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A Reflection of the City Around It

Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall is a powerful and madly exuberant work.

October 19, 2003|Nicolai Ouroussoff | Times Staff Writer

Few buildings in the history of Los Angeles have come burdened with greater public expectations than the Walt Disney Concert Hall. None has lived up to such expectations so gracefully.

Designed by Frank Gehry, the hall is the most significant work ever created by a Los Angeles architect in his native city. The hall's flamboyant undulating exterior -- whose stainless steel forms unfold along downtown's Grand Avenue with exquisite lightness -- is a sublime expression of contemporary cultural values. Its intimate, womb-like interior should instantly be included among the great public rooms in America.

But what makes the building so moving as a work of architecture is its ability to express a deeper creative conflict: the recognition that ideal beauty rarely exists in an imperfect world. It is this tension -- and the delicacy with which Gehry resolves it -- that makes Disney Hall such a powerful work of social commentary. That he could accomplish this despite a tortured construction process that dragged out over 16 years is a minor miracle. Its success affirms both Gehry's place as America's greatest living architectural talent and Los Angeles' growing cultural maturity.

In many ways, Disney Hall occupies a privileged place in the evolution of Gehry's work. Commissioned in 1988, the project marked his emergence as a major voice in American architecture. At the time, the architect was beginning to turn away from the rough-edged chain-link and plywood aesthetic of his early residential commissions to a more flamboyant style.

Construction began several years later, but it ground to a halt in 1994, when problems were discovered with the working drawings. The five-year delay was a major source of embarrassment for the city, but it allowed Gehry to update his design. The building's cladding was changed from stone to steel, giving the structure a tougher, more industrial look. A series of vertical slots was carved out of some of the foyers to allow natural light to flow into the interiors.

The completed hall joins a series of cultural landmarks and office buildings along the top of Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles. The Music Center's bland Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, completed in 1964, stands across 1st Street to the northeast; the Arata Isozaki-designed Museum of Contemporary Art is just across Grand Avenue to the south. Beyond it, a mix of imposing corporate towers and barren plazas forms a perfect snapshot of tabula rasa planning formulas.

Disney Hall's shimmering forms erupt out of this context with a sort of mad exuberance. The hall's main auditorium -- enclosed behind canted walls -- is set at an angle on the site, giving it a dynamic relationship to the street. A series of voluptuous stainless steel walls wraps around this interior shell. Housing the lobbies and foyers, their layered surfaces spill out above the avenue like the petals of an exotic flower.

They also evoke a city that has been violently torn apart and gently pieced back together. Surfaces break open to offer views of the interior from the street. Along Grand, a swooping steel wall floats above the entry, echoing the more static curved facade of the Chandler Pavilion.

But while the Chandler's elevated plaza isolates it from the avenue, Gehry's design has a more open relationship with the street. The lobby and a restaurant are set along Grand behind panels of glass. Above, sections of the facade seem to float over the sidewalk, inviting passersby into the building.

By comparison, a second, formal entry at the corner of 1st and Grand appears more grounded. A broad staircase is framed by two curved walls, which embrace the staircase like enveloping arms.

At the top of the stairs, the hall's steel facade looms above a row of glass doors. A limestone wall extends along 1st, wrapping around the back of the complex to form a base for an upper-level, outdoor garden.

In effect, the entire building functions as a seductive tool, luring the public into an increasingly intimate architectural experience.

The design is also a pointed rejection of the cool, machine-inspired aesthetics of late Modernism. In its place, Gehry proposes an architecture rooted in the messiness of everyday life. His aim is to break down accepted social norms, to liberate the creative imagination.

That sense of an architecture rooted in a more complex psychological experience becomes clear as one moves through the building. Visitors arriving via underground parking ride a series of escalators up to the Grand Avenue lobby. Light filters down through a large skylight at the top of the stairway, drawing the eye upward. When visitors reach the lobby level, a sweeping view opens up to the avenue, momentarily reconnecting them with life outside.

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