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Chicken-Soup Architecture : L.A.'s New Symphony Hall Is a Pop Art Trinket

May 27, 1989|JOSEPH MAILANDER and RICHARD WATTERSON | Joseph Mailander and Richard Watterson are Los Angeles writers with a long interest in art and architecture.

To Pop art, the living room is the matrix. It is the room of the TV, which is the medium of Campbell's Soup and Brillo ads. It is the room of the magazine rack, where the images of Marilyn and Mao and Jackie O, as well as the comic books, reside. The first Pop work, Richard Hamilton's 1956 send-up of the suburban dream, "Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?" is a living-room scene, for in no other place can trivial and shallow objects attain the full dimension of their triviality, their shallowness.

So it is not surprising that Frank Gehry, the pop architect, should pitch his plan for Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall--the future Valhalla of the city's ambitious Philharmonic orchestra--as "a living room for the city." What surprises is that the selection committee, whose task is to build "one of the world's greatest concert halls," selected Gehry's design--a stack of disheveled phone directories, a small glass sphere and a screened garden--to represent Los Angeles in a derby that includes the Sydney Opera House and the Berlin Philharmonie.

Though widely admired, Gehry is not known for civic architecture--or for lasting architecture. His success derives from his ability to translate Pop art into architectural terms. His signature materials--plywood, chain-link and corrugated aluminum--are to building what soup cans and Brillo boxes were to Pop.

Gehry's work, as described by Heinrich Klotz in "History of Postmodern Architecture," achieves "an expressive rendering of improvisation, and of the temporary, the unfinished and the jumbled together"--a veritable Pop credo. He is a friend of Claes Oldenburg and an admirer of Billy Al Bengston and Ed Moses.

Most telling, like other Pop artists before him, Gehry has been repeatedly mislabeled as "Popular" or "Populist"--cruel irony, as Pop only confounds the man in the street, to the smug satisfaction of the bourgeoisie.

For his Disney Hall design, Gehry, true to his Pop roots, turned to some of the century's most ill-conceived and overexposed American architecture. The boxlike tiers, skewed by a vertical axis, evoke visions of New York's Guggenheim Museum; squared-off, it will be a Pop Guggenheim, its tiers as sluggish and unappetizing as the layers of foodstuff in Oldenburg's "Two Cheeseburgers With Everything." A 20-foot glass ball lagniappe atop an auxiliary building is pure Bucky Fuller; its stark rib cage and its juxtaposition to the garden announce as much.

The garden itself, Gehry specifies, will feature plants and trees indigenous to Southern California--more Pop gimmickry, botanical chauvinism. Presumably the flora will accept the alien northern water provided by the California Aqueduct.

All this, as seen in a model, is harmless fun, just as, in a museum, it takes 15 seconds to consume a Warhol, laugh, understand, and move on to a Lichtenstein, which takes maybe a minute.

But we do not promenade past buildings as quickly, or with as light a heart, as we do paintings or architectural models. Nor do we visit them only on field trips, or just when the Muse directs us. Our initial reaction is not likely to be our lasting impression.

While we confront buildings as works of art, we also confront buildings in some of our worst moments--hurried, hung over, in love, angry--sometimes on a daily basis, and sometimes for hours at a time. We cultivate relationships to them. These relationships may last for years--or, in the case of civic architecture, for a lifetime.

For a better image of the Disney Hall, one would do well to examine a building of Gehry's after time and confounded maintenance have taken their toll. In one, the Placement and Career Planning Center at UCLA (1976), the big postmod white ducts that run through the halls and largest rooms almost bend beneath the weight of the dirt that tops them. The dirt remains in place because there is no good, economical way to clean a large white duct hanging high above the floor, which is why ducts usually rumble through attics or between floors in the first place. There is also the Gemini G.E.L. Gallery (1979) in the splashiest part of Melrose Avenue, with its rotting plywood port of entry that would not survive a swift kick. These buildings, young but declining, do not anticipate an edifice that, in the words of the Disney Hall selection committee, "shall be built to last for centuries."

The living-room metaphor is consistent with what one expects from Gehry; but it will soon grow tired, inconsistent with the demands of civic architecture. The inconsistency will be made manifest just prior to a performance there--a score of Beethoven's, or of Gershwin's, perhaps--for which, in order to enjoy monumental airs in live performance, the members of the audience had hoped to leave their living rooms behind.

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