Epic Architecture

How a once-stalled Frank Gehry project became one of his triumphs.

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Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall

With its exuberant, swooping facade, Frank Gehry’s newest building, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, looks anything but old-fashioned. And yet in at least one way, it’s an architectural throwback. In an era when office parks, suburban developments, and even skyscrapers seem to zoom to completion in a matter of months, the $274 million hall, which opens Oct. 23 with three nights of inaugural performances by the L.A. Philharmonic, recalls the days when significant public buildings sometimes took decades to finish.

It wasn’t planned that way, of course. The project had its start back in 1987, with a $50 million gift from Walt Disney’s widow, Lillian. Working with a Japanese acoustician named Yasuhisa Toyota, Gehry quickly produced some very promising preliminary designs. The building seemed destined to be not just Gehry’s most important in Southern California, where he’s lived for nearly 60 of his 74 years, but among the most important of his career.

Then, in the mid-1990s, a ballooning budget, fund-raising troubles, and other problems stalled the project. It wasn’t revived until 1997, when it received a new infusion of cash from the Disney family and others. That year saw the opening of Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, which turned Gehry into a world-famous “starchitect,” doing exactly for his reputation what Disney Hall was supposed to. And indeed the two buildings have a lot in common: Both are composed of a jumble of organic forms sheathed in gleaming, windowless metal panels. (In Spain the material is titanium. In Los Angeles the facade was originally going to be limestone, but budget cutbacks or seismic worries, depending on which story you believe, forced Gehry to go with panels of brushed stainless steel.)

Is the long-delayed Disney Hall, then, just a consolation prize for Los Angeles? Does one of the biggest cities in the world find itself in the odd position of playing second fiddle to a Basque regional capital with a population under 400,000? Not exactly. The building is a fantastic piece of architecture—assured and vibrant and worth waiting for. It has its own personality, instead of being anything close to a Bilbao rehash.

And surprisingly enough, it turns out that all of those postponements and budget battles have been a boon for the hall’s design. What the finished product makes most clear is that like plenty of artists, Frank Gehry tends to work better with restrictions, whether they’re physical, financial, or spatial. Without them, his work tends to sprawl not just figuratively but literally.

Even though it cost more than a quarter of a billion dollars and covers 293,000 square feet, Disney Hall is a tighter, more focused effort than many of those Gehry has produced after Bilbao, when the commissions came rolling in, his budgets suddenly became freer, and he found himself with clients perhaps less likely to challenge his authority. The hall manages to be at once lean and wildly expressionistic. It looks like a building in which every design decision has gone through two layers of scrutiny: one financial, the other aesthetic. Gehry had many years to tweak the project, and he’s managed to polish it without sacrificing any of its vitality.

Like a lot of Gehry’s work, the new building relates remarkably well to the city, though the visual fireworks of its facade and its plush interior spaces may well distract a lot of people from this fact. It occupies a full city block at the top of Bunker Hill, across the street from Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a gilded late-modernist mistake that used to house both the Philharmonic and the Academy Awards and today hosts neither. (The Oscars are now handed out at the new David Rockwell-designed Kodak Theater, a few miles away.) The facade soars, bends, and dives in a number of directions, in typical Gehry fashion, but that movement is always checked by the limits of the city grid. Seen from above, the building looks like a bunch of flowers contained, barely, within a perfectly rectangular flower box. Indeed, that tension—between free-flowing imagination and the limits imposed by physics and budgets—is what defines the building as a whole.

That tension continues inside. There is a small performance and lecture space, for example, that Gehry created simply by stretching out one rounded corner of the huge lobby until it was big enough to operate as a quasi-separate room. It’s a setting for chamber music and pre-concert lectures that didn’t require any new walls or floors or even a stage. It makes something remarkable out of nothing.

Skylights in the otherworldly lobby

Other details in the lobby, from the walls lined in Douglas fir to the remarkable treelike columns (whose stocky, branching form Gehry says he stole from the Czech architect Joze Plecnik), promote a dreamlike and otherworldly feel, a detachment from the hustle-bustle and the grime of the city. But the lobby is also open to everybody: You don’t need a ticket to walk through it, as is the case in many concert halls. This is an old-school public space in the tradition of Grand Central Terminal or Bertram Goodhue’s low-slung central branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, which is only a few blocks away from the new hall.

The auditorium’s convex curves

There is still more productive tension inside the auditorium itself, which holds about 2,200 people and during daytime performances will be naturally lit by mostly hidden skylights and one tall window. The free-flowing, organic forms that Gehry loves to use are offset by the rigorous acoustic demands that any architect of a concert hall has to contend with. (In an auditorium of this kind, every exposed surface, from balcony railings to seat upholstery, can affect how the orchestra sounds.) As it turns out, Frank Gehry and concert halls are well-matched. Acousticians have realized over the last few decades that convex—or outwardly bulging—curves can be very effective, bouncing and dispersing sound waves produced by an orchestra. (Concave curves, on the other hand, can trap sound.) And in buildings from Paris to Seattle, Gehry has produced what easily qualifies as architecture’s most varied and complete collection of convex curves. There’s no definitive word yet on whether Disney Hall’s acoustics are indeed good; the orchestra’s first performance is still a few days away. But the early word from the musicians, who began rehearsing in the new auditorium over the summer, has been positive.

All of these dualities are fitting for a concert hall. An attraction of going to the symphony is trading in your regular self for a better-dressed, more cultured one. Symphony orchestras these days are looking for ways to attract younger, hipper audiences as their core supporters grow older, while at the same time preserving the sense of refuge that will always be classical music’s main drawing card. Gehry’s design cleverly explores both sides of that divide: It is a building where the members of a democracy can go to feel refined, to be lifted from the everyday.

Gehry, along with a few of his more admiring critics, likes to define himself as a combination of artist and architect. That job description suggests that he envies the kind of pure creation that painters and sculptors can indulge in, distant from the demands of zoning boards, engineers, and French horn players. But in fact the Disney Concert Hall seems to make the opposite case about his talents. It’s full of evidence that Gehry is an architect in the most public-minded and collaborative senses of the word—that he’s a master at figuring out ways to allow inspiration to serve practicality, and vice versa.