Frank Gehry's brilliant new Walt Disney Concert Hall is a musical ark with silver sails that dance in the bright blue California sky.
The $274 million hall, which opened Thursday, channels the chaotic, sprawling forces of modern life and transforms them into an exuberant, exquisite celebration of community, especially a curvaceous, wood-paneled auditorium that is one of the finest rooms in America.
Rising on a hilltop a few blocks from this city's bland patch of downtown office towers and alongside its monumental but lifeless collection of civic buildings, Disney Hall superbly resolves a range of competing forces: architecture and acoustics, artistry and technology, the building as a stand-alone sculptural object and the need to forge connections to the city around it.
It is a personal triumph for the Los Angeles-based Gehry, who persisted for 15 years to get it built, and a civic triumph for his city, which now has something other than the sun-bleached white letters of the "Hollywood" sign to flaunt on postcards. And it is a tantalizing suggestion of what Chicago can expect next summer when Gehry's outdoor music pavilion opens in Millennium Park.
Even so, Disney Hall is simply a beginning, a way to start making a dense, walkable urban center in a Blade Runner downtown that seems to have been planned entirely by traffic engineers. You've seen one too many Disney movies if you think this singular structure can instantly duplicate the so-called "Bilbao effect," named for the way Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, drew hordes of visitors after it opened in 1997.
Inevitably, some will charge that the concert hall, with its swooping metallic curves, is nothing more than "Bilbao: The Sequel," a cynical attempt to cash in on Gehry's Spanish blockbuster. Yet that's like saying that all of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Style houses are alike because they have overhanging eaves and art glass windows. Design is a language and Gehry's grammar is constantly evolving and endlessly inventive.
The concert hall confirms his standing as a maestro of metal, one who is capable of turning cold steel into something that's as warm as a bouquet of red roses. The building's buoyant, festive arcs simultaneously evoke the musical performances inside and celebrate urban life, as if the parade at Disneyland never stopped.
The origins of Disney Hall reach back to 1987, when the now-deceased Lillian Disney made a $50 million gift for a new concert hall in honor of her late husband, Walt, who was born in Chicago on Dec. 5, 1901, in a simple frame cottage at 2156 N. Tripp Ave.
A year later, Gehry won a design competition for the project, which would replace the neighboring Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But a spiraling budget and management problems almost scuttled the effort. A groundbreaking for the hall wasn't held until late 1999. Miraculously, though, Gehry's original design concept survived and has become better with tweaking.
Building's 'body language'
The most visible change is to the building's skin. Its structural steel frame is covered with stainless steel shingles, which were less expensive than the limestone Gehry previously proposed. Shaped with the aid of a computer program originally used to design the complex curves of French Mirage jet fighters, the steel looks remarkable -- taut and crisp, perfectly accentuating the building's baroque curves. The "body language" of the building, as Gehry calls it, could not be more welcoming -- the very opposite of the haughty Chandler Pavilion, a modern temple enclosed with columns and raised on a podium. (The Chandler remains the home of the Los Angeles Opera.)
To be sure, one can lament the concert hall's boxed-in site. Gehry's sculptural forms typically look best when they are on an urban "edge," such as the river along the Guggenheim Bilbao, that gives them room to preen. Yet it is hard to see the whole of Disney Hall from the freeways that slice past downtown L.A. You wish the hall could trade places with Jose Rafael Moneo's nearby year-old cathedral, which presents a forbidding face to the freeway alongside it. That way, it could more easily integrate itself into the city's daily life, as the Sydney Opera House can because of its spectacular waterfront setting.
Nonetheless, Gehry fully exploits the potential of his imperfect site.
His urban design masterstroke is placing Disney Hall's main auditorium on a diagonal, orienting the building's main entrance to the street corner. The diagonal arrangement leaves room for lush public gardens on one side of the building. The other is devoted to glassy, sidewalk-level walls that invite pedestrians (if there are any) to enter the hall's skylit, multilevel and meandering lobby. For those who drive to the hall (just about everybody) there is a seven-level underground garage that is connected, via a spacious, high-ceilinged escalator to the lobby.
Gehry's architectural moves are equally adept.
He cleverly uses his curving forms to disguise the boxlike presence of the main auditorium, making Disney Hall rotate gracefully around the corner instead of presenting a blunt edge.
He peels back the masklike wrapper of the stainless steel to reveal a glassy entrance to the lobby. He breaks up the hall's mass with a stunningly baroque interior, reserved for big donors, that is clad in a highly reflective stainless steel, as shiny as a newly minted dime.
But to talk simply about Disney Hall's spectacular exterior would be to miss its true, three-dimensional beauty. Gehry designed the concert hall from the inside out, wanting it to be, above all, a vessel for great sound.
Working with chief acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics, he created an extraordinary main auditorium, a great boat of a room that has no chandeliers, no red velvet seats, no special boxes for wealthy concertgoers and no proscenium stage that acts as an invisible curtain between audience and performers.
What the 2,265-seat hall does have is a completely fresh look that results from the merging of two distinct concert hall types.
The first is the traditional shoebox-shaped auditorium, epitomized by Boston's Symphony Hall and prized for its intimacy and acoustics.
The second is the more contemporary "vineyard" approach, which places hill-like tiers of seats around the stage and is exemplified by one of Gehry's favorite buildings, Hans Scharoun's Expressionist Berlin Philharmonic Hall of 1963.
As could be seen during a pre-gala performance last Sunday, his synthesis of these types has produced a multitiered auditorium that is both grand and intimate, a big room that feels as small as a chamber music hall.
It is a symphony of swelling wooden forms that suggest the hull of a ship, the belly of a whale and the jolly curves of the building's exterior.
These moves aren't arbitrary; the curves and grooves in them are designed to enhance the listener's experience, bouncing music back to concertgoers so the sound doesn't get swallowed in an acoustical black hole. An exuberant, Gehry-designed pipe organ -- does it look like a box of french fries? -- provides an appropriate visual exclamation point.
Offering splendid sightlines to all and concealing social hierarchy rather than accentuating it, the concert hall is a palace of democracy. It ranks with Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler's Auditorium Theatre in Chicago as one of the most profound architectural expressions of American culture.
The hall is further distinguished by the way Gehry cut open its acoustically insignificant upper corners and inserted skylights that allow natural light inside. That's a welcome shift for both audiences and the musicians who will spend countless hours there performing and rehearsing.
Equally unexpected and pleasing is the stylized floral pattern of the seats and carpet, a pattern Gehry named "Lillian" in honor of Lillian Disney, who loved gardens. Amazingly, it never looks tawdry, like a hotel chain carpet.
This horticultural theme extends throughout the hall, most lyrically in the soaring, meandering lobby, which is punctuated with steel columns clad in Douglas fir -- a stylized forest.
The garden motif has a deeper meaning.
As David Gebhard and Robert Winter point out in their newly revised architectural guidebook to Los Angeles, the city is the quintessential example of "individualistic hedonism."
The city's freeways provide mobility, but isolate people in their cars and lead to endless sprawl. Its public spaces are a mess, but almost everybody has his own private paradise, symbolized by the freestanding house on a large plot, which allows room for a garden and a swimming pool.
Evoking this wild, unruly individualism, Gehry's Disney Hall simultaneously speaks to the civilized pleasures of the public realm.
And when might this famously centerless city actually develop a thriving urban center, realizing ambitious plans for a vibrant mixed-use district anchored by Disney Hall?
"Not in my lifetime," says the white-haired, 74-year-old Gehry.
Give him credit for being the ultimate realist -- and for designing an American masterwork that draws its energy from urban chaos and charts an exuberant course beyond it.