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Not much of a shell shock

In its latest incarnation, the Hollywood Bowl outwardly boasts new high-tech form and function without really disturbing its populist soul.

June 13, 2004|Nicolai Ouroussoff | Times Staff Writer

From the moment plans were announced to tear down the old shell at the Hollywood Bowl, panicky preservationists moaned that this was yet another indication of the city's indifference toward its architectural legacy. The Hollywood Heritage Assn., for one, sprang into action, filing a series of lawsuits that delayed demolition for several years.

Such concerns may have been heartfelt, but they were misplaced. The old shell was decrepit and outdated. Its only historical value was the feeling of misty-eyed nostalgia it engendered among regular concertgoers.

Designed by Hodgetts + Fung, the new $25-million shell makes an effort to preserve the spirit of the old, and then packs it with the kind of mechanical gadgetry that the Bowl's varied musical programming demands. The result is a sleekly efficient machine -- and although it is not groundbreaking architecture, it is pleasing to the eye.

The design's real problem is its lack of scope. The Hollywood Bowl is not only a shell; it is a sprawling complex that includes a museum, administrative offices and acres of parking. A mismatch of architectural styles, it has a certain dilapidated charm. And since the county, which owns the site, is strapped for cash, it would be too much to expect the complex to be transformed into a cohesive architectural experience. But a few nips and tucks would have been nice.

A parade of styles

The new design, which will be unveiled to the public today, is the latest in a series of shells that dates back to the early 1920s. The first of these, a simple wood frame draped in canvas, was demolished after a few years. Lloyd Wright designed two subsequent shells, including an elegant elliptical Art Moderne version that lasted a single season.

The shell most people remember was a variation on that design. Completed in 1929, its semicircular form was more robust than that of its predecessor, but its spirit was essentially the same: a stylized stage set that drew its beauty from the surrounding mountain views. As if to emphasize its temporality, the shell was set on steel tracks so it could be rolled aside to make room for large-scale performances.

By the time of its demolition last October, the shell's wheels had rusted into place and its asbestos-cement panels had deteriorated so badly that pieces of it were falling on performers. Still, from a distance the shell retained some of its old Hollywood glamour, a sense of fantasy that had more to do with the veneer of grandeur than the durability of tradition. In that respect, it was no different than such landmarks as Grauman's Chinese Theatre or the Hollywood sign. Its pasted-on glamour may have lacked the weight of history, but that was part of its appeal. Its imaginative power was tied to its sense of artifice.

Hodgetts + Fung's design flows directly out of this history. The shell has roughly the same silhouette as the one it replaces. Its form is composed of a series of flat, white arches that descend in scale, giving it a sleek, streamlined appearance. The pattern of overlapping forms is repeated on each side of the stage, which is framed by a series of smaller rectangular screens.

Essentially, the shell is nothing more than a frame. The site of the Bowl was chosen for its remarkable natural acoustics, but in the early 1950s, part of the surrounding hillside was bulldozed to make room for the Hollywood Freeway and the acoustics were ruined. Since then, the quality of the speakers has become more important to the performances' sound than the shell's design.

Its real importance is psychological. Its function is to keep the eye focused on the orchestra. Nestled against the mountains, it also serves to visually lock the Bowl into the surrounding landscape. Its scale is just right: big enough to hold the audience's attention, but not so big that it dwarfs its setting.

That frame supports an elaborate collection of acoustic and mechanical contraptions. A "pyrotechnic ring" spans the shell's roof and will be used as a platform for the Bowl's elaborate firework displays. A "turntable," 50 feet in diameter, is cut into the stage so that sets can be changed within minutes during performances. Two massive speaker towers frame the stage on each side, much as they did in the shell's previous incarnation.

Of these devices, the acoustical ring has the most visual impact. The ring is suspended above the stage by heavy steel braces. A series of translucent polycarbonate-clad panels spans the interior of the ring. The panels -- which evoke airplane wings -- pivot to regulate sound on the stage; other sections support lighting fixtures.

The acoustical ring may disturb some audience members who remember the hollow fiberglass acoustical balls that Frank Gehry designed for the shell in 1980. But Hodgetts + Fung's version looks sleek from a distance. In any case, it is more about spectacle than about fine craft -- its machine aesthetic is meant to give the shell a slightly more contemporary aura.

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