treacherous, the pitch accelerating the flow. If the Mississippi seems lazy, it’s partially because it drops about 800 feet in 1,200 miles (if you start at Minneapolis). No rush. The LA River is amphetamine by comparison, dropping by about the same elevation but in only 51 miles.

The ripple effect of the channeled river wasn’t pretty either. The newly defined and protected shoulders of the river were dedicated to electric transformer substations, high-tension wires, warehouses, factories, jails, sanitation truck parking lots, rail lines, and rail yards. It was an industrial service corridor that wasn’t riparian and verdant.

But then it never really had been.

The invisible tributaries to this river of concrete were the street and drainage systems, and as the drought forces hydrologists to look for other sources of water through an integrated program of water usage, including retention, conservation, and recycling, they have come to understand that the river is symptomatic of a paved-over landscape. Focus has widened beyond the Narrows and even the entire 51-mile length of the river to a macro scale and a more holistic understanding of the basin and region.

The drought has changed the game, but another primary factor is the leadership of Mayor Eric Garcetti, who early in his term identified his mayoralty with the river: soon after his election, photos of the mayor kayaking in the river went up in LAX terminals. Perhaps because he grew up in Encino, where he walked alongside the river with his sister and father, and because he represented Silver Lake and other river communities in the City Council, Garcetti has dedicated considerable political will, energy, and capital to a cause he has cared about for decades.

In 2014, he established the multidisciplinary, multi-departmental LA Riverworks department within his own office to coordinate the implementation of the whole river vision, including the 2007 Revitalization Plan, the Army Corps’s Ecosystem Restoration Study, and other plans. “To get anything done in LA, it helps to have the headquarters in the mayor’s office to show the issue is central to the City plans,” Garcetti says, back to normal just a day after a terrorist threat shut down LA schools. “This was a way to centralize cooperation and formalize commitment to the river. It’s a one-stop shop for people to cohabitate, and a reflection of how important the issue is to me.”

The river is playing a role in Garcetti’s bid to bring the 2024 Olympics to Los Angeles: several sites along the river are being considered as possible venues for Olympics-related structures.

Early last year, the independent Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation wooed Frank Gehry, inviting the Los Angeles architect to study the river and make proposals encompassing everything from the river to the watersheds. “Frank called me and asked me if the invitation was real, and whether it had my support,” says the mayor, “and since I was committed, he committed. Then there was a spillover effect: if he was involved, others wanted to be involved.” Tapping the glocal Gehry, a popular avuncular figure, switched the kliegs onto the river, galvanizing public attention — and lately governmental support: the state has just awarded a $1.5 million grant for Gehry to complete the first phase of a study on which he and his consultants have already worked pro bono for 10 months.

When his involvement was announced, Gehry’s first comments pointed to issues beyond the prevalent notion of the river as a landscaping opportunity. Like Mr. McGuire in The Graduate wanting to say just one word — plastics — to Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman’s character), Gehry memorably uttered hydrology: he would only be interested in the river project if addressed from a water-reclamation point of view. To recharge the basin, he would have to look at the whole river in the context of the larger water ecosystem, and not just the 32-mile Los Angeles city corridor.

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Photograph by Lane Barden. The L.A. River in 2002 under the old Riverside Drive Bridge (no longer extant) looking downstream, southeast. The large graffiti pieces have long been covered over by the city’s graffiti abatement program. The railroad bridge and the Interstate 110 overpass are in the background.

 Gehry also dropped another pregnant word: concrete. As the architect who made his reputation on the good, the bad, and the ugly of LA’s urban environment, collaging chain-link fencing, corrugated metal siding, and wire glass into his architectural Rauschenbergs, he respected the rugged toughness of concrete and the stark but sometimes powerful aspects of the existing river. He did not necessarily see concrete as the enemy but as an ally. The inference was that existing segments of the river could be built on and modified, that concrete could be welcome in a solution that fuses infrastructure, ecology, and design. Rather than assuming the paved river should largely be naturalized according to the Glendale Narrows model, working with concrete as a material was an option, making visible the city’s hidden infrastructure. By acknowledging the concrete as a hard fact, perhaps even as a desirable quality, Gehry was also accepting the existing monumentality of the river. Reinterpreted, the monumentality as it now stands could be a value.

Maybe the “single minded” engineers in the Army Corps had actually been designers. With some corrective nipping and tucking, the monumental culvert could, in places, be considered earth art, a de facto Michael Heizer.

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Each of the two words opened up a world, but Gehry’s design insight about concrete was especially generative, promising a possible way forward, or at least an expansion of the palette of ideas. Up until Gehry stepped into the picture, the drumbeat had been “nature” as the go-to, default solution, even if large stretches of the mostly dry wash had never supported the lush 19th-century Romantic ideal of a swimmable, fishable, boatable riverscape that many river advocates now see in their mind’s eye. Gehry’s point of view promised to yield an unexpected artistic vision in addition to the more conventional and totalizing “landscape” solution that had been emerging and prevailing.

In terms of the perception of the river, the insight could be transformative. Though Gehry has made no specific proposals, his few comments implied that he might look at the river as it is, recognizing the engineering reality that in some areas you cannot remove the concrete. In areas where flood-control speeds require concrete, however, a designer could keep and celebrate its monumental minimalism, inventing other ways of working it into a more humane and attractive habitat. Piranesi’s visions of Roman aqueducts in ruin sprouting trees come to mind. Gehry was arguing for environmental diversity, not a single totalizing design solution. His tentative thoughts offered a way to make peace with the existing river, synthesizing an overlooked cultural and aesthetic aspect of it with the pragmatics of engineering, hydrology, and ecology. “If the mayor sticks with us, he’s going to make it a beautiful thing,” says Gehry.

For some but by no means all, Gehry’s new perspective changed the perception of the river as it exists, much as his unconventional buildings have pointed out the beauty and interest of the everyday built environment. The river could be architected as well as landscaped, or at least designed as a vigorous hybrid of the urban and natural, fusing structure, infrastructure, and landscape into a complex, unexpected whole. For Gehry, at least part of the as-is river is a found object that can be taken up per se and reinterpreted. Concrete and the engineered river could be beautiful. In any event, the concrete channel is part of the ecology of the city, and there is no way to remove it altogether: tabula rasa is not an option.

Landscape architects working in the 19th-century tradition of the great landscape architect and social progressive Frederick Law Olmsted designed parks for their social value, mixing all classes and giving them access to the healthy out of doors without leaving the city. The introduction of Gehry into the LA River equation promises to graft the element of cultural value onto the social value of a public park: he accepts the city rather than rejecting it in the name of nature, merging cultural and ecological landscapes. They are not mutually exclusive. 

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If Gehry brings fresh insight to the river, rediscovering it in a new way, he is Christopher Columbus to LA’s own Leif Erikson, Lewis MacAdams, who discovered the river first. The concrete channel had been hiding in plain sight for decades until MacAdams put it on the map as a river, when, in 1995, he physically blocked bulldozers from leveling the vegetation that was growing spontaneously in the Narrows. Until then, the Army Corps would regularly give the river a haircut to prevent trees and grasses from slowing down the flow during floods. MacAdams, then 50 and a performance artist, was savvy enough to have a photographer on hand to record and publicize the event, and he successfully stopped the usually unstoppable Corps. It was an act of defiance and a performance piece in one, and it kick-started the shift toward the perception that LA’s primary drainage channel was once a river, and could become one again. The habitat of the river could reestablish itself by stopping the bulldozers.

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Image courtesy of Blake Gumprecht and the Friends of the Los Angeles River (1995)

 “My creative writing teacher in high school really awakened in me the possibilities of the river,” says Garcetti. “He happened to be Lewis MacAdams.” A published poet and teacher, MacAdams has devoted his life to the river since his confrontation with the bulldozers. The Princeton grad has alternately been called the Soul of the River and its poet laureate. “One of my jobs is to make the invisible visible,” says the soft-spoken 71-year-old, with lingering traces of a Texas drawl, in FoLAR’s very informal offices in the Los Angeles River Center & Gardens, off San Fernando Road in Cypress Park. The only traces of “design” are crumbled Frank Gehry paper lantern knockoffs hanging overhead. MacAdams, who often wears a signature porkpie hat, remembers that in about 1985, in his late 30s, he hiked down “through the latter-day urban hell” to the confluence of the Arroyo Seco and the LA River with other urban explorers, and asked the river if he should become its spokesperson: “It didn’t say no,” he recalls. “I later took a wire cutter, cut a hole in the fence, and declared it open.”

He followed up his private transgression with public performances in which he transformed himself into various river creatures, including a rattlesnake and a hawk. Never embarrassed, he put his credibility at risk, and kept coming back with other teases.

Everybody hated what I did. It wasn’t theater but ritual. I still see my work with the river as a 40-year art project, a sustained performance piece. I had to convince people that the river even existed. And I had to have a sense of humor about it. Part of the job was tone — cheerful and bright. But everything had to have a larger meaning. Going just 20 feet in a kayak amounted to a symbolic act. That was my focus. One performance was to march with friends in the river from the First Street Bridge Downtown to the confluence [of the LA River and the Arroyo Seco] to reggae. My work is about building community through the river.

MacAdams co-founded Friends of the Los Angeles River in a casual, informal, slow-motion process in the late 1980s: “At first FoLAR was just me and a letterhead.” Though its website cites the importance of historic preservation of the bridges, its focus is bringing back the steelhead trout, the willows, sycamores, alders, cottonwoods, marshes, and wetlands by reversing the damage done when the Corps turned the river into what FoLAR terms “the world’s largest storm drain.”

MacAdams and FoLAR were advocating Eden while making visible again a river that had been buried in concrete. Wily in capturing public attention for a public cause, he succeeded with graffiti removal, replanting, and educational programs in raising awareness about LA’s most underappreciated civic asset, one with the charismatic potential of a long sandy beach. Decades ago, a dozen people appeared for the first river cleanup, and this year 5,000 people, including kids, hauled out 30 tons of garbage during its now-annual “Gran Limpieza” campaign. (The trash comes from storm drains: “Biggest polluter is Frito-Lay,” says MacAdams.)

An NGO nipping at the river from the margins, FoLAR initiated small-scale, fine-grained neighborhood activities and improvements. FoLAR has helped develop pocket parks and trails, and river-related activities such as fishing derbies, yoga, canoeing, and guided tours. One of MacAdams’s special projects is the seasonal Frog Spot, a tented, open-air, summertime “gateway to the river” pitched next to the Elysian Valley bike path overlooking the Narrows. Offerings include poetry readings, classes on the river’s history and ecology, live entertainment by a music collective, and pizza, beer, and wine, the proceeds benefiting FoLAR. This year 25,000 people attended.

Most of all, Frog Spot offers a sense of community. “I said to myself, ‘That’s what I do, community creation, looking at the full moon and the wind in the willows, and people responding to it.’ The goal is always to make the river the front yard, not the back yard. That’s my work.”

FoLAR reached out to other organizations. It made common cause with Chinatown groups and other grassroots organizations in a coalition to transform the abandoned 30-acre Cornfield rail yards, adjacent to the river, into a state park rather than a warehouse district.

FoLAR’s stated mission is to “protect and restore the natural and historic heritage of the Los Angeles River and its riparian habitat.” But it’s hard to tell whether FoLAR proposes the recreation of an old habitat or the invention of a new one. MacAdams’s river, especially in the Glendale Narrows, is not an arroyo, but looks instead like the illustration of a Wordsworth poem, more an English landscape of wild stands of cane and grasses, including native and invasive fishes — more the kind of river from another, greener coast. The original river, in places a dry wash, in others, more “riverine,” never had, strictly speaking, classic riverbanks for its entire length to host a tree-lined riparian environment. The interface between land and river was vague and changing. Its beauty was the beauty of the desert. In what became Studio City, its scruffy terrain was the site for shooting early Westerns.

“MacAdams’s brilliance was to plant our consciousness there in the river,” says Los Angeles architecture critic and historian Greg Goldin:

But his mistake is the same as all the post–Spanish/Mexican settlers. The Spaniards saw the landscape as an extension of southeastern Spain. Semiarid. Rivers were arroyos — dry most of the time, then subject to sudden flooding. There never was such a thing as a bucolic, meandering river like the Connecticut.

The “mistake” of a river with New England DNA may be intentional and strategic. MacAdams believes that people understand “the Glendale concept,” and that they don’t get the arroyo concept. Southern California’s latent ecological identity of a dry river in a dry landscape isn’t clear and obvious, but people don’t need convincing about a wet river: MacAdams’s aim is to create something recognizable. Furthermore, Mediterranean climate systems are not understood in Washington, making them less likely to win funding for ecological restoration.

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This “wet” representation is precisely the vision that appears on the front cover of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, commissioned by the city at the initiative of then Councilmen Ed Reyes (trained as an urban planner) and Garcetti, and adopted by the Council in 2007. The image on the hefty one-inch-thick report is sylvan, with a dreamy rendering of a heavily landscaped river that is camera-ready for a riverbank strolling scene in a Jane Austen period movie. Paved, curving terraces step down to a stream, facing a raised river promenade opposite: both riverbanks bracket a stream running past and through rocks and lush grasses. Activities are passive: strolling and biking. The images show the river at a green peak, though Carol Armstrong, director of the mayor’s Riverworks office, clarifies that the images portray a Southwest riparian ecosystem that is dry for most of the year, when the vegetation would also look dry.

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Image from the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan

During Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s term, Councilmen Garcetti and Reyes spearheaded the LA River Ad Hoc Committee, which chose City Engineer Gary Lee Moore, head of the Bureau of Engineering, to lead the effort to create the city’s Master Plan. Moore has worked with a group of dedicated and capable professionals on the river, including Armstrong and Deborah Weintraub, Chief Deputy City Engineer. The department and subsequently Mayor Garcetti’s LA Riverworks department have been proactive in promoting river and watershed restoration and water management, often coordinating the activities of many community groups. Armstrong, Weintraub, Moore, and former Councilman Reyes, who championed the river early on, are among the many advocates whose contributions may not be as visible as those by such figures as MacAdams, Garcetti, and now Gehry, but they have kept the business of the river rolling, often among contentious and impatient groups. It was Armstrong who coined the term “riverly” — as in, “Are you riverly?” — capturing the spirit behind their efforts.

To draft the city’s Master Plan, the Bureau of Engineering hired Pasadena-based Tetra Tech as lead engineers to manage a team that included Los Angeles–based landscape architects Mia Lehrer and Associates, and Denver-based landscape architects Civitas, Inc. and Wenk Associates, among several other groups. The combined team attended meetings in churches and gymnasiums up and down the river to educate citizens and elicit their ideas for access, recreation, and environmental benefits. The Master Plan took 18 months, and yielded some 240 specific projects.

The plan, confined mostly to the city’s stretch of river, brims with attractive proposals and persuasive images for a naturalized river. The plan basically agrees visually with MacAdams’s riparian vision of intimate, natural spaces. The easy, “natural” beauty of curving paths, terraces, and embankments flowing into one another like a harmonious melody masks the engineering and the math behind a zero-sum water design game: Doing one thing requires an equal and compensatory reaction. Providing greater public access in and around the river can’t jeopardize public safety in heavy rains.

“If you’re going to naturalize the river, it slows down and you’ll get flooding and you’ll need to find open space that can be allowed to flood,” says Alex Ward, an LA architect who sits on the FoLAR board. “The challenge of recharging is finding open space for the water to go to in high water season.” The channel behaves according to the Venturi effect of a fluid in a tube, the flow rate a function of the cross-sectional area.

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Image from the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan

 Armstrong, with an encyclopedic command of river issues, says that the intention of the Master Plan is to respect nature where it’s already thriving, and to help it along where it’s less green and more “urban,” though she says that MacAdams’s ideal is to create continuous stretches that are “navigable, fishable, and swimmable.” The physics of the river, however, prevent blanket landscaping, and the hydrological need to use and absorb rather than stream all the treated wastewater challenges the poet’s vision.

The Master Plan augments the handling capacity of the river in several ways, by proposing to buy back floodplains, by adjusting the toe of its sloping banks, by notching the banks, and by deepening the channel. Substituting terraces for inclined planes increases both the flow volume and the channel’s usable surface area. Exploring every possibility, the designers and engineers also proposed secondary bypass channels to the side of the river, and covered box channels, to increase water capacity and the area for absorption.

“The bigger the tube, the slower the flow rate, but in many, many cases, we can’t change the dimension,” says Lehrer, who recently relocated her Wilshire offices to Mission Road, very near the river. “We can, however, do things to the walls, such as create living surfaces, or alter their profiles. We need to think through not only how much water is going through, but also how those walls can be occupied.”

The bias of a landscape architect is, of course, landscaping, and naturalizing the river gives a certain kind of identity to a river, as MacAdams noted. Lehrer’s and Wenk’s renderings all show generously planted riverbanks and river bottoms, with a robust manipulation of the river’s physical cross sections to create planting opportunities beside activity strips. There is little memory in this “naturalized” vision of the long-ago arroyos and less memory of the Corps’s monumental concrete armature, though the text does call for a plant palette appropriate for a Mediterranean climate.

The sequence of images constitutes a continuous, linear park, much like the famous Emerald Necklace lacing through parts of Boston, designed by Olmsted. “It will be a river coastline for this part of the city,” says Barbara Romero, who as Deputy Mayor for City Services reports to the mayor on river issues.

Lehrer says that just as the polluted skies of Los Angeles became blue again, the LA River can become a living corridor: landscaped for habitat, recreation, shade, and air quality, as rich socially as it is environmentally.

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To help implement the Master Plan, the city formed the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, a nonprofit charged per the Master Plan to reshape the river as a recreational and ecological resource, but in ways that will also invite private development. (The Plan estimates that private investment will follow public funds by a ratio of 4 to 1.) To implement the Plan’s ideas for the whole length of the river rather than just Los Angeles’s section, the Corporation has since become an independent nonprofit, with a board that is large, wealthy, and real estate heavy: “The idea is to work with the private sector, to help build out the Master Plan,” says Armstrong. According to the Plan’s articles, the Corporation would:

direct public and private financing for River-related and neighborhood revitalization projects [… and] develop plans for specific economic development projects using special districts, and all other available tools, and would seek partnerships for projects with the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles, private developers and other not-for profits.

Development is a huge opportunity because much of the land within and near the river is already publicly owned and therefore can be made more easily available for what Armstrong calls “publicly beneficial purposes.”

The mandate puts the Corporation at odds with FoLAR, which maintains that community initiatives should drive the river’s redevelopment, a position intended to prevent gentrification. The Corporation website speaks of “marketing” and “branding” the river, commercial language that the poet-activist MacAdams avoids. But Omar Brownson, the 41-year-old executive director, observes, “Obama said that campaigning is poetry and governing is prose. We’re moving from poetry to prose.”

“The mission of the Revitalization Corporation is to make it easier to redevelop,” says MacAdams. “We’re about community, education, and science. The battle is over how one sees the future of the river, and we’re much better established in the battle over how one sees the future of the river. We have different missions.”

Even though both groups occupy space at the LA River Center & Gardens, each is a silo to the other, in close proximity, but without much foot traffic between them. Both sides are focusing on common goals but through different lenses.

FoLAR, the little engine that could, has been successful at creating intimate, small-scale, site-specific, almost anecdotal moments on the river, including social events, especially in the Frogtown area just east of Silver Lake. On the other hand, the Harvard-trained Executive Director Brownson and Brian Moore, formerly with the Army Corps of Engineers and now the Corporation’s Board Chair, speak of a systems approach to developing the river. If FoLAR is looking at specificities, the Foundation is looking at continuities. The Corporation’s Greenway 2020 program, which grew out of the Revitalization Master Plan and others, links the entire 51-mile length with continuous bike paths and walking trails. “Most of the strategy so far has been to build discrete parks along the river — there are 40,” says Brownson.

If you connect them, you then understand that it’s the river that connects them, and you’re helping people know and acknowledge the river: people support and love what they know. We’re trying to close the gaps with a systems approach to link the river into a whole.

Still, MacAdams is not against leveraging opportunities, such as using the Olympics as an occasion to develop the huge Piggyback Yard, a Union Pacific rail yard east of Downtown and the river, as a habitat, with an Olympic village, should Los Angeles win its bid for the 2024 Games. “That has promise as a way to a larger understanding of what community is, maximizing its involvement. That’s pretty straightforward. I basically feel it’s a good thing. I love sports.”

But MacAdams doesn’t have to look far to see the shortcomings of the private development model. A housing and commercial development with a school built on the far side of Taylor Yard between the river and San Fernando Road in Cypress Park has proved a cautionary tale, “the kind of development we want to avoid,” says MacAdams. “Near the river, but not of the river.” What had promised to be a model development yielded instead indifferent buildings and conventional urban planning, a bland and unexciting environment that looks designed by an accountant, all bottom line and politically correct, but no soul. The dispiriting mediocrity of the development gives weight to FoLAR’s argument that the spaces contiguous to the river should not be commercialized and subject to the kindness of developers and their discretion. Developed with community input, including FoLAR’s, what seemed to be a victory for the river and the community turned out not to be: “We were naive,” admits MacAdams.

Gehry, too, expresses worries about “developers right at the water’s edge.” Amanda Burden, the successful former director of the New York Department of City Planning, and now a principal in the urban planning group Bloomberg Associates, has just arrived on the scene, “to give criteria for the developers,” says Gehry. “That’s worrisome. We have some good developers, and then there are others.” If the highly popular High Line in New York, an elevated rail line recently transformed into a landscaped paseo, is an urban inspiration, it should be noted that developers swamped the structure in what has proved a major New York land rush.

Despite their differences, FoLAR, the Revitalization Corporation, and City officials recently went to Washington in a delegation led by Mayor Garcetti to obtain approval from the Army Corps’s Civil Works Review Board for Alternative 20, which closely reflects the City’s Master Plan. Garcetti had already made the case with President Obama in advance. After a four-hour meeting, the delegation returned with a pledge from the Corps to recommend the $1.4 billion project to Congress.

 The Corps’s mission is limited to ecosystem restoration. It did not recommend restoration for LA’s whole 32-mile length of river, but only for the Glendale Narrows, where the plan will expand wildlife habitat corridors with wetlands and new access points to the river, while widening the river and generally closing the gaps between activities and features. 

The triumph for Los Angeles in wresting the Corps’s recommendation is that the feds finally understood that it’s okay to have a plan centered on drought resilience within a Mediterranean climate system, unlike the rivers with more lush vegetation in the East and Midwest for which funds are typically allocated.

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When the Corporation invited Gehry, with the mayor’s enthusiastic agreement, to consult on the river, the move was catalytic, bringing Gehry’s trenchant intelligence to the river project’s Gordian knot. His advent surprised Angelenos, and alarmed some who already had dedicated years to the river: Gehry landed in territory that was already occupied. MacAdams, for one, was blindsided: “This came to us as a surprise,” says MacAdams, who was out of the loop even though his offices are just steps away from those of the Corporation’s. The poet activist noted the newcomer on the block had never shown any interest in the block before. Furthermore, a chorus of voices in the background asked if Gehry was appropriate. The architect is noted for spectacularly formal designs like Disney Hall, the pride of the city, and design doubters wondered how his sweeping architectural spectacles could possibly have any bearing on the river. “A lot of people thought there are going to be strange metal buildings twisting along the river,” says Garcetti. Some strongly opposed the move as a hollow display of “panache,” insulting to groups, experts, and individuals who have worked on the river for years.

Gehry’s anger flared: “I don’t want to get into a pissing contest with people, some that I know.”

Two current shows, Frank Gehry, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and The World of Charles and Ray Eames, at the Barbican Art Gallery in London, suggest the wisdom of adding Gehry to the mix. At LACMA a section of the show reveals the little advertised fact that Gehry has had considerable expertise in urban planning. He is trained and experienced at conceiving large-scale urban projects, dealing with infrastructure as well as structure. The advanced constructional skills required to realize his impressive, apparently intuitive visions also imply that there is an equally impressive amount of research supporting his inventions. He and his colleagues do their homework.

The Eames retrospective more distantly shows the value of design as a discipline that defines, solves, and visualizes a problem. Charles Eames, who was not really an architect but aspired to be one, memorably and astutely claimed “everything is architecture”: he meant that architects are able to find the underlying structure of a problem on their way to a solution, and then are able to find the means to visualize the solution. The effort often involves the coordination of many disciplines. Design for the LA-based Eameses, who worked in Venice, where Gehry long practiced, is not just about fancy and slick forms, but about thinking holistically. The Eameses’ famous and mesmerizing movie Powers of Ten shows orders of design at the scale of the infinite and the infinitesimal as the camera lens moves out into the universe, and then back down into the universe of biological cells. The whole glissando was architecture.

For the Eameses, design transmits information; it organizes; it visualizes; it establishes patterns for living. Such designed solutions go beyond well-intended, feel-good community activists. Garcetti, who studied architecture and planning at Columbia, and taught in an urban and environmental policy institute at Occidental, is trained to acknowledge the Eameses’ arguments and recognize the contributions that design can make to a city. Not many mayors have a background in urban planning.

MacAdams, the Wordsworth of the Glendale Narrows, has indeed been instrumental in poeticizing a section of the river he has reclaimed: he has overlaid it with down-home, tactile, and granular activities that are effectively living metaphors as strong as images out of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Who can beat fly-fishing in the Glendale Narrows?

But MacAdams is also on record for distrusting “design.” He did not support the design of the “Cornfield” site by George Hargreaves, a former chair of Harvard’s landscape architecture department, who won a rigorous competition for the State Historic Park in 2007. The plan incorporated proposals from the LA River Revitalization Master Plan to create riparian wetlands that would increase the wildlife habitat of the park, and it called for bridges connecting the isolated park to surrounding communities and to Elysian Park, so fauna could find its way there through a habitat corridor, and then to the river. A phenomenologist who works with nature to reveal its daily and seasonal rhythms, Hargreaves would have brought a sophistication about parks and nature as living phenomena. During a phone conversation about opposing the Hargreaves plan, MacAdams told me, “I thought that all we needed was just some trees and grass.”

 

The remark betrays a mistrust of the contribution that design, in the Eameses’ sense, can make to the river project. And MacAdams is wary of the contribution Gehry might make — just too fancy for this straight-shooting Will Rogers. “Frank Gehry is a great architect, no question, but nature is an even better architect,” he told The New York Times, ignoring the fact that he himself was promoting an invented nature that never existed there. He also was ignoring arguments as old as the Renaissance about the ability of culture to improve on nature.

Compounding MacAdams’s distress was the feeling that Gehry was a Trojan horse for a top-down solution from the mayor’s office and the development community. FoLAR was doing just fine deploying a grassroots approach that had husbanded, so far, a segment of the river that MacAdams had resurrected. His belief in bottom-up vs. top-down planning echoes the deep divide in American planning originating in the opposition between Jane Jacobs, the community activist who in the late 1960s stopped a highway from plowing through her Greenwich Village neighborhood, and Robert Moses, the architect of large-scale, connective infrastructure — bridges, tunnels, highways, parks — that today make metropolitan New York work. Moses is now out of fashion, and has been since the titanic battles that the power broker lost to the plucky writer in New York.

But there are rising fears about the development paralysis that vocal Jacobian citizens can create. Sometimes it takes the vision of a Moses to see the larger picture. It would be difficult to clone MacAdams’s intimate, friendly, neighborly, and riverly Frog Spot into a much larger picture. FoLAR’S achievement is really bringing life to the river through ingeniously programmed activities, not through physical design. Charming events like Frog Spot, however important for awareness and community involvement, are not the same thing as conceiving the scope — sociological, hydrological, architectural, and infrastructural — of a project of regional scale.

The antiestablishment MacAdams apparently views Gehry as a creature of the establishment. He shouldn’t. The seemingly Olympian Gehry, festooned with all the international awards an architect can possibly win, in fact is an ally, the Bernie Sanders of architects who actually designs public spaces in and around his buildings. MacAdams says, “Gehry’s work is about objects, not community,” but in fact Gehry, a leftie from way back, regularly designs public promenades and even mini-parks into his works. His designs shape a sense of community. At the spectacular Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, he created a paseo that circles the building along the riverfront, looping back into the city, a promenade very popular among its citizens since the museum’s opening. In Los Angeles, the roof of Disney Hall is a public park, built at Gehry’s initiative and insistence, and in Ocean Park, the stores of Edgemar Dairy on Main Street surround a lovely, small town square where people like to linger over their ice cream cones. Gehry is a social progressive as well as a cultural progressive.

Ironically, too, the modest grassroots, community-based approach has yielded a lovely piece of riverscape but so far little actual access to the riverbed. “Little has been done in the river,” notes one of Gehry’s consultants, Mark Hanna, Principal Water Resources Engineer at Geosyntec, a geoenvironmental consulting firm located on Sepulveda, just up the 405 from Gehry’s office. “We’ve got some bridges, bikeways along the top on the banks, some kayaking and fishing derbies, but access to the river is very limited.”

And although the Glendale Narrows and the Master Plan echo the great public landscape designs of the 19th century, such as Boston’s Emerald Necklace, the history of park design has since moved on. In 1983, New York architect Bernard Tschumi designed Parc de la Villette in Paris, creating hardscapes and softscapes amid a variety of buildings with a mix of programs that generate activity night and day, weekdays and weekends: he eschewed passive naturalistic design in favor of urban animation. The park itself behaves like a self-perpetuating performance piece, always evolving into something else.

The designers of the more recent Millennium Park in Chicago, built atop railway yards and conceptually related to Villette, also created an urbanized rather than naturalized park. Its many structures, including a tumultuous band shell and gestural ribbonlike promenades by Gehry, interact with gardens and shape spaces for the park’s diverse cultural programs. Gehry in fact worked on planning its infrastructure 50 years ago when he was with the LA firm Victor Gruen Associates. In Seattle’s Gas Works Park, the giant carcass of an industrial dinosaur is the centerpiece of a hilly waterside park reclaimed from a contaminated zone: with stacks and tanks and gantries, the petroleum plant, long an eyesore, turns out to be beautiful after being recontextualized as the park’s great feature.

None of the most forward-looking parks built over the last generation assume that nature is the best and only architect. They were designed and programmed for a mixture of uses that are not reliant on landscape alone. This does not mean that Gehry will overlook past plans and research. In a statement, the Revitalization Corporation said Gehry’s efforts “will expand upon the decades of important work that has come before […]. Far from complicating any other efforts, his work will complement those efforts.” The state’s $1.5-million grant to fund the second part of Gehry’s Phase I will include outreach into community groups: Jane Jacobs is not being forgotten in favor of Robert Moses.

Though MacAdams was, in his soft-spoken way, vocal about Gehry’s late arrival to the table, he has since softened his stance: “To me a lot of what he’s going to do is exactly what he should be doing, and what I’d be doing in his place — blowing up the concepts, and wresting the concept from the bureaucrats,” he says. “I don’t want to be considered a refusenik. I don’t feel that way, and I don’t think it’s healthy for FoLAR.”

Pace.

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First_Street_Bridge,_Spanning_Los_Angeles_River_at_First_Street,_Los_Angeles,_Los_Angeles_County,_CA_HAER_CAL,19-LOSAN,76-47

MacAdams commands huge respect in the river community, the city at large, and in the Mayor’s office, and the new kids on the block, including the Revitalization Corporation, are deferentially tiptoeing around the poet laureate as they address ways forward that are not on his agenda. But even MacAdams says that no one person owns the river.

Gehry, for his part, is not going it alone: he knows what he does not know, and has tapped his professional connections to assemble a world-class team of experts in digital imaging, landscape architecture, and hydrology to advise him. Any comprehensive understanding of a problem of such scope requires collaborative IQ. The consultants, like Gehry, have contributed their time in the initial studies.

If MacAdams established the very fact of the river itself and its poetic imperative, Brownson and Moore at the Revitalization Corporation have brought a systems approach aimed at rationalizing and implementing the river campaign. Gehry is adding another layer to the endeavor: data.

“There have been a dozen master plans and studies, some 20 years old and some yet to be approved, so how do people talk to each other across all these separate efforts?” asks Gehry.

We’re not approaching this as a “streets beautiful” landscaping project first. That will come. We’ve got to evaluate the issues about the river, the hydrology, the economics, all the technical stuff. We’ve got to synthesize all that data to aggregate the information so that it’s transparent and accessible to policy makers and public agencies. Then we can have a discussion and present it to the public. We’re not assuming any outcome, just trying to understand what the data tells us, what might make sense. Then we can break it forward in an iterative process. Any plan has to be done through building the data base and coordinating a plan. There’s nothing top-down about the process.

Gehry, a poet of furious and tumultuous space, looks disarmingly matter-of-fact in his loose black T-shirt and crisp, creased chinos, sitting among the woolly cardboard armchairs in his plywood-paneled aerie at his offices in Playa Vista. These days the 86-year-old is walking with a cane because of back problems. His office occupies a surprisingly undesigned warehouse — no curves in sight, no explosions of form — in a nondescript industrial zone. His personal office, spotted with artworks, overlooks an open floor in which about 90 architects work among desks saddled with models: the ratio of models to architects looks to be about 4 to 1. Despite his pathbreaking work with computers, he has a tenacious belief in studying designs hands-on in physical models at all scales.

His war room in a lead corner of the building is large, high-ceilinged, and centered on a sprawling, anticorporate plywood conference table that can seat 20 or 25. This is where he and the two architects charged with the study, Tensho Takemori and Anand Devarajan, both partners in the firm and both in their 40s, present the 10 months of work Gehry Partners has done so far on the river. There are no models because there is no design yet, only research, so the presentation consists primarily of panels, charts, and diagrams, some building on other studies, such as the master plans by the County, City of LA, City of Long Beach, DWP, and Bureau of Sanitation.

Takemori and Devarajan start with a digital slide show of the river. Gehry found that the only existing documentation of the river as a built structure consists of the Army Corps’s two-dimensional section and plan drawings, and he asked Trimble (a Sunnyvale-based positioning technology firm that recently bought Gehry’s own digital company, Gehry Technologies) to build a three-dimensional digital model of the river. To understand the project, the architects have to grasp the river visually: architects cannot design what they cannot see. A 3-D model was essential for laying the groundwork.

After spending three months to secure requisite approvals, the architects mounted a laser machine on a car, and drove it through all the hard bottom areas, scanning the river every three to five meters in both directions to gather a point cloud and high-definition photography. Trimble then used software to align and geolocate the scans and overlay the photos on the point cloud, stitching it all together into a 3-D environment that designers can visualize, measure, and build surface models from. The idea is to collate the model with a boggling array of 2-D information, including land-use zoning requirements, city codes, LA’s Greenway Master Plan, the Los Angeles Stormwater Capture Master Plan, and other master plans by the city of Long Beach, the Department of Transportation, and LA City and County. It will include the half-mile to a mile of structures on either side of the channel. The map now complements the existing two-dimensional maps of the Army Corps of Engineers and offers a highly detailed datum on which to overlay even more information. The effort will yield a web-based media platform that allows aggregated information to be accessible to designers, engineers, policy makers, and eventually the general public.

“Frank’s initial survey of the river would have taken us years and millions of dollars,” says Garcetti. “He had access to the newest technology, and he produced a 3-D map in a matter of days. It’s that level of acceleration that he’s helping us with, and that’s why it’s really important to have him.”

The new map embraces a scope of study that has expanded beyond LA City to include all 15 cities along the river’s entire 51 miles. The architects have looked, for example, at the neglected southern cities: new data maps show that health issues like rates of obesity are greater in the southern reaches without many parks, suggesting the need for a river developed with adjacent and accessible parks that can play a role in improving public health. The new data sets are drivers opening up the question of what the river can be.

“Frank’s unprecedented mapping adds things that we didn’t include, like public health,” says Garcetti. “It’s helping us do the planning and political work of bringing together transportation, economic development, and ecology. It’s helping us plan, assess, and even think about water flow, which has advanced so much since we started writing these studies a decade ago.”

Gehry’s bravura architectural designs sometimes lead observers to think that the architect, who won the Pritzker in 1989, is some mad, creative genius who wings it by raiding the trash can for crumpled paper that his computers then map. Richard Roark, a partner in the Philadelphia-based landscape firm OLIN, with which Gehry is collaborating on the river, thinks otherwise: “They’re great problem solvers. They were 10 years ahead on parametric modeling.”

Roark says that the river was viewed by the Army Corps through the spectrum of flood control and storm water management, a limited optic comparable to the way dogs only see a few colors such as red and yellow. “The exercise now is how to handle many other issues within a vast series of intertwined systems that lace the river physically, socially, operationally: water quality, absorption and recharge, public open space, health.” The 10 months have been “a problem-framing exercise,” not a planning one. “All the master plans done so far need to be taken forward within an expanded frame,” he says.

In terms of the physics of the river itself, he tells me, they are looking “for a poetic response that would provoke a sense of delight. The infrastructure has to be engaging as well as safe. As for concrete, it can have a lot of interest and uses, including as an ecological substratum where plant materials anchor.” It is not a return to nature, but “a piecemeal approach, selecting, editing places to keep and modify,” because, as he says, “there is no original nature to go back to.” He sees that the basic opportunity of the river is as a “core and shell design,” a concrete armature within which a lot of things can be “arranged,” he says. “The task needs a creative eye to see how the preexisting conditions of the river in a dry landscape can become part of a total, comprehensive design.”

Hanna, Gehry’s guru of hydrology, says,

Right now, because of the drought, a lot of attention is being paid to the river, interest is increasing, and there’s a lot of money involved. Lewis MacAdams is captivating — a spiritual guy, a poet, straight and narrow. He goes in to Garcetti and gives him a poem about the river. He’s had this passion for the river for 30 years. But the drought is bringing in new players in the LA River world, expanding the cast.

He reels off more than a dozen governmental agencies now involved.

Hanna points to a chart in the corner of his conference room, labeled SCMP (Stormwater Capture Master Plan, produced by the LADWP), which enumerates ways that peak flows can be reduced by about three percent — “not a huge reduction, but still considerable,” he says. “You can’t deal with the river if you don’t deal with the watershed. If you can keep some of the water from reaching the channel, then you can do more in the channel: that’s the core of Frank’s interest.”

Hanna segues to the geology of the basin, which he reads like a palmist. There is, he says, a gradient of absorption from the sandy, more permeable soils in the Valley through Downtown, to the less absorptive clay soils south of Downtown.

The greatest opportunity for removing flow is from the Tujunga tributary to the LA River, because the northeast Valley is the most porous, and has a deep capacity for an enormous well system. Water reclamation doesn’t make sense past Vernon. Our problem is that we have an engineered system. When the rain falls on city, it gets into the storm drain system, and flushes out to the ocean through the channel.

Hanna talks about the earth as a sponge, explaining that “one rain garden — a depressed area with capacity to capture and absorb storm water — can make a small difference, but if rolled out programmatically, picture 5, 10, or even 20,000 rain gardens in front and back yards in LA’s more absorptive zones. This would enable Los Angeles to become more self-reliant.” The captured water can be used more than once.

MacAdams, however, is not the only artist working for the river. Hanna cites Bending the River Back into the City, a hybrid art installation and practical demonstration project initiated by LA artist Lauren Bon and her Metabolic Studio to recreate, in steel and aluminum, the huge, lumbering wooden waterwheels that lifted water in the mid-19th century from the river onto higher ground to provide water for the nascent city and surrounding crops. Bon, perhaps the artist laureate of the river, is in the process of getting 22 agency approvals for a waterwheel to be placed near one of the originals, so that the Cornfield and other sites can be irrigated with treated wastewater rather than more precious potable water.

“Her point is to reintroduce the river to the land and better utilize the resources around us,” says Hanna. The waterwheel, which might be followed by more, is also restoring a bit of wonder as well as history to the river.

“The city of LA has a One Water philosophy for water resources planning that involves aggressively conserving and reusing water — integrating rather than segregating our water supply, storm water, and sewer water,” says Garcetti. “If we’re careful and smart, we can have plenty of water for our river, while making sure it suits our needs for irrigation, ecology, and human use.”

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Architects characteristically expand a problem to its logical limits, so it was not surprising that Gehry accepted the commission on the condition that he could address the hydrology: he needed to go beyond the 51-mile length of the Corps’s channel to look at the entire watershed, to understand the ultimate basis of the issues and treat the problem holistically. Water and what it wants to do is really the driver for river revitalization. The whole river has to be understood in the context of the 827-square-mile basin. You can’t restore part of a river because each part has an effect on the rest.

So Gehry resisted the temptation to pull out his drawing pad and pen during the 10-month period of discovery. The office acted as a clearing house for collating information, absorbing data, consulting experts, jumping between silos, leveraging the work already done, and generally doing basic gumshoe work in order to frame the problem and determine its scope. “So far it’s more of a foundational plan than a plan plan,” says Garcetti.

Hanna says that Gehry Partners’s Takemori and Devarajan were perhaps the only students of the river to have actually read every single relevant report pertaining to the river and its watershed. Taking their research where the data led them, the architects found that in addition to the hydrological watershed, there is along the river’s course a social and cultural watershed characterized by the demographics of 15 different cities with different needs and little common conversation. Los Angeles, the second largest city in the nation, assumes a certain imperial hegemony in the basin, but the 12 cities south of Los Angeles don’t think so: Solving LA’s issues doesn’t necessarily solve their own. One size does not fit all.

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Photo by Lane Barden “Entering Long Beach.” The Los Angeles River flowing south into Downtown Long Beach. The channel widens to accommodate the increased volume of water due to friction against the natural streambed bottom. Willow Street Bridge in foreground.

 “There are 15 mayors and 15 cities, and we’ve gone to each town, not just Garcetti in LA. For the first time everybody understands the issues now,” says Gehry.

All the way down to Long Beach, we’ve framed them for everybody. In these cities, there are poor neighborhoods that would benefit from open space. Almost all the mayors are Latinos, and they’re ready to do things. There’s heart and soul, and they’re young, and they’re emotional. They want to create beauty and do things for their community.

“The Southern cities — Vernon, Commerce, Maywood, Bell, Bell Gardens, Lynwood, Compton, and the others — have been thankful that we’re coming to talk to them,” confirms Takemori. “Nobody has really spent much time understanding their needs. They felt left out of the process.”

Besides expanding the scope of the inquiry, Gehry has already challenged assumptions. By admitting “concrete” to the palette of ideas, he has expanded the basis of the investigation from plant materials and river cross-sections to include other architectural and cultural issues. There is a place for intimacy and a place for monumentality, and for all the talk about speaking for the river, holding the microphone requires closer listening to what the entire length of the river says it wants to be. The LA River is many rivers, and its character shifts along its course, especially because it widens downstream, as more water enters the channel. Total landscaping is not the answer when the river might be calling for sports stadia with bleachers nested into the embankments.

Confronted with perhaps the largest project of his career, and what could be the commission of an already remarkable lifetime, Gehry didn’t balk at the scale of the endeavor but immediately expressed founding perceptions — hydrology and concrete — with large-scale consequences that break through existing assumptions. The concepts establish an expanded basis for going forward. Angelenos and others have wondered why he has parachuted into the problem. But few people, if any, are better qualified to see the river in all its complexities, and then answer the complexities with proposals. And few figures have the skills to coalesce a broad-based effort that can unite the city. He is a Robert Moses with the soul of a Jane Jacobs.

No one asked for the drought, but it has arrived and is shaping imperatives for the basin’s hydrology, and with it the shape and character of the river and the city itself, recentering it with a common core. In a short period of time, Gehry has assimilated and expanded a complex and lively conversation.

Garcetti explains that the river is not just the geographic heart of the city but also its historic heart. The waterway, which predates people, set pathways for the Tongva, then roads for the Spanish, and then our freeways. A quarter of LA’s population lives within walking distance of the river. “Running from the Valley to Long Beach, it’s really the backbone of the city. Reclaiming the river gives us the ability to reclaim our past and set our future. To me it’s more dynamic than just a magnet or a center. As I’ve said many times, it’s the zipper that can bring us together.”

After the devastating fire of 1871, Chicago remade itself into a modern city, based on innovative architecture and progressive urban planning. Through what seems a propitious alignment of political will, public interest, talent, and momentum, this is LA’s moment to seize its day. A revitalized river running through our megalopolis has the potential not only to revitalize the river, but also to revitalize Los Angeles itself.

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Joseph Giovannini is a critic, architect, and teacher based in New York. Trained at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, he has written for The New York TimesThe Los Angeles Times, New York Magazine, Architect Magazine, and Architectural Record, and has taught at Columbia, Harvard, UCLA, USC, and SCI-Arc.



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