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A concert for eye as well as ear

Fun fabrics. Organ pipes as pickup sticks. And other playful notes in Disney Hall.

September 01, 2003|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

A building named after a 'toon tycoon can't be dull. It has to have surprises around every corner. A sense of humor. And a heavy coat of surrealism.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall, as envisioned by architect Frank Gehry, has it right. Just try to find a wall that doesn't tilt, a walkway that doesn't wave, a rectangle that's level or two identical seats.

Inside, there's a $3-million organ with a tangle of wood pipes that look like a giant game of pickup sticks. Outside, perforated letters on the entrance sign are so subtle that they seem to disappear as they flow across swooping sheets of stainless steel. And in the sky-high garden, there are pink snowball trees with flowers that smell like sugar-cookie dough.

The downtown Los Angeles structure that splays 11,000 tons of steel frame across a city block, and that has endured decades of fits and starts, big-donor maneuverings, construction workers' whines and a price tag that ballooned to $274 million, is surprisingly ... fun. Inviting. A boat ride on the Pacific under billowing steel sails.

Ships and plants are the dual design themes here. That's because Gehry (a Pisces who played with carp when he was a kid) felt the audience should go on a voyage with the performers. And Lillian Disney, who launched the idea for a concert hall where everyone felt at home, loved flowers.

After the hall opens in October, no ticket will be needed to looky-loo the lobby and garden.

The big objects -- such as the wood-wrapped main auditorium that Gehry likened to Noah's Ark, the treelike support columns that hide air ducts and the sunlight-luring glass panels -- will no doubt overwhelm first-timers. But the smaller design details and winking finishing touches are worth more than a glance.

Here's what to look for:

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Enter laughing: No ordinary ABCs would do here, so designer Bruce Mau whipped up a clean-lined, sans-serif typeface to mirror what he calls the "honesty, originality, humanity and wit" of the hall. Then he supercharged the playfulness, typesetting the name, blowing it up to 4 feet, flexing it, stretching it, punching pinholes in it and melding it onto the in-and-out swerve of the stainless steel entrance wall. Mau dubbed it "A Font Called Frank," in honor of the architect. It will also be seen in inlaid stainless steel on the felt-covered donor wall and on stationery, graphics and "wayfinding" signs that guide the crowds around the space.

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Feeling full: No one wanted the hall to have that fun-sinking, hollow feeling when it was not overflowing with people. So special fabric, foam and other chair materials that absorb sound waves the same way as the human body were used. The music will sound the same whether seats are occupied or not.

Gehry also steered away from "the blank-face look" of solid carpet and upholstery fabrics and went with a leafy pattern collage that adds an informal air to a place where musicians will perform in tuxedos, not Hawaiian shirts.

Abstract leaves (or are they petals? Not even Disney's landscape designer, Melinda Taylor, knows for sure) point in all directions, and colors land without rhyme or reason. A seat cushion with a lot of purple is next to a predominantly green-covered seat, which is next to an orange one, or maybe a repeat of green or purple.

The 2,265 seats are mixed up in other ways too. Widths vary up to 2 inches because of the erratic shape of the auditorium. Treating the chairs like an accordion that's pushed in and pulled out could send panic through audience members who feel a tighter squeeze from one concert to the next. Let this be known: People, it's not you.

Legroom varies. Ticket holders in the high-priced seats directly in front of the stage have a few more inches to stretch out in than those in the back seats. This really shouldn't shock anyone, but project designer Craig Webb of Gehry Partners explains that some of the big donors are tall -- at 6-foot-4, one's almost a doorway ducker -- and specifically asked for more space. They got it.

Even the backs of the seats are different. Seats in the front have reclining backs to better view the stage, while those in the upper balconies are more vertical so the audience can sit up straight, lean a little forward and look down at the stage without crimping their necks.

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Center of attention: To give the audience an up-close relationship with the performers, terraced seating wraps around the stage. Yes, around. Behind the stage are long, padded benches. Two staircases link the rows of benches to the stage to allow a choir to move from one to the other. But when there's no need for a chorus, the seats will be sold. What's to stop overzealous music lovers from running down the stairs to hug a cello? Philharmonic conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen can rest assured because, um, there will be a velvet rope in place to hold them back.

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