Gehry’s go-to guy

Times Staff Writer

When Frank O. Gehry, star architect, arrives at Walt Disney Concert Hall to lead a VIP tour of his nearly completed building, a quiet guy with a ponytail holds the door.

In the lobby, where Gehry draws his guests near to confide that he swiped the idea for his tree-like support columns from the Czech architect Joze Plecnik, the quiet guy hangs back, whispering into his cell phone.

For the record:
12:00 AM, May. 28, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 28, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Influential architect -- An article on Walt Disney Concert Hall in Sunday’s Calendar incorrectly described Joze Plecnik (1872-1957) as a Czech architect. Plecnik was a Slovene who worked in Prague, Vienna and Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 01, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Influential architect -- An article on Walt Disney Concert Hall in last Sunday’s Calendar incorrectly described Joze Plecnik as a Czech architect. Plecnik was a Slovene who worked in Prague, Vienna and Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana.

Yet when it’s time to move the guests along -- or do just about anything requiring nuts-and-bolts knowledge of Disney Hall -- Gehry is likely to pause as he did the other day and look to the quiet guy.

“Terry,” Gehry said that afternoon, “where do we go now?”


Unmistakably, the curving, shimmering form of Disney Hall on Grand Avenue at 1st Street is the brainchild of Gehry. But as the days tick down to the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s first scheduled rehearsal in the new hall on June 30, and construction workers swarm over its skin and skeleton to mend dings, seal seams, finish floors and endure inspections, the ranking architect on the scene most days is not Gehry. It’s Terry Bell, quiet guy, workhorse, erstwhile carpenter and admirer of Joseph Conrad.

For the past five years, as Gehry has juggled the concert hall with other commissions around the world, getting Disney Hall built has been Bell’s sole professional focus. And in the next six weeks, Bell says, “there are a lot of things that have to happen. Things that I have to help happen.”

As project architect and manager -- and, since a promotion about a year ago, a partner in the Gehry firm -- Bell is the designer’s chief delegate to the site, a seldom-celebrated job that means countless aesthetic and economic decisions large and small: minute-by-minute negotiation with clients, contractors, subcontractors and inspectors.

It also means coordinating the Gehry office’s efforts from a site-adjacent trailer that fairly bulges with drawings, binders, punch-list printouts, building-code volumes, stray hard hats, extra work boots and sometimes pizza boxes from the night before.


As of May 20, the tallies of some 90 lists from the contractor and subcontractors showed about 5,500 imperfections yet to be fixed, from cosmetic dings to faulty seals to subtly misaligned panels.

“Terry’s probably the hardest-working architect I’ve ever met in my life. And he has more passion about Disney Concert Hall than anybody else I’ve seen on the job,” says Mike Budd, vice president of Permasteelisa Cladding Technologies Ltd., the Italy-based subcontractor responsible for the building’s steel skin, glazing and skylights.

When Permasteelisa leased space in Santa Monica neighbor Gehry’s offices in 1999, Budd recalls, “I would leave the office at 8 p.m. to have dinner with clients, and I’d be coming back at 12:30 or 1 a.m., and Terry would still be working. This was three, four nights a week. That guy has put so much of himself into this project, it’s just an amazing thing.”

Forty-eight years old and balding, Bell wears a mustache along with the ponytail that dangles from under his hard hat. His bifocals usually sit about halfway down his nose at a professorial angle. His cell phone hangs at his right hip, in gunslinger fashion, when he’s not juggling it with a cigarette, a walkie-talkie and a clipboard.


“It’s a team effort,” Bell says often, citing the county (which owns the building), the Philharmonic (which will be its principal tenant), the contractor (Minneapolis-based MA Mortenson), the 35 first-tier subcontractors, and the seven other architects and an administrative assistant in the Gehry trailer.

For this team effort, however, Bell doesn’t wear much of a uniform. He is likely to show up in jeans and a casual sweater, even on those VIP tour days. When he squeezes in amid the laborers and taped-up Bush-Hussein cartoons in the main job-site elevator, only a practiced eye can pick him out. It’s no surprise to learn that he paid his way through college by working as a finish carpenter.

Apart from “knowing how to build stuff,” says Gehry, the key to Bell’s role is “knowing how to keep a crew of workmen together, and earning a certain amount of respect for his position, because the construction guys always try to diss the architect.” In another sense, Gehry continues, Bell’s job is “like being the conductor: You’ve got the score. Now, how do you do it?”

“He’s very particular,” says Gino Capra, job superintendent for Gardena-based Martin Brothers Drywall, which has handled fireproofing, interior framing, drywall, exterior plaster and stone framing on the project. “He knows what he wants. And he knows the building.”


Building it first on computer

“THIS is the attic,” Bell says, leading a visitor across a catwalk in the rafters, a measure of pride creeping into his voice. Before him spreads a tangle of conduits, vents and ducts, some of them 6 feet in diameter.

“We did computer models of every piece of this ductwork,” Bell says. “There is more computer information on this project than probably on any other project in the history of architecture.”

The $272-million design, famous for its odd-angled audacity since Gehry first unveiled it in 1988, relies on a 14,000-piece structural steel skeleton, upon which more than 6,400 stainless-steel panels and 3,000 smaller “shingles” of polished steel are arrayed, like scales on a very big fish.


The cost of the skeleton is estimated at $31 million; the steel panels and glazing, $30 million. Most of the hall’s walls tilt and bend, at angles up to 17 degrees. The architect’s contract documents -- a thick and well-thumbed series of four volumes that specify builders’ marching orders and must be approved by county plan-checkers -- feature some 1,200 drawings.

Still more detail is specified in the computer-generated three-dimensional models, built on a software program first intended for aerospace design, that Gehry’s team sends to contractors’ computers.

Seated at a terminal with mouse in hand, Gehry associate and three-dimensional database specialist Kristin Woehl can easily rotate perspectives so that on the monitor, the building leaps and lurches like a tempest-tossed armada of sailboats.

“Gehry’s office has a very, very difficult role, because it’s not all on a piece of paper,” Budd says. “You have to have some pretty good spatial skills to know what you’re looking at in all of those [software] models.”


Gehry himself has been visiting once or twice a week of late, but there aren’t many decisions left for him to make. The last one that Bell can remember: choosing a paint color for the plaster band shell on the children’s amphitheater.

Since the global notice that followed the 1997 completion of Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, much has been made of the “paperless” aspects of Gehry’s design process. But if paperwork were snow, Bell’s desk would be Buffalo in winter: On average, the stacks are 6 inches deep on his desk, 18 inches above the binders on his shelves, another 18 inches on the floor under the desk. Circumstances are similar among the rest of Bell’s team in the trailer. David Pakshong specializes in the hall’s interior, with help from Greg Kromhout and Zach Burns. David Hardie coordinates mechanical matters, electrical work and plumbing; Thomas Swanson handles county filings; and Herwig Baumgartner works with Bell on the building’s exterior.

“I’ve worked personally with Terry for seven years. He’s very patient,” Woehl says. With a building so complex and so many people involved, she adds, “there’s a lot of hand-holding on this, and he’s very good at that level.”

A carpenter’s suspicions


Bell came a little bit late to architecture. Heading off from home in Belle Fontaine, Ohio, to his freshman year at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, his plan was to major in math and eventually to teach.

Instead, he dropped out after that first year, went back to Ohio to work in construction, and found himself increasingly suspecting that he could design better buildings than the office and low-income housing projects he was pounding nails into.

Soon he was back in college, earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Ohio State University, this time in architecture.

“I wanted to be a designer and focused myself on that through college,” Bell says. “And when I got out of school, I said, ‘I don’t really know how to put big buildings together.’ ”


By 1994, Bell had been nine years with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill -- known for its proficiency with large projects -- and three with Karlsberger Architect in Columbus, Ohio. Along the way, he had realized that the practical end of architecture was no longer a steppingstone for him toward a design specialty; instead, it was a specialty in itself, full of subtle aesthetic decisions among its daunting load of management challenges. Apparently, others recognized the same thing about Bell; that year, Gehry hired him specifically to serve as project architect on the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

But Bell’s relationship with the project got off to an even worse start than his career as a math teacher.

Just three months after he arrived in Los Angeles, officials revealed that the estimated budget -- $115 million when Gehry’s design was unveiled in 1988 -- had reached $200 million. Construction was suspended. With the hall’s future in doubt, Bell headed off to serve as project architect on a Gehry office building in Dusseldorf, Germany, and the Experience Music Project in Seattle, and to handle exterior-wall detailing at Gehry’s Center for Molecular Studies at the University of Cincinnati.

It wasn’t until 1997, after a fund-raising campaign had revived the project, that Bell came back to Disney Hall. His first challenge: shaving tens of millions of dollars off the budget while coping with tougher seismic requirements, instituted after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.


These changes meant months of huddling with Gehry and others to rethink the project from top to bottom, including the exterior, which was to have been limestone. By the time construction resumed in late 1999, the job site had been idle for five years.

“We started over,” Bell says.

These days, Bell lives in Santa Monica with his wife, Aimee, a nurse; and sons Max, 12, and Matthew, 10. But until the concert hall is done, most of his waking hours will be spent at 1st Street and Grand Avenue.

At a 4:30 a.m. session to test the building’s emergency generators, Bell is there. At an evening test of lighting, he’s there again. When it’s time to check the roof, Bell is on his back atop the building, the skyline sprawled around him as he fingers the flashing of a skylight.


And back on May 2, when forecasters annoyed thousands of Angelenos by predicting showers that would pelt downtown with more than an inch of rain, Bell welcomed the news greedily: For him, it offered the best possible preoccupancy “hose test” of the hall’s roof and water seals. And sure enough, the downpour confirmed two suspected leaks in the glazing at the building’s north end -- one now plugged, the other repair in progress.

In the homestretch

It’s noon in the trailer, and there’s a problem. To meet safety-code requirements, the hall’s entrance steps need color stripes at least 2 inches wide, no more than an inch from each step’s edge. But before Bell now stands a subcontractor explaining that somehow, some of the stripes in a carpeted area have been laid in 1 1/2 inches from the edge.

Bell’s answer: Add another inch of width to the strips, making them 3 inches wide, and bringing them into compliance without pulling up any carpet or otherwise reversing progress. The conversation lasts less than two minutes.


At this point, says Bell, these are the sorts of issues that remain. His job is “95% complete -- and that’s being conservative. All the tough parts are behind us.”

The on-site work force, which in December added up to some 550 ironworkers, masons, carpenters, plasterers, plumbers, electricians, and others, these days is closer to 200.

The last major hurdle, in Bell’s view, was cleared when the county approved the final set of drawings on the project, for the Founders Room, which will serve as private domain for the hall’s biggest donors. Bell says he has no doubts about meeting the hall’s opening timetable, which climaxes with a ribbon-cutting and the first of three galas on Oct. 23. Edward “Jack” Burnell, president and chief operating officer for Walt Disney Concert Hall I Inc., the nonprofit entity in charge of taking in contributions and paying the architect and contractors, affirms that the schedule and budget remain firm.

Still, the dance of 5,500 details continues. For the next six weeks, Bell’s life will be largely measured in punch-list imperfections, which are marked on the building’s steel panels and interior Douglas-fir walls with thumbnail-size nubs of blue tape, like industrial chicken pox. As recently as May 8, Permasteelisa’s list alone ran to 20 pages of fine-tuning.


“I couldn’t imagine this job without him,” says Barbara Cangas, project manager for the L.A. County Department of Public Works, which on some days has had five inspectors on site.

City and county fire officials have been testing safety systems at the seven-level, 3.6-acre building site in recent days, while acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota has been conducting echo tests with percussion and brass instruments to begin “tuning” the hall. Most on Bell’s team are still working six-day weeks. Before month’s end, the county is expected to issue a temporary certificate of occupancy for most of the hall, vital before any public events can be staged. A permanent occupancy certificate will probably follow in August or September, Bell says, when final tasks in the Founders Room and the hall’s restaurant, phased in last to accommodate fund raising, are done.

And then? Bell isn’t sure what’s next for him; the Gehry office these days routinely has 15 to 18 projects active at any one time, which leaves plenty of possibilities.

But first, more details. One sunny morning in early May, a building-trade company representative steps into the Gehry office to complain about the pace of another company’s work. He is not happy. In fact, he suggests setting an office on fire to get somebody’s attention.


Bell smiles, takes a breath, then punctures the tension with a little English literature.

“You’ve read ‘Heart of Darkness,’ right?” the architect asks. “Well, we’re out here in the jungle.”

If Conrad’s far-flung jungle had been half as closely observed as Bell’s territory -- its every inch documented in triplicate, modeled in three dimensions, probed for flaws by city and county officials -- it might have been a far calmer place. But the gambit works.

“You’re sooo polite,” says the complainer, disarmed, taking his gripe with him toward the trailer’s exit. “I can’t believe it.” And Terry Bell, with approximately 5,499 issues outstanding, turns back to his paper piles and cell phone.