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In Search of Material Gain

TIMES ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

The Walt Disney Concert Hall is slowly creeping closer to becoming a reality. With $196 million in place and a tentative groundbreaking set for April, it looks as if the once troubled hall will get built. And the city will finally get a civic and cultural monument worthy of a major metropolis.

But while the notion of a new downtown cultural landmark now seems fixed, the design for the Music Center’s new home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic is still being refined and continues to draw attention. The most disputed of these design changes is the building’s exterior, which has been changed from stone to metal and has provoked more snipes about the hall’s appearance. The project’s own construction manager, Jack Burnell, recently joked in this newspaper that some may compare the new design to “the crash of a 747.”

As it turns out it is too early, still, to make final judgment on the materials and changes to the building. The reality is that the hall’s architect, Frank O. Gehry, is still refining a design of the present that already represents a substantial victory against the commonplace and the mediocre. In recent months, Gehry has been testing various materials for the hall’s exterior, tinkering with various tones and textures. He is likely to spend many more. Attention to subtleties is what makes good architecture great.

But with the major decisions already made and the money needed to build 95% in hand, the potential success of the project can be seen as a turning point in the city’s cultural growth. Los Angeles is about to gain a powerful work of civic architecture, and urban monuments of stature have become painfully rare in this country today. Cautiously, we can begin to hope that first-rate architecture may one day become part of the city’s civic, as well as domestic, legacy.

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This accomplishment is all the more unbelievable when you consider the number of revisions that the project has undergone in its troubled 10-year history. The competition design that won Gehry the commission in 1988 appears to have little in common with the project that will one day be built. That design--a series of bulging, asymmetrical forms stacked on top of one another and twisted on the site toward an enormous, glass-enclosed foyer--is by comparison tame, even static.

That original scheme, however, was short-lived. In the year following the announcement of Gehry’s selection as concert hall architect, the project’s oversight board significantly altered the program. At one point, the board incongruously added a 40-story hotel to the site as a way to ensure the hall’s profitability. (That plan was mercifully dropped.) Meanwhile, acoustical experts determined that the best shape for the hall would be a simple shoebox-like form rather than the rounder one that Gehry had originally designed. Changes such as these were catalysts for Gehry’s 1992 design, which until recently was considered the final model: a cocoon-like hall wrapped in extravagantly undulating stone panels and set in a lush urban garden.

The story of the hall’s subsequent troubles is familiar, and it remains an embarrassing blot on the city’s cultural history. Ground was broken for the concert hall’s underground parking garage in December 1992, but efforts came to an abrupt stop two years later due to spiraling cost overruns. When fund-raising efforts started up in earnest in 1996, however, the hall’s design was still incomplete. Working drawings produced by Gehry’s associate architect, Dworsky Associates, needed to be redrawn.

Recently, the new oversight board again made key changes to the building’s program, adding a 200-seat performance space for the California Institute of the Arts and new administrative offices for the Philharmonic. These latest additions have allowed Gehry and his firm’s project designer, Craig Webb, to reconsider various aspects of the hall’s structure, many of them as critical to the design’s success as the building’s exterior finishes.

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While Gehry’s central concept for the project’s relation to its site has never changed--a concert hall that functions as part of the public realm as well as a place to listen to music--the architect has made a series of subtle adjustments to clarify that idea. Over the last few months, he has simplified some of the hall’s curved exterior surfaces where he felt they were gratuitously flamboyant. As envisioned along Grand Avenue, the building’s bowed facade now leans out over the curb line, giving the building a stronger presence along the street’s main axis and providing a canopy for passing pedestrians. Gehry set the Philharmonic’s new administrative building along 2nd Street, creating a relatively simple, box-like structure that frames the more sculptural form of the concert hall and locks the composition tightly into downtown’s dense urban fabric.

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The refining of the design continues inside. Although the performance space--one of the project’s best features--remains blissfully untouched, Gehry has subtly pulled the building’s exterior skin away from the interior box of the concert hall, creating a double-wall system with circulation and the multilevel foyers sandwiched in between. The effect is to heighten the sense that you are slipping between two skins as you move through the building. Audiences will glimpse views through thin bands of skylights up to the sky above, while natural light will spill down into the main lobby below. There is little doubt that these will be breathtaking spaces.

These are all significant changes. By tweaking a few of the building’s forms, Gehry has pushed his design to another level. The result so far is a more powerfully articulated--and more overtly urban--work. Yet it’s a tricky game, since each change inevitably leads to new questions.

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Of these, the biggest remaining one is what materials will be used for the building’s exterior surfaces. For months, Gehry has experimented with various stainless steel finishes, but so far, he says that he feels that stainless steel lacks warmth. He is now considering a titanium skin, the material he used for his acclaimed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. In Los Angeles, however, he says he is considering a thicker gauge to accommodate the concert hall’s more streamlined aesthetic. That might do the trick: Titanium would have a softer, warmer glow, yet the thicker gauge would give the giant plates a smoother look.

Meanwhile, Gehry is currently proposing to use stone for the structure’s base, which would play off the flowing metal forms above, instead of the less expensive, drab stucco currently planned. He has also begun to redesign the gardens, which, in the current model, are surprisingly low-key, a decision that would have played up the building’s exterior forms but seems out of keeping with the exuberance of the design.

Truly great architecture takes patience. And, in the end, the city seems to have decided to give the architect the necessary time and support to produce a work of genuine importance. If these details are successfully resolved, it is likely that the Walt Disney Concert Hall will one day become one of Gehry’s most important works. And Los Angeles will have added a truly valuable icon to a growing civic landscape.


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