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Gehry's go-to guy

In the construction of Walt Disney Concert Hall, Terry Bell calmly meshes details and deadlines.

May 25, 2003|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

When Frank O. Gehry, star architect, arrives at Walt Disney Concert Hall to lead a VIP tour of his nearly completed building, a quiet guy with a ponytail holds the door.

In the lobby, where Gehry draws his guests near to confide that he swiped the idea for his tree-like support columns from the Czech architect Joze Plecnik, the quiet guy hangs back, whispering into his cell phone.

Yet when it's time to move the guests along -- or do just about anything requiring nuts-and-bolts knowledge of Disney Hall -- Gehry is likely to pause as he did the other day and look to the quiet guy.

"Terry," Gehry said that afternoon, "where do we go now?"

Unmistakably, the curving, shimmering form of Disney Hall on Grand Avenue at 1st Street is the brainchild of Gehry. But as the days tick down to the Los Angeles Philharmonic's first scheduled rehearsal in the new hall on June 30, and construction workers swarm over its skin and skeleton to mend dings, seal seams, finish floors and endure inspections, the ranking architect on the scene most days is not Gehry. It's Terry Bell, quiet guy, workhorse, erstwhile carpenter and admirer of Joseph Conrad.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 28, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Influential architect -- An article on Walt Disney Concert Hall in Sunday's Calendar incorrectly described Joze Plecnik (1872-1957) as a Czech architect. Plecnik was a Slovene who worked in Prague, Vienna and Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 01, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Influential architect -- An article on Walt Disney Concert Hall in last Sunday's Calendar incorrectly described Joze Plecnik as a Czech architect. Plecnik was a Slovene who worked in Prague, Vienna and Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana.

For the past five years, as Gehry has juggled the concert hall with other commissions around the world, getting Disney Hall built has been Bell's sole professional focus. And in the next six weeks, Bell says, "there are a lot of things that have to happen. Things that I have to help happen."

As project architect and manager -- and, since a promotion about a year ago, a partner in the Gehry firm -- Bell is the designer's chief delegate to the site, a seldom-celebrated job that means countless aesthetic and economic decisions large and small: minute-by-minute negotiation with clients, contractors, subcontractors and inspectors.

It also means coordinating the Gehry office's efforts from a site-adjacent trailer that fairly bulges with drawings, binders, punch-list printouts, building-code volumes, stray hard hats, extra work boots and sometimes pizza boxes from the night before.

As of May 20, the tallies of some 90 lists from the contractor and subcontractors showed about 5,500 imperfections yet to be fixed, from cosmetic dings to faulty seals to subtly misaligned panels.

"Terry's probably the hardest-working architect I've ever met in my life. And he has more passion about Disney Concert Hall than anybody else I've seen on the job," says Mike Budd, vice president of Permasteelisa Cladding Technologies Ltd., the Italy-based subcontractor responsible for the building's steel skin, glazing and skylights.

When Permasteelisa leased space in Santa Monica neighbor Gehry's offices in 1999, Budd recalls, "I would leave the office at 8 p.m. to have dinner with clients, and I'd be coming back at 12:30 or 1 a.m., and Terry would still be working. This was three, four nights a week. That guy has put so much of himself into this project, it's just an amazing thing."

Forty-eight years old and balding, Bell wears a mustache along with the ponytail that dangles from under his hard hat. His bifocals usually sit about halfway down his nose at a professorial angle. His cell phone hangs at his right hip, in gunslinger fashion, when he's not juggling it with a cigarette, a walkie-talkie and a clipboard.

"It's a team effort," Bell says often, citing the county (which owns the building), the Philharmonic (which will be its principal tenant), the contractor (Minneapolis-based MA Mortenson), the 35 first-tier subcontractors, and the seven other architects and an administrative assistant in the Gehry trailer.

For this team effort, however, Bell doesn't wear much of a uniform. He is likely to show up in jeans and a casual sweater, even on those VIP tour days. When he squeezes in amid the laborers and taped-up Bush-Hussein cartoons in the main job-site elevator, only a practiced eye can pick him out. It's no surprise to learn that he paid his way through college by working as a finish carpenter.

Apart from "knowing how to build stuff," says Gehry, the key to Bell's role is "knowing how to keep a crew of workmen together, and earning a certain amount of respect for his position, because the construction guys always try to diss the architect." In another sense, Gehry continues, Bell's job is "like being the conductor: You've got the score. Now, how do you do it?"

"He's very particular," says Gino Capra, job superintendent for Gardena-based Martin Brothers Drywall, which has handled fireproofing, interior framing, drywall, exterior plaster and stone framing on the project. "He knows what he wants. And he knows the building."

Building it first on computer

"THIS is the attic," Bell says, leading a visitor across a catwalk in the rafters, a measure of pride creeping into his voice. Before him spreads a tangle of conduits, vents and ducts, some of them 6 feet in diameter.

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