Watts made its mark on Frank Gehry, now the architect is returning the favor

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Watts made its mark on Frank Gehry, now the architect is returning the favor
Frank Gehry, shown in his Playa Vista office

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Watts made its mark on Frank Gehry, now the architect is returning the favor
Frank Gehry, shown in his Playa Vista office

You could say Chuck Norris had a hand in bringing a Frank Gehry building to Watts.

Back in the late 1960s — Gehry can’t be entirely sure of the year — the architect, then in the vicinity of 40, decided to take up karate as a way of getting in shape. He ended up at Norris’ West L.A. dojo, where on the first day the future action star lined up his students (Gehry and a roomful of teenagers) and proceeded to do spin kicks within millimeters of each of their noses.

“We were standing there in the little white suits,” recalls Gehry, seated in a photo-lined conference room at his Playa Vista architectural office. “And he never missed. I got fascinated with the precision of how that worked.”

“Fascinated” would be an understatement. Gehry became so obsessed with the art of battle, he began private lessons with a professional boxing coach in Watts. He can’t remember the man’s name. “That was 46 years ago,” he explains. But he remembers the improvised gym in a small garage off Central Avenue and how his coach taught him how to spar and occasionally sent him home with a limp.

It wasn’t Gehry’s first time in Watts. But through his weekly boxing lessons, Gehry soaked up the neighborhood’s landscape of modest bungalows, Art Deco storefronts and barracks housing projects hurriedly erected during World War II — not to mention the empty lots left behind by the Watts uprising of 1965, which he had watched unfold live on television.

Almost half a century later, Gehry is once again traveling to Watts on a regular basis, but not because he’s perfecting his left hook. []

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