The Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan is an impressive document.
An exhaustive 284-page collection of proposals, possible funders, problems, maps and mock-ups from the City of Los Angeles, its initial proposal in 2007 generated significant forces behind the plan for LA River’s future. The Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation emerged as one its most impressive institutional tributaries, engineered specifically to assure that the river would tangibly, aesthetically, and — in many senses — spiritually benefit the city.
For the better part of a year, the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation has been in conversation with architect Frank Gehry and Gehry Partners to conduct the necessary research to enact the Master Plan, but also to exchange ideas and questions.
“The river is part of an LA psyche,” Anand Devarajan of Gehry Partners says. “Now, I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to change that, but I think we should be cognizant of — when we change it, do we want to change it? Are we trying to beautify the city just to beautify it? Or do we want to keep some semblance of our history and who we are in it? That’s a difficult, nuanced thing to figure out. As a designer, I think it’s possible to resolve those two contradictions.”
Furthermore, why now? Why is it that nearly 75 years after the river’s concretization Angelenos are beginning to take an interest in what it is and what it could be?
Los Angeles is a city with limited public space. Citywide efforts have attempted to ameliorate this decentralization in recent years, from downtown’s revival to fabricated urban centers like The Grove to the expansion of public transportation rail lines. None of these efforts have yet stuck, and centralization of a city that spans over 500 square miles would require something drastic. Something big.
The Los Angeles River is 51 miles long, intersecting 15 different cities from Canoga Park to Long Beach, and running straight through Los Angeles’ urban core.
If that doesn’t sound like an opportunity for major centralization and reconnection, it’s hard to say what does.
Given the 75 years since the river was first paved over, revitalization of the 51 miles is hardly a new idea, but any solid plan has been nearly impossible to execute because of the river’s principal purpose, expressed by an almost too familiar phrase: flood control channel. As explored in chapter two, the river is a violent force of nature during Southern California’s infrequent storms. When it does flood, the river can run at a thundering, frightening speed.
The initial findings of Gehry Partners calls this singular purpose “design flow,” and refer to it as the main impediment to the river’s growth as an urban resource: “Design flow is the maximum capacity of water for which the river was designed. This condition occurs less than 1% of the time and has predominantly defined what can and cannot be done in the channel itself. While design flow cannot be reduced, perhaps there is a middle ground that can be explored.”
How do we begin to define this “middle ground?” If the river is not a major public threat 99% of the time, but the 1% is too vital to be ignored, what then defines true “middle ground?”
Enter Gehry Partners. Gehry had already expressed interest in the LA River, primarily for the hydrology aspect and how the river could alleviate California’s recent drought. The Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation brought Gehry Partners into the conversation to problem-solve and determine what the river needs moving forward, in all aspects. Their findings are part of the beginning stages of a major shift in how the LA River could fit into Los Angeles life.
“Those conversations with Frank [Gehry] were informal,” says Eli Kaufman, communications director for the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation. “There was no scope of work, there was no contract. We thought, here’s a great thinker, a great designer, a great architect, who gets huge projects done. He is capable of looking at the same material that everybody else is with the same opportunity or challenge that everyone else is and re-imagining what’s possible.”
The Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation grasped onto Gehry’s interest in the river as an opportunity. Gehry has the resources to perform the preliminary research and the connections to call in experts.
“Because of who he is,” Kaufman says, “he’s able to bring in these top-notch folks that become part of our thinking team. He helped us map the river with a 3D point cloud map that was produced by Trimble. All the hard-bottomed sections have been mapped — and that’s never been done before.
“[Gehry is] approaching it like a student would,” continues Kaufman. “Asking what is it? What does it do? What can it do? What do we care about? How do we measure that?”
Kaufman further explains, “He asked things like, a river like Los Angeles’, especially in a region where we’re so arid, does it have to have water to be a river? Does it still function as a river-ly entity without water? And that’s a great question because the answer is that if you go to any natural river in this region, they’re bone dry.”
The main question, however, is of this middle ground. “The Army Corps of Engineers thinks about life safety in the river channel,” says Devarajan in a separate conversation by phone. “There are no levels of grey in the threat assessment. Now, they’re starting to look at it through this hybrid lens of understanding that the river may have to have a different role than just being safe or not based upon it raining or not.”
With the impending El Niño this winter, set to be the largest on record, flooding is inevitable and Angelenos may get a wake-up call. The vital 1% of the river’s function will be apparent for the first time since the El Niño of 1997.
“There’s no fear to it because they just don’t see it being ornery enough times,” says Devarajan. “You’re going to start to see something interesting happen with people in Los Angeles in how they think about the river, and that’s because it’s actually going to be full for the first time in their lifetime.”
Tensho Takemori of Gehry Partners chimes in on the same phone conversation, “You have to be willing to understand that the public’s relationship with the river is going to take time to change, and there’s going to be incremental steps between no access and all access.”
With the city’s shifting relationship with the LA River, Gehry Partners and the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation are aiming for that middle ground, a space where the river can be used for recreation when it’s safe, and closed-off when it’s not.
“Our goal is not to impose a vision on anybody else,” Devarajan concludes. “It can’t be designers or architects or landscape architects or planners deciding, hey, this is what’s good for this community. You have to reach out to those community members and ask them what they need.”
The LA River does need help to flourish and become a viable community space. As it stands now, most of the river is inaccessible to the public or blocked-off by train tracks, fences, freeways, and the like. There is much that it could become, and city visionaries such as the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation and Gehry Partners are working to discover its potential. Many, however, are already exploring its banks and hidden vistas: the community.
When we talk about the community of the LA River, to whom are we referring? And what is their connection to the river — what are they doing with the river? In chapter four of Currents, I visit Clockshop at the Bowtie Project again to explore their LA River campout and to start to get to the bottom of why this river matters to the city.
Photography and audio by Katie Antonsson