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The Once And Future Hollywood Bowl

Architecture * Has the site outgrown its shell? Preservationists fighting to keep it from being demolished miss the point that it's the elliptical amphitheater that defines this cozy landmark.


Two critics weigh in on the debate over whether to move forward with a proposed new orchestra shell or to preserve the one that has become a Southland icon.


Preservation is a tricky thing. That it's a crime to recklessly wipe away the best of our cultural history is beyond dispute. But when does the desire to protect our past begin to suffocate a culture's imaginative output?

That's the question raised by the recent debate over the Hollywood Bowl's legendary orchestra shell, which the Los Angeles Philharmonic plans to demolish late next year as part of an $18-million renovation plan. Designed by the Los Angeles-based Hodgetts & Fung architects, the proposed shell is a contemporary interpretation of the streamlined Moderne style. Speakers, lights and acoustical devices, which clutter the interior of the old shell, would be incorporated more seamlessly into the new design. And the shell would be significantly larger, allowing it to accommodate a full orchestra for the first time in its history.

That such changes would help upgrade an out-of-date, decaying facility is beyond dispute. But to some local preservationists, these practical considerations are beside the point. They see the original 1929 shell as an important architectural landmark, a key element of the city's cultural identity that should be preserved at all costs. Many plan to protest its demolition when the county Board of Supervisors meets to review the design this month.

That kind of sentimental nostalgia is forgivable. But it is also misguided. And the irony is that these earnest efforts to protect the city's legacy rest on a fundamental misunderstanding of the history they intend to protect. Despite the Bowl's identity as a '20s-era icon, it has been renovated and fine-tuned numerous times since it opened in 1919.

In fact, the Bowl is a remarkable model of adaptability and change, not of static historicism. And in that light, what's stunning about the design is not its disdain for the past but how closely it clings to historical precedent. It is risk-free architecture.

It is the amphitheater--rather than the structures--that stands at the core of the Bowl's identity. Designed in 1926 by Myron Hunt, the architect of Pasadena's Public Library and the Rose Bowl, its elliptical, terraced form enhances the natural curves of the landscape. Although the dreaminess of that space was disturbed with the opening of the Hollywood Freeway in 1953, it retains its magic. It is hard to imagine a more snug and cozy spot for aural enlightenment.

By comparison, the shell has had a troubled existence. Four shells were built between 1926 and 1929 as the Philharmonic tried to settle on an acceptable form. Of those, the most striking was the first Lloyd Wright design, a temporary pyramid-like wood structure that evoked an abstracted Mayan temple. But Los Angeles at that time was just beginning to acquire high cultural aspirations, and the scheme may have been too radical for its self-conscious patrons. Wright gave it another shot, creating a low, elliptical arched shell that was more modern in spirit, with radiating bands that gave the shell a clean, Art Deco look.

That one, too, lasted only a year. Demolished in 1929, Wright's elliptical shell was replaced by a similar scheme by Allied architects. This design--meant to be more permanent--mimicked the form of Wright's second shell but lacked its aesthetic refinement. The low, gentle ellipse became a cruder semicircle; the elegant band that formed the shell's base was gone, so the new shell rests clumsily on the stage.

An Accumulation of Clutter

It was the beginning of a long slide into mediocrity. Over subsequent decades, the shell became cluttered with technical and acoustic paraphernalia. Because orchestra members couldn't hear each other play, stacks of cardboard tubes were suspended from the shell's interior in 1970 to improve internal acoustics. A decade later, huge fiberglass balls replaced the tubes, a playful design gesture that didn't completely solve acoustical problems. Lighting fixtures now loom over the stage, while on either side enormous speakers are stacked up on scaffolding. Much of this equipment is now decrepit and out of date.

The new design would clean up a lot of this. Inspired by the 1928 Wright scheme, the architects created an elliptical shell. They also replicated the radiating interior bands that were a key feature of the two previous designs. They further reinforced the design's streamlined Moderne credentials: Three decorative towers--like muses--rise from the top of the shell. And a series of huge rectangular reflecting pools cascade down toward the audience on either side of the stage, punctuated by gushing fountains.

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