The hall keeps its faces clean

Times Staff Writer

For its opening night concert at the new Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Los Angeles Philharmonic played a bit of Bach, a little Ligeti, much Mozart and some Stravinsky.

But had the music been selected by the crew that cleans Disney Hall, it surely would have included Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." Because that's what they use to clean the stainless steel exterior: Joy dishwashing liquid. And it gets Disney Hall spotless faster than you can sing "Freude, schoner Gotterfunken."

"We did experiments with various chemicals and processes for cleaning the stainless steel -- muriatic acid and special cleaners and materials recommended by the people who finished the steel in Japan," says Jack Burnell, president of Walt Disney Concert Hall Inc. "But we found out that Joy, a bucket of water and some elbow grease was the best way to do it."

That scrubbing task falls to Sunrise Window Cleaners of North Hollywood, which has cleaned windows and hung holiday lights for the Music Center's other venues -- the Ahmanson Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum and Dorothy Chandler Pavilion -- since the early 1990s.

Most of the hall's exterior walls are covered with brushed stainless steel that is prone to show fingerprints, as well as to gather dust in its fine grooves. Plus -- to use the Music Center buzzword -- Disney Hall is a "tactile" building, meaning everybody wants to touch it. So a four-person "fingerprint patrol" walks the premises on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, just to clean the tiles within reach in high-traffic areas, such as the main stairway, the box office and the plaza level gardens. As the steel ages, it will develop a patina that makes it more resistant to prints.

Zane Britt, president of Sunrise Window Cleaners, observes that those panels near the entry get frequent fingering because of the way the edges of the steel meet, with a little space between. "I think everyone touches that, and makes the comment 'Oh, they didn't finish it,' " Britt says.

Other lower walls of Disney Hall are made of limestone, which has been sealed and treated with a chemical that makes graffiti easier to remove. Those won't require the constant cleaning the metal surfaces will. "Normally, you only really steam-clean a stone building every 30 years or so," Burnell says. "You really shouldn't do it very frequently, because steam cleaning and pressure-washing deteriorates the mortar and opens pores in the material that actually makes it absorb dirt faster."

Getting to the heights of Disney Hall's swooping curves is another matter. The geometrically complex building rises to 106 feet at its highest point, so cleaning it has a lot of ups and downs.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, another crew uses ladders and a boom, or "cherry picker," to clean the building's lower panels. The 86-foot boom travels on a wheeled vehicle around the perimeter of the building (plywood protects the walkways from black skid marks). Then, a team of two cleaners rides up in a basket attached to the boom. One cleans; the other steers. The apparatus can take them as high as 65 feet.

But, Britt says, since the building opened Oct. 23, the job has required extra hours and special attention from the cleaning crews. "This is a very high-profile building, and if a bird poops on one of the panels, the crew is responsible for removing it," he says. "I've been in this business since 1977, and truthfully I've never seen so many people wanting to take pictures of a building. Plus we have the tours coming through every day."

Here's the thing: All that is just touch-up work. Music Center Vice President of Operations Howard Sherman says an annual schedule is still being worked out for major cleanings of the upper reaches of the building. But the technology is already in place: A rail system runs around the edge of the larger sections of the roof. It looks, truly, like a ride at Disneyland.

Traveling around this track is a $1.9-million apparatus consisting of a 20-foot cart with four motors that holds a 35-foot telescoping boom. Suspended from the boom by cables is a "swing stage," or platform, that moves the cleaning crew down to within 34 feet of the ground. The cart can then move along the track so the crew can pinpoint areas that need to be cleaned.

Unlike a square building, Disney Hall has some walls that lean outward, which means that as a window cleaner drops lower, he hangs farther out from the wall. So some building panels have small "stabilizing holes" that workers hook into with a 6-inch pin. The pin can be attached to the cables suspending the swing stage, pulling the platform close.

Terry Bell, project architect and a partner with Frank Gehry's firm, said that although Gehry has built similarly curvy constructions throughout the world, this is the first time such a rail system has been used.

One of those curvaceous constructions is the critically acclaimed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, clad in titanium rather than stainless steel. That building received some negative press in 2000 when reports claimed the building was "rusting." Bell explains that the discolored panels did not rust at all, but construction-related debris had stuck to them. "It didn't really damage the panels, but it was difficult to remove, and when they did remove it they had to re-patina the surface," he said.

Shiny surfaces are easier to keep clean than brushed ones, but, at least in the case of the super-shiny walls surrounding the Founders Room and preconcert area, access is more difficult.

This section of the building is even more eccentrically shaped than the rest -- resembling as it does a head of garlic. A window cleaner must descend the walls using a "controlled descent apparatus," a sort of chair that can be lowered from the top. Getting the chair into place requires a "ground man" and a "roof man" to guide the cable.

The descent can be kind of fun, much like rappelling, says Britt. But it's a pain getting to the launching point. There is no elevator or stairway, so it's all ladders. "There's a little platform where you can stop, but then it's the next ladder up, and the next ladder up and the next ladder up."

The Music Center's Sherman guesses that the hall will get a major cleaning every four months. The annual cleaning budget will be in the "tens of thousands" of dollars.

Bell, the architect, says one of the best things that can happen for Disney Hall is a hard rain. "Rain is an absolutely beautiful thing because it's pure water, distilled water; it doesn't water spot, and the surface dust just washes off," Bell says. "After a really good rain, it's almost self-cleaning."

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