A Competition in Spirit of Disney

Ever since the four finalists in the design competition for the Walt Disney Concert Hall were selected last March both the local and international architecture communities have been anxiously anticipating the results.

The anticipation was prompted in part by the public nature of the project, the prominent site at 1st Street and Grand Avenue downtown, the Disney name, along with a generous $50-million gift to make it all happen, and the complexity of the program, calling for, among other things, separate concert and chamber music halls, and a recognition of the urban context.

But heightening the anticipation by far was the array of architects selected to compete. In alphabetical order, they were Gottfried Boehm of West Germany, Frank O. Gehry of Los Angeles, Hans Hollein of Austria and James Stirling and Michael Wilford of England. Each is internationally known and respected, and though their respective practices and experiences vary greatly, each has a reputation for innovative designs and singular styles.

While the architects involved have at times contradicted and eschewed the labels that have been pinned on them, they can be generally classified: Boehm as a Neo-Expressionist, Gehry, an Eclectic Constructivist, Hollein, a mannered Post Modernist, and Stirling and Wilford, studied Post Modernists. Over the years, the latter also have passed through various styles, from High Tech to Brutalism and beyond. The fact is all are quite individualistic.


How in a particular time frame these world renowned architects with very different design prejudices responded to the same assignment, in my opinion, makes the Disney competition a yardstick of sorts of contemporary architecture; certainly it has been one of the more coveted competitions in recent years, with the finalists spending about a half a year on their submissions. It has made all involved quite anxious.

In preparation for the final judging, the submissions, consisting of various drawings and detailed models, were displayed briefly last week. (One hopes that at a future date they can be put on public exhibition.) As for the winner, the Walt Disney Concert Hall Committee chaired by Frederick Nicholas,is expected to announce its choice within a few days.

No doubt the decision will be a difficult one, for as promised by the personalities involved, each of the submitted schemes is distinctive, each in its unique way seems to meet the complex program requirements of access, acoustics and other such needs, and each appears worthy of selection and construction. However, they do differ dramatically in expressing and accommodating their use, and the city.

Briefly, Boehm’s scheme, I feel, is the most idiosyncratic, dominated by a giant glazed, opaque cupola, very much in a modern spirit of a huge Victorian garden folly, ringed in part by raised terraces. The effect at least in model is that of a giant white webbed derby hovering at the end of 1st Street and Grand Avenue. Beneath the derby are the halls, foyers and other such spaces, well detailed, attractively expressed, and welcoming, an impression aided by the architect’s exquisite drawings. It is not a derby to be dented.


Gehry’s scheme is the most lyrical, featuring a concert hall of simple, sculpted limestone-clad forms gracefully sited and fronted with a foyer in the form of a great glass conservatory, to be filled with native California flora. According to the architect’s statement, the conservatory and the plaza it opens up to could be in effect “a living room for the city,” a place for promenading, sitting, exhibits and concerts. Edging the plaza is an attractively domed cafe and a bulky chamber music hall begging for a mural or wall sculpture, and to be scaled down. Still, the scheme sings, particularly along Grand Avenue.

Hollein’s scheme is the most playful, a jumble of colors, forms and materials, including alumninum and gilded surfaces, white marble, green quartzite, red sandstone and gray granite, that from different angles appear like a bright, witty architectural cartoon strip. Yet the variety of landscaped plazas and attractively detailed foyers seem inviting, and the concert hall quite functional, expressing a geometry suggested by the acoustical demands. The total is exuberant.

The scheme by Stirling and Wilford is an engaging, provocative assemblage, “an ensemble of architectural forms expressing the functional elements of the program . . . a microcosm of the city.” It is not what I would have expected from the duo whose recent buildings have been Post Modern exercises with a capital P. There is a very accessible glazed concourse, a variety of active spaces, a jumble of circulation systems, and a striking, flexible concert hall. Also encouraged, as do the other schemes, is a pedestrian oriented Grand Avenue animated by landscaping, street furniture and furnishings, and the hint of sidewalk cafes and vendors.

All also are in sharp and welcomed contrast to the generally bland neighboring buildings, in particular the neo-classical-styled Music Center across the street, which should be energized by the project. As such, all promise in their variety of spaces, forms and styles to be accessible and inviting, very much in the spirit of Walt Disney.

With this spirit in mind, if I was on the concert hall committee and had to make a choice, it clearly would be Gehry’s scheme. And not because he is a local, but because his scheme is the most appropriate and the best.

More than his competitors, Gehry’s scheme reads Los Angeles, thanks in large part to the proposed conservatory and plaza. He seems in the design to have grasped the promise of the site, dealt honestly with the context, instead of mimicking it, responded conscientiously and with style to the program, and embraced the region’s climate and flora. The result is a project that is in sympathy with the user while playing to the potential on Bunker Hill for an appropriate casual, cultural oasis.