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A Lasting Love Affair or a Brief Infatuation?

January 20, 2002|JAMES RICCI

Walt Disney Concert Hall, with its unexpected angles and curves and sail-like exterior surfaces soaring in every direction as though to catch any wind that blows, has beguiled architecture critics and tormented construction crews. It's already stunning to behold, even only partly clad in the stainless steel that eventually will sheathe it in reflected light.

But a question: Are we really going to like this bold and unusual thing; like it, I mean, in the way you have to like something to live peaceably with it for many years? Visionary structures originally thought striking can lose their eye appeal over time and/or come to be viewed with outright disdain. For example, the TransAmerica Building in San Francisco, the AT&T Headquarters Building (now the Sony Building) in New York, the TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport.

Public architecture is the most arrogant of arts. If people dislike a painting, they can stay away from where it's displayed. If they disdain a piece of music, they can refrain from attending concerts at which it's played. A building, however, is unavoidable. It's thrust before us in all its immensity, and we have little choice but to take it into consideration, over and over again, as we encounter it in the course of our lives. It's not as though we can close our eyes while driving or walking Grand Avenue between 1st and 2nd streets, which the concert hall occupies.

The people at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which will call the place home as of autumn 2003, insist it be referred to as "Walt Disney Concert Hall," not just "Disney Hall." The latter, says the L.A. Phil's Arvind Manocha, the new hall's director of strategic operations, "might give some people the notion that 'The Lion King' is going to move in as soon as it's finished." Actually, there is something about architect Frank O. Gehry's $274-million creation that's Disneyesque in the better sense--something wondrous and reality-defying. But how will such drama and whimsy play in the workaday context of downtown, a perp walk from the Criminal Courts Building (not exactly the Happiest Place on Earth)?

Critics are confident it will wear well. Architecture writer Michael Webb says people tend to embrace buildings as they grow used to them. A decade ago, he says, the design of the hall was seen as "strange and a bit frightening," but by now the structure has "gone through its period of acceptance." Critic Joseph Giovannini believes the hall will remain interesting, like the dramatic 28-year-old seaside Opera House in Sydney, Australia, because "it has life inherent in its forms. You have to walk around it and as you do, it de-forms and re-forms. It sets you in motion because it seems to be in motion itself." Manocha takes heart from other Gehry buildings, such as the 4-year-old Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, that also are defined by curves and metal. "I have no worries about [the concert hall] dating badly," he says. "I look at Bilbao and the other buildings, and they're withstanding the test of time. This is the medium in which he's working. In time we'll come to see they're just another type of building, much like the Mies van der Rohe buildings came to be seen as just a different way of doing skyscrapers."

Manocha believes people's use of the building ultimately will determine their regard for it. Some will know the hall as the place where they listen to Sibelius in a 2,273-seat auditorim. Others will experience it strolling through its public gardens in the afternoon or lunching in its street-side restaurant. Still others will park their cars in the county-owned parking garage beneath the hall while serving on jury duty (they'll emerge from underground into the lobby). "People who are afraid of the idea of a concert hall and symphonic music will be engaging the building," Manocha says. "It will overcome whatever daunting thought they have about entering a palace of high art."

The orchestra's No. 1 priority from the start was that the hall sound good. Gehry, Manocha says, got the commission in 1988 because he most keenly grasped that a concert hall, unlike a museum or office building, is really a musical instrument. Nor was the hall conceived as an "event building," meant to catalyze redevelopment of the surrounding area. In 1988 there wasn't much talk about transforming L.A.'s humdrum Civic Center into a psychic anchor for the whole fragmented metropolis.

There is now, though. A proposal unveiled a year ago envisions a large central park sweeping unimpeded down Grand Avenue to the renovated City Hall. Crowning it would be a tiara of cultural institutions, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, the concert hall, a reconstructed Music Center and the new Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, with the concert hall as crown jewel. With luck, Gehry's phantasm on the hill will live up to our ambitious expectations, both those it was always meant to meet and those we've more recently foisted on it.

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