Thinking Outside the Bowl

Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

The county of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Philharmonic had a plan: to use the months between the end of this summer's concert season at the Hollywood Bowl and the beginning of the next--roughly, October to June 2002--to construct a new, larger, acoustically superior orchestra shell to replace the white concentric rings that have framed the outdoor amphitheater's concert stage since 1929.

Now, barring an 11th-hour resolution of the matter, that project will remain on hold for a year because of a lawsuit filed by Robert Nudelman, president of the preservationist Hollywood Heritage Inc., and the Friends of the Santa Monica Mountains Parks and Seashore in an attempt to save the 72-year-old shell.

Although a Los Angeles Superior Court denied the request to halt construction, the preservationists say they will appeal the decision, and the ongoing legal battle has pushed the county, the Phil and the new shell's architects, the Culver City firm of Hodgetts & Fung, past the deadlines for ordering materials and setting construction plans in motion.

Nudelman, et al, think the old shell can be modified to accommodate a full orchestra and improve the acoustics for the musicians (who now cannot hear themselves play). The Phil and the county, which have looked at and rejected lots of plans for the stage area, believe the best approach is to tear it down and start over while maintaining the basic shape and style.

In fact, both plans call for keeping the shell--and the Bowl--pretty much as it is now. But the pause in the process allows for reflection: What else could the Hollywood Bowl become?

The Times took the opportunity to invite other creative minds--not just architects, but representatives of the worlds of theater, music, and the entertainment industry--to brainstorm about what they would do with the world-famous outdoor amphitheater if money and tradition were no object. This is what they came up with.

Frank Gehry

The Santa Monica architect who designed Walt Disney Concert Hall--the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic under construction at 1st Street and Grand Avenue--has had as much input as anyone into the many attempts to improve the current shell's acoustics. He was responsible for designing 1970's "Sonotube" arrangement around the stage, as well as 1980's addition of 11 white spheres that now hang inside the shell above the stage like the planets of some galaxy far, far away. In collaboration with Ronald Hays and artist Peter Alexander, Gehry also expanded the stage with projection screens during the 1984 Olympics. Gehry has recently designed a band shell and pedestrian bridge for Chicago's Millennium Park. The project involves a trellis-like grid that extends over seating for 11,000 people. Speakers can be hung on the grid to distribute sound.

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It's impossible to fix [the old shell]. To continue to flog the old form as the important issue is counterproductive to what really has to happen acoustically. It's got a flawed premise--and then the ambient noise from all the traffic and aircraft and stuff is always going to be a problem.

The Bowl was originally designed in a place where there was no traffic, at a time when you could commune with nature, the birds and the bees. I think it's possible to find a site to build a new Hollywood Bowl, and do it within a national forest or park in a way that does not destroy the natural forest or park, and develop some kind of transit. And then sell the current one to a developer and they can leave the shell up and charge people money to look at it, if they like it so much. It's so idiotic to carry that legacy forward when it is counter to the idea of an outdoor concert hall.

The problem with the [existing] Bowl is hanging the speakers. I would put a grid out over the audience like I did in Chicago. For the Bowl, I'd do it with cables. I'd do a square design for the stage, to improve the acoustics for the musicians, with the cables for speakers for the audience.

Stefanos Polyzoides

Born in Athens, Polyzoides and his wife, Elizabeth Moule, head the Pasadena urban planning firm of Moule & Polyzoides. In 1992, they teamed up with four friends to found the Congress of New Urbanism, a think tank dedicated to making urban centers more livable. Local projects include rebuilding a five-block neighborhood in South-Central L.A. in 1998, the Metrolink Bus Plaza at Union Station, campus housing at UCLA and restoration of the Huntington Library's art galleries to seismic code.

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I know the place well, been there many times and enjoyed the Bowl. But this is an enormous site, an important site, and it is conceivable to imagine many other things happening. I think the notion of trying to figure out what alternatives there are to reusing a site like this over the next century is a good idea.

Nothing should be done that precludes this from being the summer home for the Philharmonic, but it is used only about 100 nights a year. Considering how large the site is and how central the site is, it could be used for other purposes during the day or during other parts of the year. Off the top of my head, this would make a spectacular museum site or a school site. It could be a special school that has to do with music somehow, maybe a stage like that is useful to them year-round, or a theater school. It could be a special magnet school for the arts.

There are some very large pieces of land on Highland [Avenue] that are parking for the Bowl, why could they not become something besides a parking lot? You could make them into a park--you could park on the grass in the summer and in the winter have a wonderful picnic there. There could also be all kinds of buildings there, and people could park underneath them.

The best way to proceed is to involve the community, the people, the neighbors of the Bowl, and get them involved in a process that is really creative and wonderful. There is the opportunity to have a very open, community-based process. The county is remarkably dumb about subjects like this; they are the ultimate dead wood when it comes to putting forth creative ideas, but they could do it, I guess, or appoint someone to do it for them.

There are many ways of defining historical value. That location has served 75-plus years of Angelenos. All sorts of people have been to the Bowl, governors and heads of state. Destroying it and replacing it is an issue that needs to be debated. I am not willing to take a position that it must be saved, but I think you need to ask the question. How many iconic buildings do we have in L.A.? Griffith Park Observatory, Watts Towers, the pavilion at Malibu Pier--I think the Bowl is one of those quintessential buildings. Would it be designed better today--yes, there is not any question. But there is always a balance between the value of the old versus the quality of the new. If Frank Gehry's new hall for the Philharmonic is proven to have less good acoustics than a new hall in 80 years, do you tear it down, or does the icon have enough value in the city that it needs to be retained?

Brenda Levin

The architect is responsible for the historic restoration of several L.A. landmarks, including downtown's Bradbury Building, the Wiltern Theatre, Grand Central Market, and the Oviatt and Fine Arts office buildings. She has been involved for eight years in the restoration of City Hall.

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I think what the Bowl needs is to restore the presence of the canyon and the park and the natural environment that I think has been eroded and lost through the accommodation for cars. We've put the car before the pedestrian. I'm not sure that the way the Bowl has focused on accommodating traffic and the quick movement of people through the space is true to the intent of the original vision, to enjoy the context of the natural beauty of Los Angeles, even though it's quite convenient to the freeway. That's where I would go, if I had a clean palette--to restore this more natural landscape, introducing water and texture and trees. My memories of growing up on the East Coast and going to Tanglewood was often that the most enjoyable part was lying on the grass, not paying for the high-priced seats but lying on the grass and looking at the stars. You have that opportunity at the Bowl, but by the time you get there you're sort of already harried, you're rushing to your car, you are in stacked parking, you lose the moment. If you could figure out a way to build parking structures and then get the hillside put back on top of them, they would sort of disappear. We did the park just south of the Bowl, the Highland-Camrose park; I've always wanted to extend that park all the way up Highland, to create more of a connection.

It shouldn't be Universal Studios, it shouldn't be CityWalk--there are multiple other opportunities for those types of venues. The Bowl is not a theme park, but it has some theme park components to it, in terms of the concession stands. They could be tucked away and made less commercial-looking.

The concern for the preservation community about the shell is the precedent-setting nature of the removal of historic fabric, and how one distinguishes the hierarchy of importance, how does it compare to the Wiltern Theatre--name your list of buildings. That judgment is fairly subjective. On the other hand, I believe in adaptive reuse, and things changing over time, and modifying.

Scott Ross

The former general manager of the special effects firm Industrial Light & Magic is founder, president and chief executive officer of Venice's digital production studio Digital Domain, winner of the 1998 visual effects Oscar for "What Dreams May Come." Other effects credits for the studio include "X-Men," "True Lies" and "Apollo 13." He began his career as a jazz saxophone player, but switched to the special-effects industry when "I had a dream one night that I'd be 30 years old, wearing a black shiny suit and playing 'Hava Nagila' at bar mitzvahs."

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Because this is Los Angeles, the center of the movie business, I think it would be wonderful to show first-run, 70-millimeter, large-format films, and brand-new 35-millimeter films at the Bowl, and I think they should show them for free, on a big screen. I think the studios should invite inner-city kids, underprivileged kids, and offer opportunities to see exciting films they probably wouldn't be able to see at their own theater--or if they went to their theater, they probably wouldn't have the same experience. I chose movies because I'm in the movie business, but I think we should do that with kids for all forms of culture, theater and opera and music.

I have no idea of the actual dimensions of the screen, but bigger than the stage, I think you get it as big as you possibly can, with great sound and a great projector and light source. It would have to be removable, but that's doable--you build some huge box that has scaffolding on the sides, that sort of rock 'n' roll scaffolding, you yank it up and put it on tie wires, and there it is.

Yeah, they should be big movies--movies that you can see on video, see 'em on video. But God, I'd love to see "Lawrence of Arabia" there, some huge David Lean epic. I'd love see epic films, even sort of old, epic, black-and-white films, I'd love to see "Casablanca" on the big screen.

There is something pretty neat about seeing a movie outdoors. It's pretty special. Disney has had a lot of premieres outdoors (including "Mulan" at the Bowl in 1998).

I wouldn't create new [film] product for the Bowl. If I want to have an experience that is more futuristic, more technologically driven, I'll go someplace else. The Hollywood Bowl to me needs to be a place to enjoy the fine arts and not throw a lot of gizmos into it. I was fortunate enough to go to the Baths of Caracalla [site of the first Three Tenors concert in 1990 and other classical music events]; if you want to make the leap, Rome to Los Angeles, the Hollywood Bowl should feel like that. We should change it to make it more acoustically correct, but there should be something classical about it.

Michael Milenski

Milenski is general director of Long Beach Opera, which mounts one or two operas a season (it just finished "Elektra"; "Powder Her Face" is coming in November), and is known for its imaginative and sometimes controversial staging.

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The first thing we have to do is completely abolish the idea of creating any sort of shell. The Hollywood Bowl is not the shell, it's the place where people sit . We need to destroy the shell, and in its space have a vast open area for big spectacle events, like they used to do in Rome. Originally, they built a shell for acoustical reasons, but with today's sound reinforcement technology, I think it is not necessary. It could be a huge open space in which enormous structures could be built for performing on and performing in .

This would of course mean there was some interest in presenting spectacle; spectacle is incredibly expensive, involves massive amounts of scenery, of people. It doesn't have to be opera, but it would be wonderful to have some sense of spectacle there.

You could, let's say, fill it with water, for naval battles. That also ties in a little bit to the time when the Hollywood Bowl actually had that pool out it front of the stage that was used to reflect sound. You could restore that pool and do miniature naval battles that could then be televised onto a large screen.

I don't think you would necessarily want a permanent back wall, but you could certainly create a permanent back wall, if you wanted to. But we're talking big here--we're not wheeling anything in and out , huge .

It could get really fun. The important thing is to realize that you don't have to have some shell.

Ben Donenberg

Donenberg is artistic director of Shakespeare Festival/LA. The company, which has performed site-specific, "free-for-food" alfresco Shakespeare for more than 15 years, has recently acquired its first permanent headquarters at 1242 W. 1st St.--with, coincidentally, architects Hodgetts & Fung engaged to design the renovation. The company's "Comedy of Errors" opens Thursday at Pershing Square.

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I've had a lot of conversations with Craig Hodgetts about the Bowl, and he said to me, what he's tried to do is design the [shell] so it looked like what everyone imagined that it looked like [laughs].

In terms of Shakespeare at the Bowl--without money constraints, if I could do whatever I wanted--I would like to do a series of Shakespeare musicals, with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and stars performing in them. We're flirting now, with our performances coming up at Pershing Square, with more and more site-specific, community-specific presentations. What we would be looking to do is use the site as it is, creatively.

What we would do is use the shell in the shape that we get it and highlight it, and design our productions to fit into that kind of style. "Twelfth Night" would be very good with Deco, or the plays with music. We can decorate the shell, we can foliate it. We fantasized about "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in the Bowl, turning the whole Bowl into the forest. Place platforms in different parts of the audience, with spotlights that can move 360 degrees.

Also I was thinking about Greek theater, because it's very operatic. I've had this idea I've been working on quietly on the side, of doing a production of "Oedipus" that is set on a lunar colony. It would be operatic--the masks would resemble space helmets, and the big boots that the Greek actors wore to make themselves appear bigger in huge amphitheaters, those would be space boots. I'd put little wireless microphones into all of the helmets, and I'm thinking about doing a lot of projections, and sound effects and high-tech stuff. And I'd set the whole thing to music. The Bowl would be great for Greek plays, done in a way to make them exciting and dynamic for a modern audience. And since money is no object, I'd love to have it be for free.

What Would You Do?

We asked creative types for their fresh visions of the Hollywood Bowl. Now we want to hear how you would re-imagine the city's landmark venue. Send your ideas, drawings, sketches and images to Calendar Letters, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. By fax: (213) 237-7630. Or by e-mail: Calendar.letters@latimes.com.

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