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This month, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will open its retrospective of the work of Frank Gehry, FAIA. The exhibition—on view September 13, 2015, to March 20, 2016—promises to feature work from all phases of his 50 years of practice in Los Angeles.

One of Gehry’s more famous buildings in Los Angeles (aside from Disney Concert Hall, of course) is the Chiat/Day/Mojo Building (1985-91) on Main Street in Venice. Known informally as “the binoculars building,” the office for the advertising agency has been recognized for its iconic imagery and integration of the 45-foot-high binocular sculpture by artist Claes Oldenburg. This building, however, was actually the second office space Gehry designed for the agency.

For years, the agency worked out of offices in downtown LA in the Biltmore Hotel, but moved to Venice in 1988. Known for its guts, radical ideas, and creativity, Chiat/Day’s relocation to the ocean seemed a great fit with agency culture.

Jay Chiat, who lived in Venice, bought the Main Street site from Gehry himself, and engaged the architect. Unfortunately, when excavation began, it was revealed to be a toxic waste site dating back to the Abbot Kinney days; the soil was polluted with coal tar from a former gas works. Ultimately, it would take many years to clean up the site and build the building.

But Chiat/Day needed more space fast. The new office had been commissioned to accommodate the agency’s sudden growth resulting from landing its first automobile account, Nissan. A 42,000-square-foot warehouse at Hampton and Rose Streets was leased, and Gehry (along with the late Anne Greenwald as interior designer) remodeled the vast space to hold 300 people.

As a young advertising executive, my goal had always been to work at Chiat/Day. In 1988, I achieved my goal, and moved into the recently opened “temporary” warehouse space.

And as I like to say, that was the beginning of my “Johnson Wax Moment.”

“The warehouse,” as it became known, was a revelation in space and how it influenced the work environment. The building had 30-foot-high ceilings and was divided by a wide-open “Main Street” that served equally as circulation, assembly and party space, and art gallery. A major feature was “the fish” conference room—an open, undulating 22-by-54-foot steel-skinned form featuring brown corrugated-cardboard furniture inside.

Throughout the warehouse, Jay strategically placed pieces from his art collection and rotated them regularly. At the terminus of Main Street was a large Jenny Holzer message board that flashed ironic messages. Along the Street and ancillary circulation paths, Gehry placed open, deconstructivist cubicles. The crate-like cubicles were egalitarian in that they were of equal size, no matter if you were an assistant or Jay Chiat himself. With open framing to the exterior and press-board desks, the avant-garde design was startling in its rebellion. Former loading docks were replaced with large panes of glass that let in natural light and provided surreal views of men in hazmat suits removing toxic waste from the site of the permanent building.

The design of the warehouse had a significant impact on how we all worked. I truly believe it fostered creativity and transparency in a way that other workspaces of its time did not. It inspired me, and others like me, to do our very best. One of my fondest memories was seeing a used brown corrugated pizza box thrown down on Main Street with a curator’s card reading “Frank Gehry coffee table.”

Eventually, the new building was readied for occupancy, sort of. It had taken so long to build, that agency growth had exceeded its capacity. It was under construction for the first year we were there and the move inspired Chiat/Day to undertake a then-radical social experiment in people working from home, using laptops and cell phones.

The building’s design, a play between a white Corbusian volume and the deconstructivist “trees” structure joined by art (the binoculars as porte cochère), was a disappointment for those of us who had worked in the warehouse. Gone was the rawness and the rebellion—the feeling that breaking rules was not just tolerated, but expected. And the camaraderie experienced in the great gathering spaces of the warehouse waned in a “club house room” with a pool table. Not to mention that the conference rooms in the binoculars themselves were afunctional; sound traveled up the tall, narrow cones and you couldn’t hear the person directly across from you.

Ultimately, the agency left the new building for a Playa del Rey warehouse space that was meant to recapture the spirit of the Venice warehouse, but really felt more like a factory. In the hands of a lesser architect, the magic was gone. (And soon, so was I.)

Gehry, of course, went on to achieve “starchitect” status after Bilbao. I’ll always remember the earlier work, where he may have been rejecting modernism, but not the importance of architectural space as a condition that can feed the soul and inspire creativity.

Sian Winship

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