Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Frank Gehry's Los Angeles: A Retrospective in Buildings

Frank Gehry's headquarters for Chiat/Day, in Santa Monica. Photo by Elizabeth Daniels.

To get in to Frank Gehry’s Loyola Law School (1980-90) you have to drive around the block a few times. What most published photos of the campus, near downtown Los Angeles in Westlake, don’t show is that the only entrance to this “academical village” is through the parking garage. The enclave of buildings—cartoon versions of colonnade, grove, tower, and chapel—present their backs as a wall to the street, hiding their postmodern flourishes and denying passers-by even a ceremonial gate through which to peer. If you are looking for late-model luxuriant Gehry, you won’t find it here. What you will see is one of Frank Gehry’s first attempts to create an urban place, with an artful mix of foreground and background buildings, sun and shade, gentle ramps, and aggressive switchback staircases.

The most iconic element of the Loyola campus is Merrifield Hall, a free-standing brick building with a tidy, child’s-drawing gable and four stucco columns on its south side. The columns are unencumbered by capitals and unattached to the hall. They are just there as a three-dimensional symbol of our collective image of what the law looks like, set at the working center of the open space.

So many elements of Loyola seem meaningful in retrospect: the tiered plywood acoustical panels hung from the ceiling of Merrifield read as a low-budget sketch of Disney Concert Hall’s billowing wood waves. The blonde-wood interior of the glassy chapel points to Gehry’s admiration for Alvar Aalto and transports you briefly to a more northern climate. Meanwhile, the openwork bell tower has no bell, and Gehry would repeat those exposed Paul Bunyan-goes-to-Japan timbers for Chiat/Day (↑). You’ve seen Gehry’s three office buildings in three materials in Dusseldorf, and you’ve seen his three condos in three materials on Indiana Avenue in Venice. Here, the parking structure is covered in overlapping silvery sheets, another background building is bright yellow with a grid of tiny square windows, and a third is terra cotta. The metal staircase juts and glints just like the chain-link fence lifted from Gehry’s Santa Monica house (↓) and reaches up to an off-kilter gem-like atrium (ditto). Nothing aligns, so a walk through the block bounces you from one material to another, making the space feel bigger than it is. I realize, after I walk out, that this is Gehry’s Stata Center at MIT turned inside out: His first mistake in that pushy, cacophonous interior was trying to recreate a Los Angeles block indoors in Cambridge, Massachusetts.