Gehry’s Shuttered Air and Space Gallery Successfully Listed on California Historic Register

While late 20th-century Brutalist buildings of the world have been on the defensive against “progress” and its accompanying wrecking ball for some time now, few could have guessed that the early, post-modern experiments of Frank Gehry would fall out of vogue so soon. In 2008, Gehry’s three-story shopping mall Santa Monica Place (1980) underwent a major renovation, which stripped the design of its roof and public walkways. Then in July of this year, The Architect’s Newspaper reported that Gehry’s 1984 Air and Space Gallery, which was shuttered in summer 2011, was potentially under threat: With the newly landed Space Shuttle Endeavor in need of a Los Angeles home, many worried that the Space Center’s conspicuous silence about the future of the Gehry building might insinuate its demise. As with the luckier Brutalist landmarks, preservationists immediately jumped on the scene. McLeod and Galvin Preservation Associates, with the help of Gehry’s own firm, rushed to get the building listed on the California Register by the California Office of Historic Preservation, and to the joy of Gehry’s international fan base, the campaign recently proved successful.

“This is a pivotal work in his career,” said preservation architect Kelly Sutherlin McLeod to The Architect’s Newspaper back in July. McLeod and many others leading the preservationist efforts were doubtlessly aware that the Air and Space Gallery was the first of the celebrated architect’s high-profile, public commissions. With its shifting stucco and sheet-metal geometries and a facade defined by a sculptural cynosure in the shape of a space shuttle, Gehry’s gallery is known for conflating the “duck” and “decorated shed” of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown‘s postmodern theories, playing with both iconic formalism and highly legible, Pop Art-inspired signage à la “Learning from Las Vegas.” The intended result is an ostensibly consumer-facing public building, an architectural statement for the masses meant to take Gehry’s penchant for vernacular materials (seen clearest in his earlier residential works) to the next level. One can easily detect the deconstructed and collaged aesthetic of Gehry’s later works, most famously in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, here in Los Angeles.

Though a definite victory for preservationists, the building’s listing on the California Register does not guarantee its protection. It does, however, present potential obstacles to immediate demolition. In the event of a threatening proposal, the gallery’s historic status could be grounds to demand an environmental review, or, at the very least, a formal evaluation on the impact of a demolition or a major construction change. At almost three decades old, Gehry’s early work appears dated, with both its symbols and facilities visibly exhausted of their original functions. Yet the building stands as public reminder of a pivotal — though perhaps still very confusing — moment in history in which we aggressively confronted the meaning of modernism, and one of the most celebrated architects of our time had the effrontery to tackle it head on.

[Photo: The Architect’s Newspaper]

- Kelly Chan