Disney Hall opening to sweet and sour notes

The sight may jar, but Frank Gehry's concert hall has a lot going for it


October 19, 2003|By Fred Shuster | Fred Shuster,Los Angeles Daily News

With its crisp glass walls, audaciously curved facade and icy sheets of polished steel suggesting billowing sails caught in a strong wind, the Walt Disney Con-cert Hall is a jarring sight as it rises out of a colorless area of downtown Los Angeles' Bunker Hill.

The city's latest landmark isn't lacking in attention. Even weeks before the curtain goes up (the grand opening is Thursday), architect Frank Gehry's block-long metallic structure was leaving a profound mark on the city -- and perhaps its collective unconscious.

Spectacular. Optimistic. Com-pletely out of place. Those are some of the remarks heard in recent days as construction barriers have come down and musicians have begun slipping in for rehearsals. They're the sort of comments that also greeted the likes of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Eiffel Tower, structures that got some first-night reviews worse than Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring but are now much beloved. Whatever the fate of Disney Hall, its spirited exterior, shielding the elegant 2,265-seat auditorium within, is a dynamic presence in a particularly gray part of Los Angeles' notoriously ragged downtown.

"It almost doesn't matter whether anyone likes how it looks," says architect Eric Owen Moss, director of the Southern California Institute of Architec-ture. "Because there are so many ways of seeing it. One of the great things about the hall is it suggests that whatever the limits to our lives are, there are still possibilities. It stretches the frame of reference, whether the viewer realizes it or not. It suggests a state of becoming. Some people will be more aware of this than others, but the structure suggests that a lot of things that haven't arrived yet are possible.

"It shows history doesn't have to be a matter of rerunning things that have already happened. It makes its case."

Hope for downtown

As you walk through the place, you notice things like the floral pattern of the carpet, echoed in the staggered seating that spills over the Douglas fir-paneled auditorium. You hear the sharp scuffle of shoes on the shiny cedar floor of the venue, and you hope latecomers are kept in the foyer until a suitable break in the music. You gaze up at the massive skylights, and then see space between the sensual acoustic paneling and the shell of the building, a design, we find out later, that lends the music a hint of natural reverb.

Outside the venue, near the public gardens, you notice how Gehry demystifies the building itself by exposing openings in the structure's steel skin to reveal its very innards. "Look at the Eiffel Tower," Moss said. "It's all nuts and bolts and pieces of steel. Here, the state of being unfinished is part of Gehry's statement."

The next step in the cultural history of Los Angeles begins this week, when the new home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Master Chorale opens to a crescendo of publicity. Sixteen years after the project was first imagined and at more than twice its projected cost, Disney Hall has landed -- some would say blossomed -- and with it come hopes for a reinvigorated urban landscape.

"Ideally, this would be our Champs Elysees, a boulevard full of outdoor cafes, kiosks -- a true pedestrian space," said Tridib Banerjee, a professor of urban and regional planning at the Univer-sity of Southern California. "That's the kind of atmosphere missing in L.A. at the moment. It is an exciting building but, by accident or design, it's not very visible. ... You can't see it from the freeway, so it doesn't add to the skyline. It will need must-see attractions because nothing will draw people downtown on its own."

The city's Grand Avenue, where the hall is located, may not be the Champs Elysees, but it may have its Arc de Triomphe, thanks to Gehry. Those who've driven downtown recently have noticed the teeth-grinding repairs that have torn up the area. The outcome, though, will be a two-block promenade with wider sidewalks, seasonal trees and native California palms.

"Los Angeles is a complicated city," Moss said. "The fact that Disney Hall is downtown -- if there is a downtown -- starts to make that part of the city a legitimate place to offer what other parts of the city cannot. It allows one to make a distinction between a suburb, a periphery and a center -- something that's not always been clear."

A long road

The road to Gehry's long-awaited Disney Hall was long, treacherous and nearly had a very different ending. After initial funding was arranged more than 15 years ago, the project stalled until 1998. "We almost didn't get here," said Deborah Borda, the executive director of the L.A. Philharmonic. "But we wanted to do this correctly, and it was worth the wait."

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