Los Angeles Times

Securing Gehry's vision

Times Staff Writer

"A living room for the city" was how architect Frank Gehry described the Walt Disney Concert Hall as he unveiled its embryonic design in 1988.

That was long before Sept. 11, 2001, ushered in a new era of security concerns for America's public places. So the question arises: Can security planners exercise due diligence against terrorism and other dangers and still allow the building to function as Gehry intended it — "easy to walk into off the street and in tune with the relaxed sensibility of Los Angeles"?

Disney Hall's top security officials believe they can. They plan to keep access unimpeded, although patrons with large bags can expect to have them checked, as has been the case in other Music Center venues since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The day yet may come when concrete barriers, possibly disguised as tree planters, will have to be placed in front of Disney Hall to keep vehicles, and the bombs they could contain, from stopping near the glassed-in, street-level lobby and box office that are no more than 50 feet from Grand Avenue. The hour could arrive when all visitors must pass through metal detectors on their way in.

But not unless conditions really worsen, says Robert Harris, the former Los Angeles County sheriff's investigator and private security consultant who was hired in January as director of security for the Music Center of Los Angeles County — the nonprofit organization that runs the county-owned Disney Hall and its three sister venues across the street. Not unless some threat becomes tangible.

"I think an overreaction is really wasteful," Harris said. "It's threatening to the way that we live, and it's unnecessary."

Howard Sherman, the Music Center's vice president of operations and Harris' boss, said, "Our goal is absolutely to fulfill what the building's intended to do. We'll marry that with the realities of what we learn [as information develops about possible threats], and move forward."

Security staff increased Disney Hall aspires to welcome everybody, nearly all the time. For concerts, you'll have to pay. But the cafe and restaurant in the lobby and the outdoor park nestled against the hall's swooping facade of stainless steel will be public amenities, available to all and open morning to night.

Because of Disney Hall, Sherman said, the Music Center has doubled its security staff — an in-house unit of uniformed officers who wear white shirts and green pants and carry police batons and sidearms.

Just how many officers that comes to is something Harris and Sherman don't want to divulge. Covering an alternately curving and angular, irregularly shaped building like Disney Hall requires more personnel than the geometrically even Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Mark Taper Forum and Ahmanson Theatre, Harris said.

The county, which pays for security and upkeep at the Music Center, has budgeted $1.4 million for Disney Hall security this fiscal year, county spokeswoman Judy Hammond said — nearly matching the $1.6 million security budget for the three other venues.

Training has changed. Harris is schooling his staff in community policing techniques he embraced as a young cop walking a beat in St. Louis. That means the guards don't just stand guard; they'll be "walking and talking," moving about, engaging patrons and passersby in a friendly and helpfully inquisitive manner. The idea is to set the public at ease — and to allow the security force to observe and hear more.

Hidden cameras augment the staff, and Harris says he is in contact at least weekly with the FBI, the Los Angeles Police Department, the Sheriff's Department and the county's Office of Emergency Management, trying to glean all he can about any threats or alerts that might affect downtown L.A.

The history of terrorism on American soil holds a couple of cautionary examples for Disney Hall, which fronts a major street and sits atop a parking garage (there's also a garage under the other Music Center facilities). The nine-story Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was half-destroyed in 1995 by an explosives-packed rental truck parked near its front entrance that also killed 168 people. In 1993, six people died and more than 1,000 were hurt when terrorists detonated a truck bomb in a parking garage under the World Trade Center.

Experts say precautions for parking garages can include bomb-sniffing dogs and inspections of car trunks. But Stevan P. Layne, who heads the International Foundation for Cultural Property Protection, a trade group for professionals who guard cultural institutions such as museums and performance centers, said those measures make little sense for buildings that attract big crowds.

"You'd have to start parking them three days in advance. You're never going to be 100% [secure] unless you put the venue in a concrete block house and search everyone coming in, and that defeats your purpose. The biggest thing is making every single person on your staff aware it's their responsibility to observe and report suspicious circumstances all the time."

Harris said circumstances don't warrant dogs or trunk-popping at Disney Hall. Curbside barriers are the most common device for keeping car bombers away from buildings; they're not going to be in place at Disney Hall, although Harris says he has cost estimates in hand for barriers and metal detectors if threat levels change.

Harris also doesn't think Disney Hall, which seats 2,265, is as likely to make terrorists' lists as other, bigger gathering places in Los Angeles. "There are targets in this area that would be a 10 on a scale of 10, compared to us being a 2 or a 3."

Terrorists "are after the iconic targets, things that stand for the American way of life," said Ed Blakely, former dean of USC's School of Urban and Regional Planning and now dean of the Milano School of Management and Urban Policy at New York's New School for Social Research.

Blakely, who has written on how Americans' fears influence what they build, does see a Catch-22 at play when a structure like Disney Hall becomes a civic symbol: "The more you make out of it, the more you make it a target."

Allure of famous buildings Last March, the Sydney Opera House in Australia, probably the world's most instantly recognizable performance hall, became an example of the allure of famous buildings — and of the risks of lax security — when two men protesting the Iraq war clambered atop one of its distinctive, sail-like shells and emblazoned it with the red-painted slogan "No War."

The worst security disaster in a performance space in recent memory occurred Oct. 23, 2002, a year before Disney Hall's opening night gala, when 41 Chechen gunmen seized the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow during a performance of "Nord-Ost," Russia's first Broadway-style musical. They held nearly 800 hostages for 2 1/2 days, until authorities pumped a potent anesthetic gas into the theater. All the gunmen died, but so did 129 hostages.

In 1986, members of the Jewish Defense League set off a tear gas grenade in New York's Metropolitan Opera House, breaking up a performance by the Moiseyev Dance Company. The house was evacuated, and 20 people were treated at a hospital.

In Los Angeles, notes Erroll Southers, security chief of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the importance of solid, everyday precautions was borne out in 1999 when Buford O. Furrow Jr., an anti-Semitic white supremacist, spent several days casing Jewish cultural institutions as possible targets — the Museum of Tolerance, the Skirball Cultural Center and the University of Judaism — before rejecting them as too well-secured. He then went on a shooting rampage at the undefended North Valley Jewish Community Center, wounding five people, three of them children. Later, he murdered a Philippine American mailman.

"I hope museums and cultural institutions never become victimized," Southers said. "But I think a successful attack on an institution like that strikes at the heart of what Americans hold to be important."

If Disney Hall's specialness lands it on bad guys' hit lists, what they'll find, says Sherman, the Music Center operations chief, is a trained staff geared to protect and defend:

"Everyone is so excited and so proud of that building. It makes it easier to raise the bar to be a better usher, a better security officer. We're very aware of what this building is, and it permeates the entire team."

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