Around the globe, famed architect Frank Gehry is known for his high-profile, decidedly outside-the-box — some would say out-of-this-world — projects, such as the Chiat/Day Building in Los Angeles, the Dancing House in Prague and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, also in Los Angeles.
Yet in Columbia, the 83-year-old legend is thought of as more of an accomplice-of-sorts who, earlier in his storied career, worked alongside an equally famous visionary named Jim Rouse, helping to create what are probably the two most famous structures in a city that has grown to roughly 100,000 residents: the former Rouse Company headquarters and Merriweather Post Pavilion.
So how interesting it was when the California-based Gehry reappeared in Columbia just as the much discussed and finely-tuned overhaul of Town Center is gaining traction.
The Next Level
Gehry’s most recent return to Columbia was a surprise to the public, but it wasn’t a particular shock in business circles, to hear Howard Hughes Corp. (HHC) Senior Vice President John DeWolf discuss it.
DeWolf explained that not only is Gehry well connected with HHC Board Member Adam Flatto of The Georgetown Co., he also had met Gehry in New York about a year ago — at which time Gehry told DeWolf that he’d like to see Columbia again.
“Then I saw Frank in L.A. at the end of the summer and invited him back out,” DeWolf said. “During his recent visit, he saw each of his buildings here in Town Center — the exhibit building and then the Rouse building, which he spent quite a bit of time in. And he was really interested in Merriweather Post Pavilion.”
As for part of the Rouse building becoming a Whole Foods grocery store, DeWolf said Gehry “was O.K. with that.
“It needs $25 million worth of improvements and we apologized for that over and over again,” he said, “but we showed him all of the new plans for the building and he thinks it’s pretty viable.”
Gehry was impressed by the bigger picture, too.
“He kept saying that the developers of Columbia had stayed true to their vision and that it has matured as they envisioned,” DeWolf said, “and, again, he sees the need for the rejuvenation. Not only was Columbia basically finished, but it has matured, and he agreed that our plan is a good idea and will take Town Center to the next level.”
DeWolf said that Gehry felt that the “genius” of Town Center is that the best property was saved for last. “So the opportunity to develop the Lakefront, ‘The Crescent’ around Merriweather and the [soon-to-be-former] L.L. Bean location” at The Mall in Columbia represents the next great opportunity for the city.
What It’s About
As for what to do to revitalize the much discussed acreage in front of Merriweather, DeWolf said that Gehry didn’t mention Symphony Woods in particular, noting that many people who are new to today’s Columbia tend to consider it part of the pavilion.
As for Gehry’s interest in Merriweather, DeWolf said that there has been “some conversation, but no specifics yet” about him being involved in the future development at what originally was intended to serve as home to the National Symphony Orchestra, but has proven to be a resilient draw for 45 years in the region’s live music industry.
“The challenge with Merriweather,” said Seth Hurwitz of I.M.P., the concert promoter for the pavilion, “is to maintain its original design and feel, because it’s become iconic. Frank Gehry is probably uniquely qualified to do that.”
As for what’s happened at Merriweather in more recent years, I.M.P. has invested “a substantial amount of money in the pavilion, given the length of our lease,” Hurwitz said, “but the stage house needs upgrading to accommodate the more modern touring productions and the infrastructure still needs some serious work.”
But, as the business world knows, Gehry has done some great things since he finished his previous work in Columbia, so his support network has grown exponentially. “The key here,” said Hurwitz, “would be his personal involvement and not just using his name.”
Bob Tennenbaum, a retired architect and early planner of Columbia during his Rouse Co. days in the ’60s and early ’70s, as well as a long-time resident, sees the stars aligning. “Now that he’s world famous,” he said, “it’s time that Columbia gets one of his newer buildings.”
Perhaps, and it may happen. What the conversation “during his visit concerned was looking at the pavilion,” Tennenbaum said, “as well as seeing if Gehry would get involved with a major landmark building on the Lakefront.”
Bring It On
Like most other observers, Bob Moon, also an architect and resident of Columbia since 1971, would love to see Gehry back in Columbia.
“It’s great that Columbia has [some] 20th century buildings designed by Frank Gehry,” said Moon. “It will be even better to have the now internationally recognized architect contribute in some way to downtown’s redevelopment — especially if we end up with one of his 21st century buildings.
“Great architecture tends to attract more great architecture,” he said, “and it will also attract great businesses to locate in Columbia.”
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” he queried, “to have a major Frank Gehry building on the Lakefront at the twilight of his career, as a continuation of the three buildings [Tennenbaum said that Gehry was not very involved with the firehouse, which is often mentioned among Gehry’s local structures] that he designed more than 45 years ago as Town Center moves forward?
“That,” Tennenbaum said, “would be a perfect.”