When plans commenced in 1987 to build Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown L.A., architect Frank Gehry was a relatively youthful 58 years old. By the time the hall was completed, after a number of delays and setbacks — not to mention some acrimonious bickering among its key players — the architect had become a 74-year-old eminence grise.
Gehry, now 84, recently sat down for a conversation at Disney Hall with Times music critic Mark Swed and architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne. The architect, who lives in Santa Monica, reminisced about the fraught, 15-year creation of the hall and the hopes he has for its future.
On what it’s like to come to Disney Hall as Frank Gehry:
This has become my home and family, and changed my life, and it’s the one building other than my house that I get to use — a building that I’ve designed that I get to use. I don’t get to go to Bilbao [the Gehry-designed museum in Spain] once a month to hear anything or see anything. So that’s the good part. The bad part is, for the first two years, I saw all the things that were wrong, like those lights were too bright, or they closed the curtains, and all that stuff. I drove poor Deborah [Borda, L.A. Philharmonic chief executive] nuts, to where she wouldn’t have me sit next to her for a while. And then she let me back in now. It’s got to be lived in, it’s got to be used, it’s got to be used by the people who use it, and it’s got to have a life of its own.
On being a classical music fan:
I used to go to stuff with [former head of the L.A. Phil] Ernest Fleischmann a long time ago — at the [Dorothy] Chandler [Pavilion] and the [Hollywood] Bowl. He was kind of my music teacher. And so it’s become part of my life. … But I listen to music. I listen especially to the bass, because it’s unusual to hear it so clearly.
On the often-difficult relationship between architect and client:
It doesn’t have to be, but it is because cultural buildings have boards. And every board has somebody from the construction industry, or a developer, or somebody. And they always know everything. … Ernest made music the ultimate client. … He was fastidious, and he was imperious, and he was damned sure of what the priorities were. And he trained me very well for some years. Although it wasn’t him who could deliver me the hall, but once I won the competition, he became my client, or the prime client.
On the design competition:
The competition was difficult for me because I was told by ... the Disney family that no matter what I did I wouldn’t get the project. Because they thought I did chain link and plywood. Which I did. I remember one of the things the guy said was that you wouldn’t know how to do brass handrails. So I brought him over here after and said, “Is there enough brass for you?” The acoustician that was selected for the competition was a different acoustician [than Yasuhisa Toyota] ... he thinks in bigger volumes, and so it was a different design.
On Disney Hall’s reputation for being a “democratic” concert hall:
Ernest insisted that everyone was equal. ... Now how do you do that? With people sitting behind, can you hear the same notes? ... There was some controversy over how many seats you needed. When the competition was run, it was 3,000, and the board insisted there be 3,000. Acousticians were saying 2,200 was the safest number. The board and the acoustician finally got together — 2,500. … I lobbied the board to let us do a 2,200-seat hall because of the intimacy, because that was important to the perception of the hall, and see how many seats we could squeeze in to get closer to the 2,500. We got to 2,365 as I recall. ... Ernest retires, a guy from Holland comes in. [Willem Wijnbergen, the orchestra’s managing director for two years starting in 1997.] He’s 6 feet 6 inches, and he sits in the mock up and his knees are hitting the thing. And he says, we can’t have this. … So we took two rows out, and that’s how we got down to 2,265.
On Disney Hall versus the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion:
[The Chandler] had a persona and an importance whether you like it or not. I wasn’t particularly excited about the design. It was sort of pseudo-Lincoln Center. But everybody loved it — Buffy Chandler was still alive — and I wanted to respect that. … I was trying not to upstage it formally. Because the persona of the Chandler is bigger than this in a way. It has a certain majesty — that word is not the right word. Formality. It still has a prominence as a building, and it’s not undermined by this.
On his original conception for a stone exterior:
The reason it was a stone building is that a concert hall is usually attended in the evening, and stone has a soft, mellow quality with ambient light and is welcoming and warm and friendly. And so we vetted all the technology to make the stone so that we could afford it in these kind of shapes, and that was all done during the design phase. Then there was a hiatus [the county shut down construction because of cost overruns] … and in the meantime, Bilbao was built — titanium, everybody loved it. The board visited Bilbao, and why couldn’t I do it in metal? Metal was $5 million cheaper, and they needed to save money. And I resisted it because of the issue of the light of the stone and all that. But I got continued pressure on it and I figured, great, OK, I’ll do it.
On lighting the hall:
I still had trouble lighting the place because lighting metal looks like a cheap refrigerator, and we brought in some fancy lighting designers from France that we worked with. We worked hard and we figured out how to do it. That was value-engineered out. So it’s never been really lit the way I would like to see it. I don’t know. It’s not bad, but it could be better.
On the use of natural light:
The board was against it. I had to really work as I recall. Even Diane Disney at some point said, “Oh, why do you have to have that?” But now she says, “Thank God you have that.” … I think it makes the Sunday afternoon concerts 10 times better.
On the distinctive seating upholstery:
Lillian Disney, who was the benefactress when we started, I showed her models of the interior and she loved it. I showed her models of the exterior and she wanted to get rid of me. … But she loved flowers and had a beautiful garden. I had made a judgment from my experience going into theaters — when they’re closed and looking out at the seats and they’re all one color, they’re drab and dead. And realizing that this place was going to be toured by people during the day — that’s when Lillian’s flowers, garden became interesting to me. So that’s what we did. We did six different [patterns]. … The carpet was made on the same pattern.
On the complicated history of the organ:
So we had this wonderful organ builder — Manuel Rosales — who guided me in the design of the organ. … We built models of the standard organ … then we started taking it somewhere. … We were told for sure you can’t do any of that. ... Manuel got very — I thought it was out of character, he was even being strident at one point. So I thought OK, if that’s the way it has to be. So we designed a case around it that was going to be something nice to look at. I thought I’d get some artist to do it. ... Manuel said, you’re hiding my organ. And I said, yeah, because I don’t like it. And he got really upset. Ernest and I had a meeting with him with some of the musicians and he finally broke down, [saying] of course you can do all those things, but we can’t because that’s not our culture. So there’s a whole organ-builders mafia that we were running astride of.
On Disney Hall’s location:
I wanted this to be built at the Geffen [Playhouse]. I thought that site — there’s 200 acres there that belong to the U.S. government that are not being used. I always thought the cathedral should be in MacArthur Park; MOCA and LACMA at Fairfax; and then the concert hall out there. And Wilshire Boulevard, with some kind of a jitney going back and forth.
On where he sees the hall going after 10 years:
I think the public spaces around it aren’t what they should be for what this has become. It needs places for food service and drinks that you can’t quite do here. And we could spill out on the sidewalk. And we’re talking about doing things now. ... I listen to a lot of people, like [composer] John Adams, and many talented people have come through here that I’ve had the opportunity to talk to. … We did as much as we could given the budget and the realities. We won 95%. I wasn’t going to complain. I think the orchestra was happy. This works great.