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Victory at Bunker Hill

Symphony: Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall

with an introduction by Frank Gehry and a preface by Deborah Borda; essays by Richard Koshalek and Dana Hutt, Carol McMichael Reese, Michael Webb, and Esa-Pekka Salonen; and photographs by Grant Mudford
Abrams / Los Angeles Philharmonic, 176 pp., $60.00 (To be published in November.)

Frank O. Gehry: Work in Progress

an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, September 7, 2003–January 26, 2004

1.

Ever since Cecil B. DeMille filmed The Squaw Man in a barn at 1521 Vine Street in Hollywood ninety years ago, thereby shifting the nascent movie business westward from New York, Los Angeles has been a center of at least one other great American art form. For a century now, L.A. also has been a seedbed of architectural innovation, as can be seen from the original and influential houses designed by Greene & Greene, Irving Gill, Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra, and Charles and Ray Eames. Much as those architects helped shape what is understood today as the California way of life, not one of them was native to L.A., let alone the state.

In the 1930s, there was a fresh infusion of sophistication in L.A. as Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, and Billy Wilder reestablished their careers in Hollywood. During World War II, Thomas Mann and Lion Feuchtwanger found a congenial if unlikely haven there from the horrors of Hitler’s Europe. And for decades after that invigorating influx of Continental refugees, Los Angeles became one of the liveliest centers for modern music in America. (Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky were both at the Brentwood Farmers’ Market one Sunday and cordially snubbed each other over the grapefruit.)

Still, Los Angeles has long suffered from a collective inferiority complex. It has tended to regard the creative achievements of other cities, most notably New York, as intrinsically preferable to its own. That myopia persisted when it came to perhaps the most extravagantly gifted of all Los Angeles– based artists of the past quarter-century, Frank Gehry, who like his great forerunners there was born elsewhere (in his case, Toronto), but moved to the city in 1947, when he was eighteen. By the mid-1980s the disparity between Gehry’s burgeoning international reputation and lack of recognition in his hometown began to seem disproportionate.

Although Gehry knows more about the creation and display of modern art than any of his present-day coprofessionals, he was repeatedly passed over for the most conspicuous California cultural commissions of the period, including the Getty Center and the museums of contemporary art in L.A. and San Francisco. His chances seemed dim when, in 1988, he was named one of four finalists in a competition for a new home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The project was funded with a $50 million grant from Lillian B. Disney, widow of Walt, for whom the building would be named, and which wound up costing $274 million.

Since 1964, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has been housed in Welton Beckett’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a mediocre subclassical bandbox in the Lincoln Center mode, infamous for its dreadful acoustics. The new building site, on Bunker Hill across from the Chandler Pavilion in downtown L.A., was meant to help revitalize the heart of a diffuse city that has epitomized the urban sprawl metastasizing so destructively across the American landscape.

The lingering insecurity and philistine obtuseness of Los Angeles businessmen-philanthropists were personified by one Philharmonic backer who was alarmed by Gehry’s earlier use of offbeat materials such as chain-link fencing, unfinished plywood, corrugated steel, and chicken-wire glass. He implored Disney Hall’s architecture subcommittee, “You can’t pick [him]; we’re going to be the laughingstock of the whole universe.” This occurred while a much-admired Gehry retrospective organized by Mildred Friedman of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis was installed at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), just down the street from the Disney site, after having traveled around the country for over a year and introducing him to a national audience.

In an impassioned defense of Gehry, who was the unanimous favorite of the selection panel, one of its members, John Walsh, then director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, cleverly stressed the architect’s know-how in completing commercial buildings in the region on time and within budget. Walsh persuasively argued that this one local contender was actually a much safer choice than the foreign-based contestants (Gottfried Böhm, Hans Hollein, and the notoriously intractable James Stirling), and thus the day was won; or so it seemed.

The sobering story of Gehry’s commission, which will culminate with the auditorium’s opening on October 23, is told in Symphony: Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, a collection of essays largely descriptive and celebratory. Most interesting among them is the account of the project by Richard Koshalek, a former director of MoCA and another member of the architecture subcommittee, and Dana Hutt, an architectural historian. Koshalek and Hutt tell cautionary tales of ballooning budgets, economic crises, conflicting constituencies—reflecting, among others, the different interests of the Disney family, competitive donors, and local politicians—and attempts to interfere with Gehry’s conceptions. Their account ought to be mandatory reading for civic groups in search of an architect. It confirms how all-important the aesthetic perception of a selection committee can be in the sponsorship of great architecture.

The coauthors appear to be candid in recounting this bedeviled saga, but they are in fact diplomatic to a fault, no doubt because one key actor in the drama, Eli Broad, was a leader of the fund-raising drive and a major benefactor. Hutt and particularly Koshalek—an insider privy to all the gory details—tiptoe around Gehry’s history of difficult relations with Broad, a billionaire tract-house developer and financial services tycoon. Head of the Disney Hall oversight committee, Broad got the project for the new symphony hall started again after it stalled during the recession of the early 1990s. Several years before that, he had hired Gehry to design a combined house and art gallery in Brentwood, but, fed up with what he deemed a slow pace, he fired him and handed the project over to another architect. Though Gehry disavowed the result and expunged it from his list of works, Broad enraged him by calling it his Frank Gehry house.

Having revised his plans for Disney Hall, the architect, inclined to creative anxiety under the best of circumstances, saw his worst fears coming true when Broad, dissatisfied with mounting costs and the rate of progress, announced that Gehry would be sidelined to the role of design consultant while other professionals supervised the construction. The architect tendered his resignation, and only the courageous intervention and additional funding of Diane Disney Miller, daughter of Walt and Lillian, allowed Gehry to retain full autonomy until the surprisingly happy end. We will have to wait before we get something approaching the full story of what went on behind the scenes at the Disney circus.

2.

One of the most persistent images in American urbanism is that of the proverbial city on a hill, as first envisioned on these shores by the Puritan John Winthrop, via the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Elevated locations imply elevated purposes, even in American cities departing as radically as Los Angeles does from the traditional planning patterns of the Eastern Seaboard. Thus there was great excitement when, in 1983, the J. Paul Getty Trust bought a spectacular hilltop site in Brentwood for its new museum and research complex. But fourteen years later, some found the completed citadel, designed by Richard Meier, to be aloof from the city rather than a unifying element within it.

The glory of Gehry’s Disney Hall is that it seems to reflect, much more so than the Getty, the ideal of the Stadtkrone, or “crown of the city,” as articulated by early-twentieth-century European theorists, most eloquently the German Expressionist architect and planner Bruno Taut.1 The visionary yet practical Taut—who designed colored-glass glaciers for the Alps and built modern workers’ housing in Berlin—saw the construction of such a building not merely as a symbolic act but as providing a place that would encourage social cohesion. That is precisely what some of the people involved in Disney Hall want it to be: not just an acoustically excellent auditorium for performances, but a catalyst that will help to make the center of Los Angeles more alive.

A feeling of contagious energy is palpable as you approach Disney Hall; it flares up on the messy downtown horizon like a silver galleon with full sails billowing in a brisk westerly breeze. This maritime impression is not unintentional. Gehry, an enthusiastic sailor, is intrigued by the suggestive shapes of wind-blown canvas, and has used expansive, taut surfaces that resemble sails—they are neither rigidly constrained nor unrestrainedly freeform. As one comes closer one sees restless but harmonious arcs of stainless steel. Their graceful curvilinear rhythms attest to the architect’s skill in conferring on earthbound buildings the gravity-defying motion of ballet and syncopation of music. Gehry is the great Gesamtkunstwerker of our times, and this is his masterpiece, surpassing his Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

Though the Bilbao museum is undeniably a work of genius, Disney Hall is more mature, more focused, more polished, and more thoroughly resolved as a single experience; and it is better executed in its details. Everything in this rich and complex orchestration of surface and volume, light and shadow, comes together with an assurance and authority that I found astounding. The functional requirements for the Bilbao museum were largely open-ended. It has a negligible permanent collection and serves as an exhibition space for a shifting series of objects, from Old Master drawings to motorcycles to Armani suits. Disney Hall’s mission was to provide a suitable home for a group of musicians whose considerable virtues had been fully appreciated chiefly in other cities (somewhat like the work of Gehry himself).

Arriving at Disney Hall you may feel propelled forward into the flung-open arms of the main entrance, which is set on a street corner. The lobby beyond is similarly encompassing. It evokes a metaphoric grove of stylized, thick-trunked trees—massive, arching, squared-off, wood-veneered columns that lend this gathering space the feeling of a Wagnerian stage set. There are wide, meandering staircases for the see-and-be-seen promenades that some concertgoers love; womb-like coves in which small musical ensembles can hold informal performances; a vertiginous shaft that shoots upward to a central opening in the ceiling, as illuminating as those in Sir John Soane’s Museum.

Most breathtaking of all is the Founders Room, a freestanding, sinuously distorted cone next to the auditorium. Clad on the exterior in a more brightly polished stainless steel than the rest of the building, it shelters an interior that leaps to a six-story-high vaulted white-plaster ceiling with intricately layered folds, bringing to mind the dome of Francesco Borromini’s Sant’Ivo della Sapienza of 1642–1660 in Rome. Never have Gehry’s Mannerist-Baroque proclivities been so apparent. Outside, gardens and an open-air amphitheater (on a limestone and travertine podium raised above the sloping site) are open to the public even when there is no performance in the hall, making this civic space available to those who may never attend a concert within. This is the acropolis L.A. has been waiting for, and it is much more accessible than the Getty for the nonwhite residents who make up the majority of the city’s population.

  1. 1

    Bruno Taut, Die Stadtkrone (Jena: Eugen Diedrichs, 1919).

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