Is Frank Gehry really the right person to revitalise the Los Angeles river?

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Is Frank Gehry really the right person to revitalise the Los Angeles river?

Is Frank Gehry really the right person to revitalise the Los Angeles river?

The 51-mile concrete gutter housing the LA river – more famous as a dystopian film backdrop than a body of water – is finally due for a facelift. Should it be redesigned by locals who’ve campaigned for years – or by starchitect Gehry?

Great cities tend to grow from great rivers. Paris has the Seine, London has the Thames, New York has the Hudson. Los Angeles, meanwhile, has a 51-mile long cement gutter, a linear dumping ground so bleak that it’s best known for providing a post-apocalyptic backdrop in Hollywood movies. In the land of film-lot fakery and pasteboard fantasies, it’s no surprise that the vein of blue that snakes its way across the map of LA, optimistically labelled with the word “river”, is nothing of the sort.

“Landscapes tell stories,” director Wim Wenders once said, “and the Los Angeles river tells a story of violence and danger.” The desolate concrete channel, which looks more like an abandoned freeway than a watercourse, has starred in everything from Grease and Terminator 2 to Transformers and The Italian Job, providing a relentless gulley for nail-biting chase scenes, a raw gauntlet of urban infrastructure at its most brutal. Remember a massive truck exploding in a gritty urban wasteland? That was probably filmed in the LA river. Lewis MacAdams, the 70-year-old poet and activist who founded Friends of the Los Angeles River (Folar) in 1985, once commissioned a montage of film scenes shot at the river. The result, he says, was “an unremitting catalogue of urban isolation and despair”.

But the sprawling city that’s capable of eternal reinvention on screen is now rewriting the script in real life. When you land at LAX airport, one of the first things you see is a billboard of the glowing mayor, Eric Garcetti, not sitting at his desk or posing with the Hollywood sign, but perched on a kayak surrounded by greenery – paddling down the LA river. […]

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