Gehry, Fund-Raisers Face Showdown on Disney Hall


The worlds of art and money often collide explosively--and in no discipline do they do so with more public impact than in the world of architecture, where form, function and funding struggle to co-exist.

Los Angeles architects say the battle remains fierce and ongoing. And downtown’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, the planned new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has become that battle’s most visible example--as its design architect, Frank O. Gehry, threatens to withdraw his involvement with the project because of disagreements over who should proceed with architectural and building plans. In a letter to powerhouse business leader and arts patron Eli Broad last Friday, Gehry said he could not continue with the project under the guidelines set up by Disney Hall officials, saying his work was only 75% done.

Today, Gehry, one of the world’s leading architects, along with his team of associates and attorneys, will meet at the table with Broad, Los Angeles Music Center Chairwoman Andrea Van de Kamp, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Zev Yaroslavsky and others among the high-profile Disney Hall leadership. They are hoping to agree on what, if any, role Gehry will play in the next, crucial phase of a project that was born 10 years ago and nearly died two years ago in a financial crisis, but which has been resuscitated in the last six months through a $60-million infusion of new donations to the project that Broad now estimates will cost $220 million.


Although the dispute centers on the appropriateness of using an architectural procedure known as “design-build” for Gehry’s undulating design, the implications of the debate loom larger as it drives a wedge between Gehry’s defenders in the architectural community and the fund-raisers. The latter include Broad, Mayor Richard Riordan and leaders of the city’s corporate community. The business leaders are trusting former developer Broad to determine the most practical way to get the hall built on time and on budget.

Both sides claim the same goal--getting the hall built in accordance with Gehry’s design--and the same fear--ending up back on a path to the kind of spiraling cost estimates and construction delays that led the county to threaten to terminate the project in 1994.

The disagreement lies in the method.


The design-build method, proposed by Broad with the support of other Disney Hall leaders, asks potential builders to come up with a guaranteed maximum price for the hall based on incomplete working drawings for the hall done by Dworsky Associates between 1989 and 1994, and gives the builder the authority to select an architecture firm to complete the drawings. The builders could select Gehry or some other less well-known--and perhaps less expensive--architectural firm, to do that work.

Broad believes that having the builder choose the executive architect to do the working drawings and provide a guaranteed cost based on the existing work is standard procedure in the world of architecture. He also argues that it is the most efficient way to get things done, and would in no way lead to design compromises.

Speaking on behalf of Gehry, who was en route to Los Angeles from Europe on Wednesday, attorney Robert Long said that Gehry believes the Dworsky drawings already require more work by Gehry’s firm before a builder can read them because they they do not fully articulate the architect’s vision. If another firm chosen by the builder completes the working drawings, design changes would occur, Gehry believes.

Long said Gehry is not asking to complete the working drawings, but feels he needs to add to the existing drawings, and then feels he ought to be a hands-on participant in the process from now until opening night.


“The design-build process has been utilized in the building of things like refineries and power plants and that sort of thing,” Long said. “It’s a question of function, and their looks have little concern. There is a real question about whether that sort of process is viable in this kind of environment.”

Broad, however, is reluctant to take on what he believes will delay the project further. At a ceremony during an L.A. Philharmonic concert Sunday, Broad announced his goal of beginning construction on the hall in early 1998 for an opening date of early 2001. Broad said Wednesday that time is short in light of Southern California’s improving economy, which could cause prices for building materials and other items to rise.

“Costs have not gone up for the past two years, but people are thinking that we are sitting on the edge of a window where [they will] if we don’t get moving by early 1998,” the former executive of Kaufman & Broad and current chief executive officer of Sun-America Inc. said.

Broad also believes the design-build method is necessary to fulfill his commitment to donors who have resurrected the project. “I can tell you categorically that all of the donors, whether its Arco [Atlantic Richfield Co.’s charitable foundation donated $10 million] or Times Mirror [parent company of The Times and affiliated with the Times Mirror Foundation, which donated $5 million], no donor has given money without asking for a time frame and the cost,” he said.

Executives of some recent donating corporations or their spokesmen--including representatives of Arco, Bank of America, Wells Fargo Bank and Ralphs/Food 4 Less--all told The Times in interviews this week that their donations are not dependent on Gehry’s continued participation.


Fund-raisers for Disney Hall, including Broad and Riordan, vow that the project will be built with or without Gehry. And on Wednesday, Diane Disney Miller, daughter of Walt Disney’s widow, Lillian B. Disney, whose 1987 gift of $50 million launched the dream of a new concert hall for the Music Center, said that while she supports Gehry’s point of view, she will allow current leadership to make decisions and has no plans to pull Disney family funds out of the project.


“How could I do something like that? I could never do that,” she said, speaking by telephone from her home in the Napa Valley. “I could be dismayed, I could be unhappy about the resolution, but I could never pull out,” said Miller, who will not attend today’s meeting. “We pledged. It was a gift to the county and the city of Los Angeles. It’s not my personal thing. And it’s not even my gift--it’s my mother’s.”

In a series of interviews, prominent local architects expressed differing feelings about the design-build process, but all agreed that Gehry’s continued participation is essential to the artistic integrity of the project.

John Kaliski, an architect and urban design specialist with Santa Monica’s Aleks Istanbullu firm and former principal architect with the Community Redevelopment Agency, said that, no matter what the details of the agreement, it is important to keep Gehry on board.

“There have been design-build contracts for all sorts of buildings; the issue is the role of the architect. If the architect doesn’t have a real role in terms of defining and maintaining and protecting the integrity of the building, there is a problem.”

Thomas Landau of Santa Monica’s Landau Partnership said he believes Gehry’s continued involvement is crucial, but also urged Gehry to stick with the project if the decisions don’t go his way.

“It is a high-stakes deal for the community, and for Gehry at this point in his career,” Landau said. “If I were in his shoes, I’d want to stay with the project no matter what.”


Architect Michael Rotondi, director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, said, “It would be unbelievable to not have Frank Gehry involved in this project; it’s not a question of building a building as much as it is building a building that is considered a masterpiece of the most important architect currently living.”

Rotondi said that standard procedure is not a term that can be applied to Gehry.

“He has invented a whole way of translating very complicated designs into very practical construction techniques,” he said. “Because he understands the building so intimately, I believe he would be able to bring it in at a cheaper cost than another architect in collaboration with him.”