Birth of an Icon

October 17, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY KAYE: A masterpiece of contemporary architecture, a celebration of the power of design, and a sublime union of form and function: This is just some of the praise architectural and cultural critics have showered on the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the soon-to-open new home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

DEBORAH BORDA: It’s like a magnet. People are coming to stand at the corners and take pictures and look at it.

JEFFREY KAYE: Deborah Borda is the executive director of the L.A. Philharmonic. She says, in a city sometimes known for its jaded ways, Disney Hall has become an instant attention grabber.

DEBORAH BORDA: One looks at it and knows that it is clearly an iconic building and location. People know about this and are excited about it and they are proud of it. And in the end, as human beings, don’t we all need something that we believe in and we’re proud of and that we feel good about?

JEFFREY KAYE: Disney Hall’s striking form was born in the mind of architect Frank Gehry. His unorthodox designs, such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, have made Gehry a leading figure in architecture.

FRANK GEHRY: I have developed a language of motion with inert materials in architecture for myself. That is what I was trying to do.

JEFFREY KAYE: Gehry compares the billowing, stainless steel-clad surfaces of Disney Hall’s exterior to the sails of a ship. He says his pushing-the-envelope design for Disney Hall is an architectural response to the tumult of our times.

FRANK GEHRY: I think the politics of our time — democracy or whatever form of it we’ve got — creates chaos, visual chaos.

JEFFREY KAYE: To transform his first doodles and drawings for Disney Hall into a finished building, Gehry and his design team relied on a three-dimensional computer-modeling program used in the aerospace industry. Without the program to shape and map its surfaces, Gehry says it might have taken decades of computational trial and error to build Disney Hall’s complex geometries.

FRANK GEHRY: It enabled us to demystify shapes for the construction industry and make it possible to build things in a reasonable fashion, that is, that doesn’t break the budget. It can be done in time, and it you can quantify it so it is not a runaway train financially.

JEFFREY KAYE: But if it’s to succeed, Disney Hall must be an acoustic triumph as well as an architectural one. Music critics and musicians have long complained about the philharmonic’s old home, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, across the street from Disney Hall. The Chandler, they say, has mediocre acoustics, which muffle and muddy the full richness of an orchestra.

For Disney Hall’s curvaceous wood-paneled auditorium, Gehry worked with Japanese acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota. Their goal was to create a much cleaner and crisper sonic environment. To help achieve that, acoustician and architect designed a so-called vineyard-style auditorium. Almost 2,300 seats on different levels nearly surround the stage.

DEBORAH BORDA: You are actually in the music. So the music and musicians are surrounded by the audience. So it is not as if you are in two separate rooms. You are all in one room, all in one experience.

JEFFREY KAYE: For the past several weeks, orchestra members have been in the hall practicing and fine-tuning their performances. They say they’re elated with their new home.

ROY TANABE, Violinist: I am so excited that sometimes I can hardly breathe. I walk onto this stage and play the same repertoire, and it’s like a new discovery, absolutely a new discovery. I hear new things and feel new things. It’s kind of miraculous.

GLORIA LUM, Cellist: Getting a new hall for an orchestra is like getting a great instrument for a player. You have to liken it to that, because there are so many more things we can do here, in terms of hearing each other, ensemble, and in terms of the blending and the variation of sound and musical color. And for the audience to also hear that is, I think, a very different sort of experience as compared to a CD or something or being in a hall where you don’t hear the clarity and the colors.

JEFFREY KAYE: Work on Disney hall began in 1987 after Lillian Disney, widow of Walt, contributed the first $50 million towards the venue’s construction. But building was delayed for most of the 1990s because of fundraising problems and internal disagreements. Eventually, southern California philanthropists and corporations contributed the rest of the funds needed to complete Disney Hall.

FRANK GEHRY: You wonder, how did we get here? And I consider it an absolute miracle.

JEFFREY KAYE: Its final cost: $274 million, a combination of private and public funds. Many of L.A.’s civic leaders believe that’s money well spent. They hope Disney Hall will become L.A.’s signature civic icon, as synonymous with L.A. as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. They speak grandly of the building uniting a metropolis that can be a jigsaw puzzle of ethnic enclaves and subcultures. L.A. is often better known for congestion than for a sense of community.

Boosters also hope that Disney Hall, located in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, will help revitalize the city’s often neglected urban core, where people work but seldom linger after the business day is over.

DEBORAH BORDA: Yes, it will change the city. It’s transformational for the city. It’s transformational for the community.

JEFFREY KAYE: But such dreams are pipe dreams to Los Angeles urban planning critic Sam Hall Kaplan. He’s one of the few figures in L.A. architectural circles who skewered Disney Hall.

SAM HALL KAPLAN: It’s a disappointment because it does not really reach out and embrace the city. It’s a disappointment because it really does not express indeed the essence of L.A.

JEFFREY KAYE: Kaplan argues that the money invested in a new concert hall would have been better spent cultivating smaller-scale, neighborhood-oriented projects. He would like to see old office buildings converted into apartments and dilapidated movie palaces — there are a dozen downtown — restored to their former glory.

SAM HALL KAPLAN: Those are the projects that will ultimately make the difference and improve the quality of life and improve downtown and give downtown a “there.” Downtown needs that critical mass. It’s not going to get that kind of critical mass just in the evenings when some people will drive into town from their enclaves and go to Disney Hall. They will get it by people living here, working here, playing here, shopping here.

DEBORAH BORDA: I think that’s a bum rap. This isn’t a building for the elite; this is a building that is inviting all sorts of people. And I think there’s a very sorry direction that we have taken recently in society, and that is to say that something that is elite or superb is in some way bad. To use the term “elite” as pejorative, I completely disagree with.

JEFFREY KAYE: Disney Hall is now filled with the sounds of drilling, sawing and hammering as workers hurry to put the finishing touches on the building. But the symphony of construction will soon give way to music. Disney Hall, after some free public concerts, will have its gala grand opening on the evening of Oct. 23. The L.A. Philharmonic’s program includes selections from Mozart, Bach and Stravinsky.