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CALIFORNIA COMMENTARY : Great Cities, Great Public Works : Disney Hall's soaring design will be worth the extra cost, given the crucial L.A. link between culture and commerce.

August 30, 1994|RICHARD WEINSTEIN | Richard Weinstein, former dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, is now associate dean for development and professor of architecture at UCLA's new School of Arts and Architecture

When most of us think about Sydney, Australia, the image that comes to mind is the Opera House, unfurling its nautical forms at the tip of the peninsula in the bay. For the traveler as well as the citizens of Sydney, the building has become inseparable from the affirmative spirit of the place and its people.

Architecture has always expressed more completely than any of the other arts the essential truths about the aspirations of urban culture. Athens has become for us the Acropolis and the Parthenon; Rome, St. Peters and the Forum. These buildings derive their meaning and impact because they encode the values embodied in the institutions through which their respective societies managed civic affairs. Such public works necessarily engage the collective will of society as a whole, through a combination of vision, power and the consent of the larger public by whose agreement the establishments (political, cultural, philanthropic) are encouraged to lead and act.

What is now mostly forgotten about the Sydney Opera House is the controversy surrounding its construction--debates about the building appearance, but especially about the escalating cost of construction due to the complexity of the architectural concept. The fate of the project was passionately debated in the press and the councils of state, and came close to ruin on many occasions. How could such vast sums be expended on a cultural enterprise in a country and municipality extremely short on public funds? Hard questions were asked; many remain unanswered to this day. And yet few today, especially Qantas, would wish that this exceptional work had not been accomplished. In some important sense, the future of Sydney was decided in a positive way, when the collective will was found to go forward with construction.

One can only react to the recent news about the rising costs of Disney Hall with dismay, if not foreboding, in anticipation of the arguments that must now rise to cloud the future of this crucial enterprise. Foreboding, because this community has suffered more than its share of pain, and many will question the public and private commitments to be made if we are to have the concert hall we need to believe in our future as a center of trade, culture and commerce.

There is an established connection between culture and commerce in the life of all great cities, but especially in this one. What is loosely termed "entertainment" is the second-largest U.S. export, and is expected, with developments in computer technology, to substantially expand. The capital of this industry is in Los Angeles and accounts for more jobs at all levels than any other single sector of the economy. It is a vast cultural ecology that includes the popular and fine arts, film, television, music, theater, themed entertainment, all the design arts (including architecture, automotive, fashion and graphic design), a variety of supporting craft industries and a growing base of innovation in computer applications to all media. This industry depends on a community of creative talent that thrives on the diversity of high, low and medium culture--on the punk and the classical, on ethnic and folk arts and especially on the interactive web of influences that constitute a vibrant and productive cultural environment. It is hard to imagine this precious, essential Los Angeles resource continuing to flourish in a larger community that cannot find the means and the will to give significant civic form to the making of music.

Our singular and distinguishing virtue as a community has been a respect for the creative impulse, however it emerged from the accident of climate, greed, provincialism, talent and the freedom to express and experiment. All this has made us a place where, for all our commercialism and contradictions, the ephemeral has been given weight, and where qualitative attributes and creative authority have been recognized and integrated with our economic and social fabric--and with our mythologies and collective aspirations.

The magnificent private gift of Lillian Disney and her family (now valued at $93 million) was made possible by the support given by Los Angeles to Walt Disney's innovations in popular culture and their subsequent commercial success. That a portion of this legacy should now make our extraordinary concert hall possible, validates and nourishes the connection between the fine and popular arts and the creative community, and affirms their place in the social, economic and cultural life of this great city.

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