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.
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.
The prototype for the Disney auditorium, urged on Gehry by Ernest Fleischmann, the L.A. Philharmonic’s managing director between 1969 and 1998 (and the architect’s main adviser on classical music), is Hans Scharoun’s Philharmonie hall of 1956–1963 in Berlin’s Kulturforum. That idiosyncratic structure, designed by the last active German Expressionist architect late in his career, departs from the centuries-old “shoebox” concert hall format, and is by general consent acoustically superior to other modern music auditoriums. The corrugated metal exterior of the Philharmonie now seems as dated as a 1960s cruise ship. But the the Philharmonie auditorium stands as the model of the so-called vineyard configuration, wherein the orchestra, at the center of the space, is surrounded by the audience in steeply raked seating. (One thinks here of German and Austrian hillside vineyards rather than flat French or Italian ones.)
The 2,265-seat Disney auditorium—with some eight hundred fewer seats than the Chandler Pavilion—is stunning, both visually and aurally. Sheathed in Douglas fir over plaster, it has the warmth and mellowness one associates with Stradivarius and Guarneri string instruments. Overhead, the cloudlike configuration of the nine-part suspended wooden ceiling echoes the curvilinear rhythms of the walls, balconies, and bow-shaped rows of seating. This dynamic space is anchored by a spectacular organ designed by Gehry with his customary sculptural abandon. Its angled, wood-encased pipes fly up like the hosannas ascending from the mouths of singing angels in Flemish Primitive paintings.
The high visual quality of the auditorium reminds one how architecturally lackluster even the most acoustically outstanding auditoriums can be, among them Symphony Hall in Boston, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and the Musikvereinsaal in Vienna. As fine as Disney Hall might look, the architect knew that in order to win over the hometown that had long underestimated him, the sound quality must excel. No aspect of the scheme obsessed him so much. He worked with master acousticians—first Minoru Nagata, and then, after his retirement in 1994, his brilliant successor, Yasuhisa Toyota—to arrive at the best possible balance of sound. Countless studies flew back and forth between Los Angeles and Tokyo as the architect willingly adjusted dimensions to Nagata and Toyota’s carefully calibrated recommendations.
I was among a group of some 125 guests invited to attend the first orchestral rehearsal in Disney Hall on June 30 for an audience that also included members of Gehry’s office and Philharmonic staff, donors of $5 million and upward, and three local journalists. The orchestra’s music director since 1992, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conducted a forty-five-minute sampler of excerpts from familiar works that demonstrated a wide sonic range and allowed even nonspecialists to understand what the project’s principals were after.
It took only the first few bars of the final movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony to realize that Disney Hall’s acoustics are phenomenal, with a full, vibrant resonance, balanced by a limpid clarity of tone and an overall warmth. When the orchestra commenced the slow second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, one could feel the thrumming bass line through the soles of one’s feet. The effect prompted Salonen to remark that the orchestra had a “newly discovered bass octave,” the absence of which was one of the Chandler Pavilion’s worst deficiencies. Although four extra months were built into the construction schedule to allow for the tinkering that is usually needed to work out acoustical kinks before an opening, Toyota decided that none was necessary. Gehry has observed that the often inexact science of sound is “one third acoustics, one third psychoacoustics, and one third a great orchestra.” The sound seemed to me sublime.
By an extraordinary coincidence of timing, Disney is the second music auditorium Gehry finished this year. In April, the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College was inaugurated in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. The architect received the assignment in 1997, shortly before Bilbao but nine years after he started the Disney project. Viewed together, the two new structures, similar in function but different in other respects, provide telling contrasts. The settings of each are as different as one can imagine: Bard in a bucolic glade on the edge of a small campus, Disney on a busy corner in the downtown urban-renewal district of America’s second city. In the historic setting of its Hudson River Valley landscape, the Fisher Center is strikingly picturesque. Its cascading stainless-steel roof recalls a thatched John Nash cottage, not a far-fetched reference when we consider the huge influence that English Romanticism exerted on the Hudson region’s foremost landscape theorist and designer, Andrew Jackson Downing, who planted the adjacent Montgomery Place estate.
Shapely though its skin may be, the Fisher Center is not sculpture-in-the-round like Disney Hall. The front of the Bard building projects an undulating stainless-steel canopy that has been visibly affixed on top of a glass curtain wall, with a series of bare, stucco-clad, box-shaped rooms and service areas deployed to the rear. This juxtaposition of a billboard-like façade and utilitarian container meets Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s classic definition of the “decorated shed.” In fact, the Fisher Center is best understood as a hardy hybrid of the straightforward, rectangular commercial work Gehry did decades ago and his soaring, swooping metallica of Bilbao and beyond.
Though the tab for the Fisher Center jumped from $25 million to $62 million after its location on the campus was changed, it still cost less than a quarter of what Disney cost. No money was wasted here on the fancy materials and exacting finishes appropriate for a civic monument but out of place in a student setting. This is all to the good, for the undisguised steel framing of the Fisher lobby imparts bold monumentality and structural interest to a relatively restricted space. The bogus gilded grandeur of most performing arts interiors since the 1960s seems even more vulgar in contrast to the crisp, vigorous, and dignified handling of Bard’s public spaces.
The main auditorium, Sosnoff Theater (there is also a smaller black-box hall for experimental performances), looks particularly good. Its exposed concrete walls display thin, looping strips of Douglas fir that bring to mind both the laminated plywood wall treatments of Alvar Aalto (a hero of Gehry’s) and the overlapping calligraphic networks of Brice Marden’s Cold Mountain paintings. The tone strikes just the right chord for a liberal arts college, neither penurious nor profligate.
Leon Botstein, Bard’s president and music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, consulted closely with Gehry and Toyota on the acoustics. But it was impossible to make a fair judgment about the sound quality of Fisher Hall at the first performance in April. When concert halls are inaugurated, those in charge often choose to perform works that will bring down the house in a suitably overwhelming manner. For Fisher’s grand opening, Botstein, a man of no small ego who strongly identifies with Mahler (he went to a millennium costume ball dressed as the composer), conducted his monumental Third Symphony. It turned out to be a colossal miscalculation. With an orchestra of ninety-nine, a chorus of ninety-six, and a playing time of over an hour and a half, the symphony was wholly out of proportion to the nine-hundred-seat, chamber-sized auditorium. The cacophony at times was physically painful. Fortunately performances since then have been on a more reasonable scale and music critics have praised the acoustics.
Salonen has devised a much more intelligent and digestible program for the gala inaugural concert at Disney on October 23. To show off the various acoustic properties of his auditorium to best advantage, he has put together shorter pieces of varying sonorities and styles. The finale will be Le Sacre du printemps, homage both to Stravinsky, who lived in Los Angeles for decades, and Walt Disney, who presented Stravinsky’s score to a mass audience in his 1940 Fantasia, just twenty-seven years after the music’s turbulent première at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
The danger for any artist whose work is both recognizable and critically acclaimed is complacent repetition—the temptation to churn out easily identifiable, eagerly welcomed, and readily salable designs. This possibility worried Gehry, who was besieged by clients clamoring for “the next Bilbao.” The patrons of Disney Hall were not immune to the imitative urge. After the Guggenheim Bilbao opened, they prompted the architect to change the proposed limestone cladding to a silvery metal like the skin of his most famous building, although their ostensible purpose was to cut $10 million in costs.
Gehry’s newest projects display all the winning qualities that explain why he has achieved such widespread acceptance lately. (Eleven of them are on view at Frank O. Gehry: Work in Progress, a handsomely installed exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art timed to coincide with the opening of Disney Hall, whose final model is a highlight of the show.) Gehry’s present popularity could not have been foretold from the eccentric, purposefully unsettling schemes he produced between 1977, when he began remodeling his own house in Santa Monica into a startling collage of gritty industrial materials, and 1987, when he started to design the Vitra Design Museum in Weil-am-Rhein, Germany, his first experiment with the freely curving forms that would culminate so dramatically in Bilbao and Disney.2
In the early years of that decade he designed a series of Southern California houses that were never built. With floor plans that appeared to explode in different directions and similarly fractured walls, they seemed to have survived an aesthetic earthquake. Increasingly he moved toward the sensuous organic form that started to emerge at the Vitra museum. That pivotal design combines elements from both modes, and though it seems less impressive to some observers today, it was a critical turning point for Gehry. As we are reminded in Symphony by Michael Maltzan, Gehry’s project designer for the competition phase of Disney, “Now, [Vitra] would look dumpy; then it was a radioactive nugget—you were seeing the future.”
It is ironic that by the time Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley included Gehry (rather against his will) in their 1988 Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, he had already progressed well beyond the nervously fragmented style that Johnson and Wigley promoted as the latest avant-garde fashion. But his transition from sharp-edged provocation to biomorphic fantasy was not a cynical move to enhance his job prospects. Things did not improve appreciably for his practice until he won the Pritzker Prize the following year; commissions then began pouring in and he greatly increased the size of his staff. Gehry discovered a far richer vocabulary of form in biomorphism than he had in the distorted geometries of his preceding period.
Not the least of the surprises of Gehry’s subsequent development has been how well he has made the transition from the small scale typical of vanguard projects to the large scale of mainstream public commissions. Gehry’s big work is just as spontaneous as his more intimate compositions, one of his most remarkable achievements as an artist. Gehry has spoken of his admiration for the sculpture of Alberto Giacometti, specifically the immediacy he was able to retain in the finished artifact:
It’s hard to sustain the feeling of life from a first model to the final work. Henry Moore got into trouble taking his reclining figures from wood to bronze, like De Kooning did when he took his Clam Diggers from clay to bronze. I’ve faced the same problem in making titanium look as spontaneous as a sketch, but Giacometti just got it. It’s all about surface, and it takes a lifetime to know how to do it. And Giacometti figured it out.3
From the outset of the mature phase of his career, Gehry has been fascinated with architecture as sculpture; hence instead of drawing, he prefers to work out a design by modeling. His long-term friendships with sculptors who work on a large scale—mainly Claes Oldenburg and Richard Serra—have been based on their exchanges of ideas about the sculptural nature of architecture and the architectural nature of sculpture. Disney Hall demonstrates how much Gehry has learned from them.
The serpentine passages that snake through the shapely stainless-steel exteriors of Disney Hall recall but quite outdo those of Serra’s Torqued Ellipse series; they have none of the macho menace of Serra’s physically imposing but psychologically terrifying Cor-Ten steel sculptures. Although Serra’s huge tilting arcs looked wonderful in the vast gallery at Bilbao, Gehry manages something even more striking in Los Angeles by carrying the sculptor’s ambitious scale to far greater heights. Open to the sky, these pathways offer an affirmative inversion of Serra’s overbearing works.
The playful, crypto-Pop nature of Gehry’s architecture owes a great debt to the antic animation of Oldenburg’s early sketches of public sculpture. Among them are biomorphic conceits like his unexecuted Design for a Tunnel Entrance in the Form of a Nose and the Study for Colossal Monument: Fagends (in Hyde Park), a superscale pile of crushed cigarette stubs, both of which in retrospect seem to predict recent Gehry compositions.4 The architect has remained a steadfast supporter of Oldenburg’s, despite the distressingly coarse and inert quality of the sculptor’s output in the years since he began working with his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, in the late 1970s.
At Gehry’s request the couple has created a specially commissioned piece for the entry plaza of Disney Hall, a giant wing collar and bow tie in painted steel. When it is installed, this cartoonish object, like some accessory for a monster Mickey Mouse, will undermine the lyrical abstraction of the building. One of Gehry’s competitors for the Disney job, Hans Hollein, in his presentation suggested “a Walt Disney statue listening to the concert from a high pedestal” as well as a “Mickey Mouse bridge.” We have so far been spared such pandering in this brand-free Disney memorial; but it is regrettable that Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s bow tie has slipped in under the dispensation of high art.
Since Bilbao, museums have been especially eager for Gehry to work that old Basque magic on them, and he quickly received commissions from several art institutions. Among them was the Guggenheim itself. Its entrepreneurial director, Thomas R. Krens, buoyed by the strong reception of Bilbao and many requests for similar offshoots from cities around the world, reasoned that the Guggenheim would benefit most if the next Bilbao were built in New York itself. Never happy with Frank Lloyd Wright’s inspired but difficult Fifth Avenue landmark—which shows off some kinds of art brilliantly but is inhospitable to others—Krens intended to install the museum’s permanent collection there and to use the new Gehry building for the museum’s headquarters and changing exhibitions.
The proposed site, on the East River at the foot of Wall Street and set against the dramatic backdrop of the Lower Manhattan skyline, posed intractable compositional problems for Gehry. What Krens called the “postcard view” of the building—as it would most often be photographed from Brooklyn across the water—vexed the architect. His cloudlike design, a fluffy horizontal mass of titanium reminiscent of Bilbao but devoid of its energetic sweep and momentum, seemed dwarfed by the tall buildings close behind it. His repeated attempts to insert a vertical element at the arrangement’s center (a mid-rise tower for offices or a hotel) to mediate between the two scales did not help.
In any event, the post-Clinton recession and the loss of city and state support following the destruction of the nearby World Trade Center caused the financially beleaguered Guggenheim to abandon the project early this year. It was a blessing in disguise for Gehry’s career: Disney Hall is an infinitely finer follow-up to Bilbao.
The thrilling, Borromini-like quality of the Founders Room at Disney Hall raises the question of Gehry’s place in architectural history. He is not just preeminent among living architects. (Only Venturi and Scott Brown have had a similarly transformative effect on the practice and comprehension of the building art.) He can now, in my view, be counted safely among the most talented builders of the ages, comparable to the great impresarios of inventive architectural form—a peer of the master masons of the Gothic as well as of Brunelleschi, Alberti, Hawksmoor, Borromini, Neumann, Soane, Gaudí, Lutyens, Wright, Le Corbusier, Aalto, and Kahn. They all struggled heroically to wrest construction from the deadening grasp of convention and to imbue it, through diverse means, with the vitality of the moment, while seeking to transcend their times with works that could speak with eloquence to future generations. All of Gehry’s most distinguished predecessors have done this, and there is ample evidence today for us to believe that he has done no less.
October 23, 2003
Bruno Taut, Die Stadtkrone (Jena: Eugen Diedrichs, 1919). ↩
Olivier Boissière and Martin Filler, The Vitra Design Museum: Frank Gehry Architect (Rizzoli, 1990). ↩
Martin Filler, “The Thin Man,” Departures, September 2001, p. 210. ↩
Claes Oldenburg, Proposals for Monuments and Buildings, 1965–69 (Chicago: Big Table Publishing Company, 1969). ↩