Few buildings in the history of Los Angeles have come burdened with greater public expectations than the Walt Disney Concert Hall. None has lived up to such expectations so gracefully.
Designed by Frank Gehry, the hall is the most significant work ever created by a Los Angeles architect in his native city. The hall's flamboyant undulating exterior — whose stainless steel forms unfold along downtown's Grand Avenue with exquisite lightness — is a sublime expression of contemporary cultural values. Its intimate, womb-like interior should instantly be included among the great public rooms in America.
But what makes the building so moving as a work of architecture is its ability to express a deeper creative conflict: the recognition that ideal beauty rarely exists in an imperfect world. It is this tension — and the delicacy with which Gehry resolves it — that makes Disney Hall such a powerful work of social commentary. That he could accomplish this despite a tortured construction process that dragged out over 16 years is a minor miracle. Its success affirms both Gehry's place as America's greatest living architectural talent and Los Angeles' growing cultural maturity.
In many ways, Disney Hall occupies a privileged place in the evolution of Gehry's work. Commissioned in 1988, the project marked his emergence as a major voice in American architecture. At the time, the architect was beginning to turn away from the rough-edged chain-link and plywood aesthetic of his early residential commissions to a more flamboyant style.
Construction began several years later, but it ground to a halt in 1994, when problems were discovered with the working drawings. The five-year delay was a major source of embarrassment for the city, but it allowed Gehry to update his design. The building's cladding was changed from stone to steel, giving the structure a tougher, more industrial look. A series of vertical slots was carved out of some of the foyers to allow natural light to flow into the interiors.
The completed hall joins a series of cultural landmarks and office buildings along the top of Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles. The Music Center's bland Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, completed in 1964, stands across 1st Street to the northeast; the Arata Isozaki-designed Museum of Contemporary Art is just across Grand Avenue to the south. Beyond it, a mix of imposing corporate towers and barren plazas forms a perfect snapshot of tabula rasa planning formulas.
Disney Hall's shimmering forms erupt out of this context with a sort of mad exuberance. The hall's main auditorium — enclosed behind canted walls — is set at an angle on the site, giving it a dynamic relationship to the street. A series of voluptuous stainless steel walls wraps around this interior shell. Housing the lobbies and foyers, their layered surfaces spill out above the avenue like the petals of an exotic flower.
They also evoke a city that has been violently torn apart and gently pieced back together. Surfaces break open to offer views of the interior from the street. Along Grand, a swooping steel wall floats above the entry, echoing the more static curved facade of the Chandler Pavilion.
But while the Chandler's elevated plaza isolates it from the avenue, Gehry's design has a more open relationship with the street. The lobby and a restaurant are set along Grand behind panels of glass. Above, sections of the facade seem to float over the sidewalk, inviting passersby into the building.
By comparison, a second, formal entry at the corner of 1st and Grand appears more grounded. A broad staircase is framed by two curved walls, which embrace the staircase like enveloping arms.
At the top of the stairs, the hall's steel facade looms above a row of glass doors. A limestone wall extends along 1st, wrapping around the back of the complex to form a base for an upper-level, outdoor garden.
In effect, the entire building functions as a seductive tool, luring the public into an increasingly intimate architectural experience.
The design is also a pointed rejection of the cool, machine-inspired aesthetics of late Modernism. In its place, Gehry proposes an architecture rooted in the messiness of everyday life. His aim is to break down accepted social norms, to liberate the creative imagination.
That sense of an architecture rooted in a more complex psychological experience becomes clear as one moves through the building. Visitors arriving via underground parking ride a series of escalators up to the Grand Avenue lobby. Light filters down through a large skylight at the top of the stairway, drawing the eye upward. When visitors reach the lobby level, a sweeping view opens up to the avenue, momentarily reconnecting them with life outside.
From here, a series of foyer balconies carves up through the interior, the forms wrapping around the volume of the main auditorium. At the third-level foyer, the curvaceous line of a rose-colored marble bar frames the edge of a narrow balcony. Visitors can peer down into the main lobby or out to the intersection of 1st and Grand. As one slips along the bar, this view disappears, and the space opens up to the sky. The effect is remarkably tranquil, as if one were temporarily suspended between two worlds. The eye is in constant motion, engaged in a remarkable voyeuristic dance.
Only as one finally enters the auditorium, however, does the meaning of that social pact finally become apparent. Gehry has said that the design was influenced by Hans Scharoun's Berlin Philharmonie, completed in 1963 — a landmark of postwar architecture. And like Scharoun's work, Disney Hall's interior is organized in a so-called vineyard pattern, with seats arranged around all four sides of the stage. In Berlin, the layout is more open, its energy less focused; Gehry's hall is more compact, its composition almost classically conceived.
Viewed from the uppermost balcony, the orchestra seats cascade down toward the stage in a series of terraces. Two convex walls press in toward the stage on either side, a series of staggered concave balconies rising up behind them. Above, the Douglas fir ceiling's voluptuous form droops down over the room like a billowing canopy. A bundle of large wood and brass organ pipes bursts from between several more rows of seats behind the stage, tying the entire composition together.
The tension is almost too much to bear. But Gehry subtly relieves it by allowing the forms to break open at the room's upper four corners, whose white surfaces glow with a soft, warm light. Just behind the top balcony seats, a large T-shaped window offers a framed view of the sky.
If this room has a precedent, it lies in the 17th century Baroque architecture of Gianlorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini. As in Borromini's S. Ivo della Sapienza in Rome, Gehry's intricate composition of concave and convex forms imbues the space with an exquisite visual complexity. The play of light and shadow is heavenly.
Yet Gehry is also trying to convey something deeply personal here. He moved to Los Angeles as a teenager, at a moment when his family was teetering on the brink of poverty. As a way of binding the family together, Gehry's sister sometimes played the harp at night after dinner. Music became a source of spiritual sustenance. It is not surprising, therefore, that his auditorium turns out to be a model of egalitarian values. Each seat offers its own unique view; there are no private boxes.
By wrapping the seats so tightly around the stage, Gehry engages the audience in a remarkable communal experience. Concertgoers become intently aware of both the orchestra and others in the room. Music, here, becomes a socializing force, a place of shared human solace.
Leaving such a space is not easy. And Gehry goes to great lengths to nurture this sense of intimacy. Just as the foyers allow visitors to withdraw from it, they now function to slow the process of reentry into the world outside. Various views open up again to the surrounding cityscape.
On the fourth-floor foyer, the building's layered exterior peels apart to offer a perfectly framed view of City Hall. On the opposite side of the building, doors lead out to the elevated garden. The mirrored stainless-steel Founders Room anchors a corner of the site. A view of the San Gabriel Mountains opens up to the north, framed by the glass facade of the Department of Water and Power building and the back of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. To the south, the downtown skyline rises in the near distance.
These urban elements become part of the architectural composition. It is as if Gehry were pointing out the moments of optimism in downtown's hard-edged urban landscape. His aim is to change our perception of the city, to suggest its secret, untapped potential.
The garden area includes one of the design's few awkward moments. Concrete steps connect the garden to Grand. The stairs are flanked by the stoic stone form of the L.A. Philharmonic office building on one side. A fragment of stone wall and the sculptural steel of the cafe's roof frame the other.
The design for the offices was added to the overall plan only in 1998, and the area was significantly redesigned. But the steel roof ends too abruptly, as if carelessly sliced off at one end. The relationship between the various forms is never fully resolved.
Yet perhaps this minor flaw reveals the deeper meaning of Gehry's work.
The architect has always equated notions of purity — architectural and otherwise — with intolerance. In breaking apart conventional forms, he hopes to create spaces that imply an acceptance of frailty — the weaknesses, in effect, that make us all human.
And it is in this sense that Gehry's work is truly baroque. The word is derived from the Portuguese barocco, meaning "a misshapen pearl" — an image that captures the peculiar beauty of Gehry's architecture.
Los Angeles is an ideal testing ground for such an experiment. Largely a 20th century creation, the city has always been remarkably free from Old World traditions. Its landscape represents a vision of life where individual expression rules.
It is also a model of suburban alienation — one that has often been criticized for lacking the traditional urban glue of older cities.
The wonder of Disney Hall is its ability to resolve that conflict.
It is neither as isolated as Richard Meier's Getty Center nor as introverted as Jose Rafael Moneo's Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels — two other recent Los Angeles landmarks.
Disney Hall's power, instead, stems from its ability to gather the energy of that swarming landscape and imbue it with new meaning.
In this way, it should be ranked among America's most significant architectural achievements.