Architect Candidates for Disney Hall Share Views : Six Finalists Bring Diverse Backgrounds Bunker Hill Site

Times Staff Writer

"The architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness," wrote Frank O. Gehry to Music Center officials, describing how he would approach designing the Walt and Lily Disney Concert Hall for the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Gehry and five others, gleaned after a six-month comprehensive international search, were the architects designated as semifinalists last Thursday for the new hall atop downtown's Bunker Hill. The others are Gottfried Bohm of Cologne, West Germany; Henry Nichols Cobb (of I.M. Pei & Partners), New York; Hans Hollein of Vienna; Renzo Piano of Genoa, Italy, and James Stirling of London.

As the only Los Angeles architect--whose buildings from the Aerospace Museum to the Hollywood library to the Temporary Contemporary, dot the local landscape--Gehry added:

"Because of climate and context, we have a freedom that many American cities do not enjoy. We can make usable year-round outdoor spaces to complement our buildings. We have endless variety of plant material that flourishes only here. We can create an oasis in the urban clutter."

Bohm of Cologne, West Germany, received the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 1986 for a vast body of work encompassing four decades in Germany, including the Church of the Pilgrimage at Neviges, the Zublin corporate headquarters in Stuttgart and the Pavilion for Stuttgart Opera House. There are, however, no examples of his work in North America.

"One of my preoccupations (has always been) to plan large gathering places for people in the form of churches, theaters or concert halls," Bohm wrote to the Music Center. "I would envision the creation of a space which by itself asks to be filled with music, a building which projects its purpose in its alluring exterior. It should have a distinctive festive presence" in the "life of the neighborhood."

The competition is the result of Lillian B. Disney's $50-million gift to the Music Center, announced last May. With appreciation, the gift for the concert hall and related facilities across First Street from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion could reach $60 million. The selection of the six was made at Mrs. Disney's home, said Richard Koshalek, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art and chairman of the five-man architectural subcommittee which named the semifinalists.

The second cut takes place in early April, noted Koshalek. The architect is expected to be named by the Disney Hall Committee in August.

The key choice of acoustician will be made by the committee later in the year, after consulting with the architectural subcommittee and the commissioned architect, said Frederick M. Nicholas, chairman of the Disney Hall Committee.

These preliminary brief sketches of purpose are further excerpts from the candidates' two-page statements on how they would approach building a concert hall for the Music Center that were released (in excerpted form) to The Times by the Disney Hall Committee:

Cobb--architect of the Portland Museum of Art in Maine and the Library Square Towers under construction downtown; former chairman of Harvard's Graduate School of Design--noted in his statement: "The great challenge in concert hall design is to create a physical setting wherein the social pleasures of congregation can be successfully joined with their opposite: the intensely inward contemplation that accompanies the enjoyment of music by both listener and performer. . . . Los Angeles must ultimately inspire a Concert Hall essentially without precedent, just as it inspired, more than a half century ago, a (Central) Library essentially without precedent."

Hollein is the architect of two major art museums in Frankfurt and Monchengladbach, West Germany. He is the designer as well of furniture, lighting equipment, household appliances, sunglasses and is crafting a piano for the Austrian manufacturer Bosendorfer.

"I have for many years been interested in California and particularly in Los Angeles and always wanted to build there," he wrote. "From my days as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, and my research on Los Angeles architecture . . . I have a standing relationship with the city and some of its important people . . . I have visited the site recently," Hollein added, "and think it has the potential for an 'acropolis' of the arts."

Piano--architect of the Menil Collection Museum in Houston last year, co-designer of the Pompidou Center in Paris a decade before that, who in November received the commission to build the new Newport Harbor Art Museum--delivered one of the more diplomatic statements of the six, obviously in tune with the notion of a very active, participating client, which the Music Center has already signaled it will be.

"My work is constantly directed toward defining the program in a continuous dialogue with the client and a constant process of feedback from the brief to the final design scheme," Piano said. "My approach," he added, "is always concentrated on research of natural elements such as light, heat, ventilation of acoustics: by understanding the properties of these elements, I try to generate architectural spaces."

Stirling, who designed the State Gallery and Chamber Theatre in Stuttgart and the Clore Gallery as an addition to the Tate Gallery in London, wrote: "We are striving toward a richer, inclusive architectural language based on the integration of modernity and tradition using the multiple layers of historical precedent and the abstract styles of modern design.

"We are also concerned in producing a fusion between the monumental tradition of public buildings and the informal, populist image of today's places of public entertainment," Stirling continued. "For us, design is an explicit and reiterative process involving research, conceptual design, consideration of alternatives, their evaluation and re-evaluation. We do not believe in waiting for the 'blinding flash' of inspiration. . . . "

The six architects are as diverse as their buildings and backgrounds, but reached by telephone, several of them (or staff) had one immediate question: Who else was on the list? As late as Tuesday, Hollein who was back in Vienna after spending time in Southern California prior to the announcement, still did not know. "Can you tell me, or is it a secret?"

Three of the six architects have won the $100,000 Pritzker Prize, considered architecture's Nobel: Besides Bohm (pronounced Berm) in 1986, Stirling won in 1981, Hollein in 1985,

Like Olympic athletes, the six--winnowed from an original list of 27--continually run up against each other in architectural meets. "We are constantly competing, our names constantly come up," Hollein noted. "Two of them are good friends of mine, Gehry and Stirling. And also Harry Cobb. Renzo (Piano) I know for many years. I know all of them."

The next round of site visits for each of the six gets under way Jan. 30 with Stirling, accompanied by his partner Michael Wilford. Gehry is to be interviewed Feb. 2. The last interview is with Piano, March 10.

In choosing the six architects, the subcommittee concentrated on a body of work rather than looking for a particular style. "Each of these men is ripe to produce a major work which is the sort of culmination of all the strengths in their work," said Richard Weinstein, dean of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at UCLA. "I think what we are looking for is the surprise (work), a degree of quality and conviction beyond what they have already done."

According to Robert Harris, dean of the School of Architecture at USC and a member of the architectural subcommittee, the six were "identified as being among the very best designers in the world at this time. There are other really qualified architects, some of whom were already so occupied with other projects that they weren't available."

(The subcommittee also includes Ernest A. Powell, director of the County Museum of Art, and John Walsh, director of the Getty Museum.)

The two Americans and four Europeans range in age from Bohm, who will be 68 Friday, to Piano, who is 50. (Both Bohm, whose father was an illustrious church builder, and Piano had fathers who were architects. Bohm's family is studded with architects. His grandfather was one; so are his wife and three of his four sons.)

Of the Americans, Cobb, 61, traces his Maine roots back to the 18th Century, and in a recent book interview noted that "on the exact site of the (Portland) museum, my great-great-great-grandfather built 182 years ago a splendid house to the design of Alexander Parris." Cobb discovered architecture "in 1935 at the age of 9 . . . on a summer tour of Europe."

Gehry, 58, was born in Toronto, moving to Los Angeles in 1947. His father sold slot machines in Toronto. Of late, Gehry seems obsessed with fish and reptiles. A 22-foot glass-scaled model of a fish was the main attraction of the much-heralded exhibition of his work beginning in 1986 at the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis. Crocodile models hang from the ceiling in his design for Rebecca's restaurant. In an interview in Smithsonian magazine last year, Gehry talked about playing with the live carp that his grandmother bought every Thursday to make gefilte fish.

None of the six has major concert hall credits, although all have had some measure of design experience for music on a somewhat smaller scale.

Gehry did major revisions on the Hollywood Bowl in the 1970s, working on the shell and designing the huge white acoustical balls that dominate the stage. He also did the open-air Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md., and the Concord Pavilion near San Francisco.

Piano designed the Institute for Research in Music (Ircam) in Paris, of which Pierre Boulez (a consultant on Disney Hall) is director, as well as a musical space for La Scala Theatre in Milan. "It's shaped like a big violin except that people sit inside," said Piano.

Stirling's Centre for the Performing Arts at Cornell, which is nearing completion, has a musical hall for about 700 persons. "And at the Staats Gallery there's a space for about 500 people, which no one knows about," he quipped, "because it's not open until the evenings."

Hollein said he designed a concert hall for the Salzburg Festival but the decision as to whether it will be built has been postponed until after the Mozart jubilee. Bohm has designed a practice theater and concert hall for a school that opened last year in Essen, while several of his structures, including the Pilgrimage church and the Zublin headquarters, have spaces for music. Cobb, noting that the Pei firm is currently designing the new Dallas symphony hall, cited a concert hall he designed "quite a number of years ago" for the State University of New York campus in Fredonia.

USC's Harris appeared to dismiss building of a concert hall as qualification. "How many really great concert halls are there, and how many," he asked with a laugh, "are disasters? . . . The questions for us now--assuming they have all demonstrated design excellence-- are: Can they make sense for Los Angeles at this time and in this place? And, what are they like to work with?"

There are other questions: Is the search team looking for an architect with a fresh face? Or in the long run, will an architect fare better having roots--or at least buildings--in Southern California? Is someone like Bohm too obscure, someone like Gehry too familiar?

Gehry frets about that. "I've been on these lists before, and you know what they do to locals," Gehry said by telephone Tuesday night from Des Moines, where he is building a laser research facility. He is also doing master planning for a large urban renewal project in London and collaborating with Skidmore, Owens & Merrill on the design for New York's Madison Square Garden Site Redevelopment and South Tower. "I'm like a prophet (without honor) in my own land. They love me in Iowa, they love me in Germany, they love me in Japan, I don't think they like me too close (to home.)"

Until he built the Stuttgart State Gallery, Stirling had similar problems in Great Britain.

Is a particular architect overloaded with design commissions? Does the fact that Piano has the Newport Harbor museum commission, that Cobb also has the Library Towers and commission for the Anderson school of business management at UCLA, help or hurt?

The rave reviews accompanying Piano's Menil Museum, Stirling's Stuttgart State Gallery, Cobb's Portland Museum, the Pritzkers, and the Gehry exhibition on its national museum tour--how much do they matter?

The Gehry exhibition opens at MOCA, its last stop, on Feb. 16, and will be there for three crucial months. MOCA is a block away from the new Disney site. Will that help? (Los Angeles' cultural community is also well aware how disappointed Gehry was that he did design MOCA itself.)

Of course, the overriding question is, what would they build if they got the Disney job?

"It's absolutely essential, not to come to a job like this, already with a solution in the head," said Piano, who notes he wants "to understand the client's needs" and "get suggestions from the site. I don't know the place. . . . My attitude is, every time you have to invent from scratch. You have to learn caution, you have to learn to wait. You have to keep far from personal glorification. I'm not making my building. I love in my life, to be quiet, to wait."

Gehry, who has seen the concert hall site countless times, said: "Oh God, I have lots of ideas, but I shouldn't let my competitors pick them up."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Friday January 22, 1988 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 12 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction In a story in Calendar on Thursday on the six semifinalist candidates for the design of Disney Hall, three words were inadvertently dropped from a sentence, distorting the meaning. The sentence should have read that the cultural community knows how disappointed Frank O. Gehry was "that he did not get to design MOCA itself."
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