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The Shells My Father Built

September 17, 2000|Eric Lloyd Wright | Eric Lloyd Wright is an architect

The Hollywood Bowl's orchestral shell should be replaced, but it is impossible to re-create the shell designed by my father. One reason is that shortly after the current shell was installed in 1929, the east side of the Bowl was cut out to allow easier pedestrian access to seating. This allows sound to bleed out of the Bowl. Nevertheless, my father's experiences illustrate some of the acoustical and aesthetic problems the new shell designer may face.

In the early 1920s, Lloyd Wright was an architect and landscape designer in Los Angeles, as well as a set designer for Paramount Studios. At the time, Hollywood staged large theatrical productions at the Hollywood Bowl. To make room for the sets, the Bowl's shell was removed. My father designed the set for "Julius Caesar," which had a cast of thousands.

In 1927, he was asked to do the set for the operetta "Robin Hood," starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. The Bowl committee was dissatisfied with the existing shell, created by Allied Architects, because it concentrated sound in the center of the bowl about 150 feet from the stage, leaving dead areas. My father was asked if he could design a shell using the materials--two-by-fours and plasterboard--of the "Robin Hood" stage set. He came up with a rectilinear form with a Southwest Indian feeling.

Because it was built from discarded materials, the shell cost approximately $1,500. Sound traps at its sides prevented echoes within the shell; flat sections reflected and distributed the sound from the orchestra over the entire seating area.

My father's design restored the original acoustical properties of the site: A low-toned voice could be heard clearly 500 feet away. It was not the usual wooden background for bands so prevalent at that time. Rather, it was a structure of direct lines built of inexpensive materials to carefully measured sound projections. True to the modernist's creed, it eliminated the nonessential. Unfortunately, the shell, which was built in 10 days, was felt to be too aggressive and elemental in its design by the conventionally minded Bowl committee.

The next year, the committee asked my father to design a permanent circular shell. He pointed out that it was much harder to focus a circular shell than the rectilinear one. But the committee insisted. Rather than a half-circle shell, he decided to do an approximately one-quarter shell with a more elliptical feeling. He felt he could control sound reflection better with a lower shell.

The shell was a series of plywood rings and cost less than $6,000 to build. Each ring was a flat surface pitched for a certain section of the audience, varying the angle for the height directly above the sound sources and the instrument stands. My father left an open space between each ring to eliminate reverberations, which enabled orchestra members to hear each other. The wooden shell was demountable so it could be protected from winter weather or removed to make way for productions like "Julius Caesar." The acoustics of the shell required no artificial amplification. The challenge of lighting the orchestra without illuminating the audience was solved by concealing the lights in the back of the rings.

Unfortunately, the Bowl committee was unwilling to pay the $500 necessary to demount the shell. Leaving a carefully made resonant instrument out in winter rains ruined it. Through political persuasion, Allied Architects convinced the committee to hire them to build a more permanent shell.

Allied Architects took my father's low elliptical form and put in a half-circle shell. Its high arch threw the sound over the heads of the audience. The ring surfaces were not varied to control sound distribution. The spaces between the rings that took away the orchestra's reverberations were closed. A concrete interior wall was removed, thus losing sound reflection. To make the shell weatherproof, Allied Architects decided to use a metal frame with transite board. The cement and asbestos panels did not have the warm acoustic qualities of wood.

For a cost of more than $33,000, Allied Architects built a shell that produced reverberation, echo, dead spots in the audience and the orchestra, and an inability to reach the back rows without amplification. To further add to this travesty, the shell was supposed to be portable, but its 55-ton weight flattened its ball-bearing rollers. It hasn't moved since.

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