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Gehry Tries to Rebuild Image After Disney Hall

Design: Architect rejects blame for woes at unbuilt concert facility and still believes the project will succeed.


The room might be likened to an isolation nursery where a beloved infant remains in a coma for years because of a complicated illness. The father is visiting, and he is having a difficult time containing his grief.

In this case, however, the metaphorical baby is Disney Concert Hall. The nursery is the Santa Monica storeroom where its models are kept. And the anguished parent is architect Frank O. Gehry, who designed what was supposed to be the triumph of an already celebrated career only to watch it become his biggest heartache.

"It's hard. It's so emotional," said Gehry, ushering a visitor down an open-air catwalk from his office to the locked room with models of the unbuilt and trouble-plagued hall. Inside, its swooping forms are reproduced again and again in a kind of silent taunt.

Gehry still hopes that the coma will lift. A new fund-raising drive and management reorganization are underway to get the hall built in five years, and Gehry expects to be very involved in the construction. More immediate, though, he looks forward to October, when the models will be moved out for an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, just down the street from the underground garage that is the only piece of the Disney complex constructed.

"All of this stuff--I'm hoping to take it all, get it out of here," Gehry said, pointing past the 12-foot-high mock-up of the hall's golden wood interior with miniature musicians and concert-goers in their seats. "We can't live with it anymore. It's too painful."

By many measures, Frank Gehry is at the top of his form. At age 67, he clearly is the dean of California architecture, one of the most famous and influential--if polarizing--architects in the world. The competition to design a new St. Vibiana's Cathedral in Los Angeles gained more visibility this week just by including Gehry's name among the three finalists, although another architect reportedly is the front-runner.

Gehry won the $100,000 Pritzker Prize, the Nobel of architecture, in 1989 for his daring use of sculptural forms and unusual materials that judges called "sometimes controversial, but always arresting." His practice has doubled in size over the past decade to about 70 employees and about $10 million in annual work. His family is doing well, and he is healthy enough to play a lot of his beloved ice hockey. (The license plate on his black Lexus LS400 says FOGHCKY.)

He has major international commissions that most designers can only fantasize about: a new Guggenheim Museum under construction in Bilbao, Spain, through which he is scheduled to guide the Spanish king next week; an art museum in Seoul; a soon-to-open Prague office project in the Czech Republic, and a music museum planned in Seattle. Two more office complexes in Germany are in the works, including one in Berlin with a glass roof line shaped like a fish, a potent Gehry signature dating from boyhood frolics in the bathtub with live carp destined to become gefilte fish.

Yet hovering over all his success, he complains, is that ailing offspring: Disney Concert Hall. He says that as a result he feels like a pariah in Greater Los Angeles, where he moved from Toronto as a teenager in 1947. Gehry says he rarely goes out in public anymore, fearing that people will pester him about the building that is supposed to crown Bunker Hill and offer crystalline acoustics for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

He mentioned a recent lunch at a Santa Monica restaurant not far from his Cloverfield Boulevard office.

"Three separate people came over to me and asked what's the matter with Disney Hall," Gehry recalled. "One blamed me. The other said, 'We're sorry for you.' I don't like that either. I don't like them feeling sorry for me. I don't like them blaming me. And another said, 'What are you going to do about it? You've got to clear your name.' And I hate that too. That drives me nuts. Apart from that, I love L.A."

Yet, clearing his name is what Gehry seems intent on doing these days.

For several years, he was reluctant to talk to the media about Disney Hall's woes. But the cathedral competition apparently revived questions about that other potential landmark downtown. So Gehry decided to speak out.

A complex chain of management, political, planning, bidding and engineering problems postponed Disney Hall construction at least six years and more than doubled costs. Of the current $264.9-million estimate, about $150 million still needs to be raised. Project officials insist that Gehry's design is not the cause and they are sticking with it. Still, many Angelenos blame the much debated exterior--likened to an exploding flower or a futuristic sailing ship carved of Italian limestone and titanium. A hall with a simpler design, they complain, would have been built already.

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