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.
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
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.