The Index: Gehry’s Deep Dive into the LA River

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The office of Gehry Partners was enlisted by River LA to master plan the 51-mile Los Angeles River. They’ve released the fruits of two years’ worth of data gathering on a public web site called the LA River Index.

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The Index divides the river into nine areas of study, from flood risk management to programming. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Since the architect Frank Gehry and his partners were enlisted by River LA (formerly the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation) to master plan the Los Angeles River, they have repeatedly assured intrigued or skeptical river watchers that they are not in the process of cladding the concrete in wavy titanium or creating a one-size-fits-all solution for the 51-mile stretch of river.

Rather, they are engaged in a process of research, says the team, with a view to providing a comprehensive understanding of all that’s at stake in a waterway that stretches from Canoga Park to Long Beach.

Today they released the fruits of two years’ worth of that data gathering — on a public web site called the LA River Index.

What you won’t find is slick messaging or any architectural or planning schemes; instead you will find layers of dryly presented information, much of it synthesized from past studies and plans, pertaining to flood risk management, water recharge, water quality, ecology, habitat and public space, public health and social equity, and transportation.

The “Index” marks Phase 1 of the work by Gehry Partners, helmed by firm principals Tensho Takemori and Anand Devarajan. It is described by River LA as “an innovative and revolutionary new tool for planning and design,” that, for the first time centralizes in one place the “data, reports and findings relative to the river’s past, present and future along the river’s entirety.”

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River LA, a nonprofit charged with fostering economic development along the river, says “we realized that we needed to invest in learning how to think about the river before we could begin to make recommendations, let alone design solutions. So we began synthesizing the vast array of existing data surrounding the LA River, building upon 25 years of work and creating a single, equitable framework to use when evaluating the possibilities along all 51 miles of the river.”

To what extent the Index is an actual planning tool or a political tool — reassuring people of the transparency of a process that has created a lot of puzzlement — is unclear.

It is not comprehensive, and is thin on information in places  (the chapter on programming, for example, does not register the wide range of cultural programming already taking place at the river.)

But it is interesting if you want to learn more about the river, from its “functional flow rate” to the network of tributaries and Rights of Ways that could expand the network of greenway opportunities. It is also intriguing if you want to learn about the kind of research a design office embarks on before producing design concepts.

The Index will be a disappointment to anyone expecting big visions.

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Map showing air quality levels in relation to the LA River (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

This not to say that big visions aren’t in the works; the indicators are that Gehry’s office is developing strategies for the river based on their findings and the priorities the team has developed (flood risk management and public health are high on the list.)

But at this stage the challenge is to build a political and public consensus around the river.

While the Index’ findings include geological and hydrological data derived from Gehry’s digital mapping tools, with consultants Geosyntec and OLIN, as well as the numerous agencies and groups that have studied and made plans for the river over many years, it also taps into the public input garnered from a series of “listening sessions” as well as dialogue with elected officials at state, county and in the seventeen cities through which the river runs.

Check out The Index and let us know what you think. We’ll cover this in more depth on an upcoming episode of DnA.