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 concert pavilion and the lakefront.
On Thursday, Gehry — who has created such buildings as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao 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 Rouse Co.
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, has 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, Howard 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 issue a personal invitation for the architect to return.
"We're working with world class architects all over the country," DeWolf said. "We want to use him" in Columbia.
Gehry made no commitments on 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 this place right away, but I don't know if that's in the cards. We'll see what they have in mind."
Gehry flew in on a private plane with two colleagues from his Santa Monica office. He spent the morning driving around town with DeWolf, passing by or stopping to walk around four buildings he designed: the Merriweather Post Pavilion, the former Rouse Co. headquarters, a fire station and the exhibition center that Rouse used as a sales center to market Columbia's first homes.
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."
In appreciation, DeWolf presented Gehry with a black-and-white 1973 photograph of the architect and Rouse, in the then-new Rouse headquarters. Howard Hughes now owns the building and plans to turn it into a multi-tenant development, with Whole Foods Market as an anchor.
DeWolf said he would be happy if Gehry would work on a medical facility, a campus building or upscale housing like he recently designed in Manhattan. He noted that Gehry is currently designing a new headquarters for Facebook in northern California, and said he would love to get a company such as Facebook to locate its headquarters in Columbia, with Gehry as the architect.
Gehry said he would like that too.
"I'm 83," he cautioned. But "there's time. Truth is, I'd love to stay involved with Columbia for old times sake. For Jim ... and [former Rouse CEO] Matt DeVito and Mike Spear's memory and all of these people. I remember a lot of them, fondly.
"We had a lot of fun. So it would be great to play with them again, if they are of the same mind and spirit, which it seems they are. We'll see."