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What's not to like? Well ...

Discouraging words are seldom heard against Frank Gehry's Disney Hall. Here are a few.

September 05, 2003|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

With less than two months to go before the opening of Frank Gehry's steel-clad Walt Disney Concert Hall, the $274-million culture palace that optimists say will accelerate downtown's revival is generating excited word of mouth and rhapsodic press.

That may not be, though, because the place is universally loved.

Call it schadenfreude or call it inevitable blowback, but a distinct rumble of Disney Hall disenchantment has become audible at cocktail parties and in the aisles of record stores. The talk is of the high price of tickets, the risky acoustics of "vineyard-style" concert venues, the similarities between Disney Hall and Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Architects express other reservations.

Still, a mixed review by Sam Hall Kaplan that appeared in the Downtown News and was broadcast on KCRW-FM on Aug. 8 was one of very few public comments on Disney Hall that hasn't been overwhelmingly cheery. Kaplan, a former Times staffer and longtime Gehry critic, described the building as more successful formally than functionally. He praised its ability to catch the eye at a distance and its "intimate yet grand" interior, but noted: "Urban design is not Frank's forte."

The hall's entrance on 1st Street, he concluded, is "forbidding" and "more appropriate to a minimum-security prison than a public building."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 06, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Disney Hall ticket prices -- An article in Friday's Calendar about the Walt Disney Concert Hall said tickets there will sell for $35 to $120. In fact, there will be a limited number of single tickets for most Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts on sale beginning Sunday at $15. Other, non-Philharmonic events will also have less expensive seats.

Apart from that blast, vocal Disney Hall detractors among the Los Angeles cultural elite are hard to come by. Put a notebook under the noses of other skeptics in the music and architecture worlds and their reservations go mute.

Why has the public conversation -- in publications, on radio and in other intellectual forums -- been so one-sided? What accounts for the strange hold the unassuming, down-to-earth Gehry and his work exerts on public opinion?

"Frank has become one of L.A.'s renowned citizens," says Kaplan, who has frequently tussled with the architect in the past. "And Frank has a tendency to take everything personally. So everything has to be reverential." And most of the media attention, including a gushy, photo-heavy package in September's Vanity Fair, has been.

"The pressure here is to support it," says one L.A. architect who requested anonymity, complaining that boosting Disney Hall has become a kind of civic duty. "No one dares say anything critical. It's sort of like [President] Bush and the [Iraq] war: If you don't like it, you're unpatriotic."

A downtown debit?

Disney Hall has been framed by its boosters as a catalyst for downtown life like the Guggenheim Bilbao -- as a populist paradise that welcomes all, a symbol of a once provincial burg that's now a match for any city in the world. These supporters have turned the new hall into more than just a concert hall.

Appropriately, the architects and urban planners who don't like the place mostly praise its sculptural quality but say it works less well as part of the city. It's an isolated object, they say, an introspective building that turns away from the area it's supposed to help revive, a bunker that has no relationship to the pedestrian life of the surrounding streets.

"You can't see into it -- you can't tell what's going on inside the building," the L.A. architect says. "It goes counter to the way I think you make cities: It doesn't join the city and make anything of it."

Others say this "living room for the city," in Gehry's words, will be among the world's most exclusive, with ticket prices ranging from $35 to $120 and many of the less expensive seats for the 2003-'04 season already sold out.

Most on-the-record criticism, by contrast, is mild, like that of Tridib Banerjee, a professor of urban and regional planning at USC. Banerjee thinks the building is visually striking but poorly sited. It's hard to see, he says, when approached from the west or north, and because it sits so close to the streets, there's not sufficient space around it for people to gather or for an observer to contemplate it fully.

The Pompidou Center in Paris has room to breathe, Banerjee says, and this is not just an aesthetic issue.

"With the Pompidou, there's a plaza in front of it, a site for assembly," he says. "It stands out dramatically. But we didn't do that with Disney. It's a public building. It should contribute to civic pride and public life, and it should create a sense of public space."

A few critics are harsher.

"I think it's a pure example of capitalist architecture," says Llyn Foulkes, a longtime L.A. artist who sees the concert hall as a symbol of the establishment. "It's a lot of wasted space, a lot of wasted money. If you go six blocks away, there are alleys with homeless people in cardboard boxes. For us to build something like that now is obscene. Museums can't even afford to buy paintings."

In the past, Foulkes has used Disney iconography to criticize the Disney empire. He briefly considered staging a mock public execution of Mickey Mouse in front of the hall but decided it wouldn't be practical.

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