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Critque : High Note : Gehry's Crown for Bunker Hill Is a Fitting Tribute for Disney

September 15, 1991|LEON WHITESON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Whiteson is a Los Angeles free-lancer who writes on architectural topics.

Few buildings in the history of Los Angeles are more important to the life of the city than the proposed Walt Disney Concert Hall on Bunker Hill.

Disney Hall is important for several reasons. It will crown Bunker Hill and will be a pivotal link in the "cultural corridor" along Grand Avenue, between the Music Center and the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The site, bounded by Grand Avenue and Hope, 1st and 2nd streets, lies on a crucial corner where the cultural corridor intersects the city's civic core that runs along 1st Street down to City Hall.

Most of all, Disney Hall will affirm Los Angeles' coming of age as the West Coast's major cultural center.

For such a vital public building we need an architectural masterpiece, and architect Frank Gehry's design is exactly that.

Gehry's Disney Hall is that rare event--an act of architecture that not only serves its purpose but transcends it as a true work of art.

Resembling a galleon in full sail, the Disney Hall complex is a cluster of superbly orchestrated eccentric shapes. Undulating walls in a variety of curves, clad in off-white limestone, seem to be blown along in a stiff breeze.

The feeling that the architecture generates is one of serene excitement. The majestic presence of the 2,350-seat concert hall, surrounded by its ancillary facilities and set in a garden, truly crowns the top of Bunker Hill.

Yet this powerful building does not overwhelm the Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion across 1st Street.

Both of the massive structures have roughly the same roof level. More subtly, the flowing curves of Disney Hall pay homage to the rounded colonnade of the Pavilion, though the two concert halls' architectural styles could not be more different.

Disney Hall is funded by a $50-million gift by Lillian B. Disney as a memorial to her late husband, Walt. Frank Gehry was chosen as its architect in an international competition held in December, 1988.

Enthusiastic informal approval of the finished design has come from all the major parties involved, including County Supervisor Ed Edelman, in whose district the Music Center is located, and the Music Center's Walt Disney Concert Hall Committee.

Mrs. Disney is "delighted" with the design, said Concert Hall Committee Chairman Fred Nicholas.

The model will be formally presented to the Music Center Board and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors the first week in October. At that time the model will return from display at the 1991 Venice Biennale, where it was first unveiled.

"We showed the finished design first in Venice because the model was only just completed in time and it was a wonderful and prestigious opportunity," Nicholas said. "In Venice, Disney Hall represents U.S. architecture to the world."

In the 33 months since Gehry won the competition, he has been developing the design in collaboration with the staff of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Tokyo-based acoustician Minoru Nagata.

The main concert hall is the crux of all their concerns, and the final result is nothing short of superb.

Continuing the nautical metaphor expressed on Disney Hall's exterior, the concert hall resembles a giant rectangular wooden boat Gehry once dubbed "Noah's Ark."

Outwardly sloping paneled walls enclose banks of seating that seem to float above an off-center performance platform. A ceiling of curved and billowing sail-like segments creates a vast canopy suspended over the 120-foot-by-200-foot area of the hall.

The ceiling segments will be constructed of irregular white plaster to break up sound reflections that might blur the purity of the acoustics. Skylights at each of the corners let in shafts of natural light--an unusual feature in a major concert hall.

The quality of the sound is, of course, the heart of the matter in a concert hall.

In the original competition, the four architects invited to participate were asked to include a drum-shaped hall. This configuration, which many experts question, was mandated by the French acoustician Daniel Commins, who advised in the development of the design competition.

Gehry's original scheme featured a flower-shaped concert hall described as a "metaphysical garden." Tiers of interlocking balconies were clustered about a central stage. Externally, the bulk of the building was broken down into horizontal, limestone-covered segments.

After Gehry won the competition, Commins was replaced by Nagata, an acoustician with bigger projects to his credit. At Nagata's dictates, the main concert hall was radically reconfigured.

Nagata proposed the hall's present rectangular shape, with its tilted walls and downwardly curved ceiling. This so-called "shoe box" configuration is similar to the scheme Nagata followed in shaping Tokyo's 1987 Suntory Hall. Its acoustical efficiency has been proven in many of the world's best traditional concert halls.

In the following year Gehry experimented with about 60 different solutions based on Nagata's strategy.

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