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A rose grows in china

Artists shape a fountain from broken Delft porcelain to resemble Lillian Disney's favorite flower, in a tribute at L.A.'s new concert hall.

August 10, 2003|Steven Barrie-Anthony | Times Staff Writer

The story of the fountain is common-speak around Walt Disney Concert Hall.

How Frank Gehry, meeting Lillian Disney at her home to discuss plans for the hall, noticed her china cabinet.

The china looked chintzy -- out of place in the lavish Disney abode. Gehry's curiosity got the better of him. He had to ask.

Disney smiled. As it turns out, she and Walt loved to travel, and while waiting for flights they took to buying the chintzy Delft knockoffs that inevitably litter airport gift shops. Back at home, Lilly would display them proudly and show them to friends to see who could spot the fakes.

After Disney died, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren asked Gehry to design a tribute to her. Thus, the fountain: a giant rose -- Disney's favorite flower -- covered in a mosaic made from crushed Delft porcelain. It sits as a centerpiece in the colorful "garden for public gathering" that surrounds the concert hall.

No faux-Delft, Gehry declared. In memoriam, Disney got the real thing. Two hundred Royal Delft porcelain vases, to be exact. They alone cost over $34,000.

"I called Delft, in Holland, and they asked me how many vases I wanted," recalls Tomas Osinski, the artist and architect in charge of the project. "They told me that I may have to wait about 10 years." But the project's prominence greased the wheels.

"Frank [Gehry] gave me a model, 14 inches in diameter," says Osinski, whose job is to turn the model into the real thing: 22 feet wide by 17 feet long by 7 feet high. Water will cascade quietly over each petal. At night, lights placed throughout the structure will cause the flower to glow.

"I love it because it's not architectural -- it's almost sentimental," Osinski says. "It's not something you would expect from the famous contemporary architect."

Osinski hired artists rather than metalworkers and tile setters "because you have to be crazy to do this," he says, "the work is so neurotic." It will take the eight-person team four months to complete the fountain, at a rate of eight hours a day, six days a week. And they may not be finished by the Aug. 30 deadline.

Yet the team remains in good spirits, which must be partly because of their surroundings. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the garden is breezy and the air actually smells clean. Traffic noises from below are muted to an almost calming purr. The garden exists in an ambiguous space: apart from yet surrounded by this smoggy metropolis.

"Shaping rebar is what I really identify with," says Jay Raveling, who lives in Boston but relocated to work on the fountain. "I have a natural affinity for that aspect of it."

Shaping rebar -- or bending reinforced iron bars to form the petals' skeletons -- is only the first step.

Next, "we attach stainless steel mesh onto the rebars," Osinski says. "Then we pack reinforced concrete onto the mesh.... Then we mortar.... Then we use finished mortar.... Then we do waterproofing.... Then we do thin set -- glue for the tiles.... Then we tile.... Then we use epoxy grout."

"We figure it out as we go," says Kamil Becki, who is sporting an aquamarine Mohawk -- no hard hat, "because I have to show my new colors."

"By the time we learn how to do things, we're done with them," Osinski says. He has become an expert vase-breaker, among other things, able to smash a vase in a deft hammer swoop to "form any shapes, triangles or whatever, that I want."

"This is time-consuming, difficult, tedious work," he says. "On the other hand, it's like playing on the beach." He grins.

Osinski watches as Becki fashions wet cement into balls and passes them to Raveling, who packs them onto the mesh. Nearby, Bozenna Bogucki sits on a petal inside the flower. She is nimbly placing tile after tile, and although each is a different shape, they all seem to fit.

"I am an artist," Bogucki says. She holds up a vase fragment. "There is a certain part of the brain that deals with size," she says. The tiling process is "almost magical ... it's totally uncontrolled. I just put them on, and it's like they're cut to size.

"It gives me satisfaction," she says. "This is going to be a real landmark for L.A."

"I think it's going to look stunning," Becki agrees.

Raveling steps back and surveys their work.

"My blood's in it," he says. "Literally. I smashed my finger, hurt my back. Even at the opening, I'm still going to want to climb into it."

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