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Gehry, Fund-Raisers Face Showdown on Disney Hall

Culture: Forces of art and finance seek to resolve clash over completing designer's vision of facility.

June 05, 1997|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The worlds of art and money often collide explosively--and in no discipline do they do so with more public impact than in the world of architecture, where form, function and funding struggle to co-exist.

Los Angeles architects say the battle remains fierce and ongoing. And downtown's Walt Disney Concert Hall, the planned new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has become that battle's most visible example--as its design architect, Frank O. Gehry, threatens to withdraw his involvement with the project because of disagreements over who should proceed with architectural and building plans. In a letter to powerhouse business leader and arts patron Eli Broad last Friday, Gehry said he could not continue with the project under the guidelines set up by Disney Hall officials, saying his work was only 75% done.

Today, Gehry, one of the world's leading architects, along with his team of associates and attorneys, will meet at the table with Broad, Los Angeles Music Center Chairwoman Andrea Van de Kamp, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Zev Yaroslavsky and others among the high-profile Disney Hall leadership. They are hoping to agree on what, if any, role Gehry will play in the next, crucial phase of a project that was born 10 years ago and nearly died two years ago in a financial crisis, but which has been resuscitated in the last six months through a $60-million infusion of new donations to the project that Broad now estimates will cost $220 million.

Although the dispute centers on the appropriateness of using an architectural procedure known as "design-build" for Gehry's undulating design, the implications of the debate loom larger as it drives a wedge between Gehry's defenders in the architectural community and the fund-raisers. The latter include Broad, Mayor Richard Riordan and leaders of the city's corporate community. The business leaders are trusting former developer Broad to determine the most practical way to get the hall built on time and on budget.

Both sides claim the same goal--getting the hall built in accordance with Gehry's design--and the same fear--ending up back on a path to the kind of spiraling cost estimates and construction delays that led the county to threaten to terminate the project in 1994.

The disagreement lies in the method.

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The design-build method, proposed by Broad with the support of other Disney Hall leaders, asks potential builders to come up with a guaranteed maximum price for the hall based on incomplete working drawings for the hall done by Dworsky Associates between 1989 and 1994, and gives the builder the authority to select an architecture firm to complete the drawings. The builders could select Gehry or some other less well-known--and perhaps less expensive--architectural firm, to do that work.

Broad believes that having the builder choose the executive architect to do the working drawings and provide a guaranteed cost based on the existing work is standard procedure in the world of architecture. He also argues that it is the most efficient way to get things done, and would in no way lead to design compromises.

Speaking on behalf of Gehry, who was en route to Los Angeles from Europe on Wednesday, attorney Robert Long said that Gehry believes the Dworsky drawings already require more work by Gehry's firm before a builder can read them because they they do not fully articulate the architect's vision. If another firm chosen by the builder completes the working drawings, design changes would occur, Gehry believes.

Long said Gehry is not asking to complete the working drawings, but feels he needs to add to the existing drawings, and then feels he ought to be a hands-on participant in the process from now until opening night.

"The design-build process has been utilized in the building of things like refineries and power plants and that sort of thing," Long said. "It's a question of function, and their looks have little concern. There is a real question about whether that sort of process is viable in this kind of environment."

Broad, however, is reluctant to take on what he believes will delay the project further. At a ceremony during an L.A. Philharmonic concert Sunday, Broad announced his goal of beginning construction on the hall in early 1998 for an opening date of early 2001. Broad said Wednesday that time is short in light of Southern California's improving economy, which could cause prices for building materials and other items to rise.

"Costs have not gone up for the past two years, but people are thinking that we are sitting on the edge of a window where [they will] if we don't get moving by early 1998," the former executive of Kaufman & Broad and current chief executive officer of Sun-America Inc. said.

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