Columbia architect returns for tour

October 4, 2012

Forty years after Frank Gehry completed a series of buildings in the then-fledgling “new town” of Columbia, its current master developer wants him to come back and design more.

The Dallas-based Howard Hughes Corp., which in 2010 took over as lead developer of Columbia’s town center, invited the acclaimed architect to spend a day touring the town as part of its effort to spur development around the Merriweather Post Pavilion and the lakefront.

On Thursday, Gehry — who has created such buildings as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles — returned for the first time in more than two decades to take a whirlwind tour, learn how his local designs are holding up and see what future role he might play in the town created by the firm Rouse.

The California-based architect, 83, said he has not visited Columbia since the early 1990s — before company founder James Rouse died of Lou Gehrig’s disease and Rouse executive Michael Spear died in a plane crash.

After a tour by car, Gehry said he thought the town, which Rouse once characterized as “a garden” for growing people, had turned out pretty much the way Rouse envisioned it.

“I think the quality of the gardens and spaces, the trees and all that, is probably close to Rouse’s dream, the villages and park settings,” he said. But he added that he hadn’t seen “any architecture that stands out.”

John DeWolf, Hughes senior vice president of development, wants to change that. He would like Gehry, who has gained international fame for his highly sculptural buildings, to do more work in Columbia. DeWolf visited Gehry in California last month to outline his company’s latest redevelopment plans and to invite the architect to return.

Gehry made no commitments Thursday, but said he would be very interested.

“I’d love to play with them,” he said.

Seated in the back row of the Merriweather Post Pavilion, looking around during a break from his tour, he added, “It’s exciting. I can see things I’d like to do to [for] this place right away, but I don’t know if that’s in the cards. We’ll see what they have in mind.”

Although he has worked around the world, Gehry said he feels a strong connection to Columbia because Rouse was one of his first major patrons and he liked him as a client.

“It was a big part of my life at the time,” Gehry recalled. “I loved Jim Rouse. I loved his sort of stellar business and social intuitions and his arts naivete. I loved that about him.”

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