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Disney Concert Hall at 10

For architect Frank Gehry, Disney Hall is 'my home'

Q&A: Frank Gehry looks back on the creation of one of L.A.'s iconic structures.

September 20, 2013|David Ng

When plans commenced in 1987 to build Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown L.A., architect Frank Gehry was a relatively youthful 58 years old. By the time the hall was completed, after a number of delays and setbacks — not to mention some acrimonious bickering among its key players — the architect had become a 74-year-old eminence grise.

Gehry, now 84, recently sat down for a conversation at Disney Hall with Times music critic Mark Swed and architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne. The architect, who lives in Santa Monica, reminisced about the fraught, 15-year creation of the hall and the hopes he has for its future.

FULL COVERAGE: Walt Disney Concert Hall at 10

On what it's like to come to Disney Hall as Frank Gehry:

This has become my home and family, and changed my life, and it's the one building other than my house that I get to use — a building that I've designed that I get to use. I don't get to go to Bilbao [the Gehry-designed museum in Spain] once a month to hear anything or see anything. So that's the good part. The bad part is, for the first two years, I saw all the things that were wrong, like those lights were too bright, or they closed the curtains, and all that stuff. I drove poor Deborah [Borda, L.A. Philharmonic chief executive] nuts, to where she wouldn't have me sit next to her for a while. And then she let me back in now. It's got to be lived in, it's got to be used, it's got to be used by the people who use it, and it's got to have a life of its own.

On being a classical music fan:

I used to go to stuff with [former head of the L.A. Phil] Ernest Fleischmann a long time ago — at the [Dorothy] Chandler [Pavilion] and the [Hollywood] Bowl. He was kind of my music teacher. And so it's become part of my life. … But I listen to music. I listen especially to the bass, because it's unusual to hear it so clearly.

TIMELINE: Walt Disney Hall through the years

On the often-difficult relationship between architect and client:

It doesn't have to be, but it is because cultural buildings have boards. And every board has somebody from the construction industry, or a developer, or somebody. And they always know everything. … Ernest made music the ultimate client. … He was fastidious, and he was imperious, and he was damned sure of what the priorities were. And he trained me very well for some years. Although it wasn't him who could deliver me the hall, but once I won the competition, he became my client, or the prime client.

On the design competition:

The competition was difficult for me because I was told by ... the Disney family that no matter what I did I wouldn't get the project. Because they thought I did chain link and plywood. Which I did. I remember one of the things the guy said was that you wouldn't know how to do brass handrails. So I brought him over here after and said, "Is there enough brass for you?" The acoustician that was selected for the competition was a different acoustician [than Yasuhisa Toyota] ... he thinks in bigger volumes, and so it was a different design.

PHOTOS: Disney Hall's evolution

On Disney Hall's reputation for being a "democratic" concert hall:

Ernest insisted that everyone was equal. ... Now how do you do that? With people sitting behind, can you hear the same notes? ... There was some controversy over how many seats you needed. When the competition was run, it was 3,000, and the board insisted there be 3,000. Acousticians were saying 2,200 was the safest number. The board and the acoustician finally got together — 2,500. … I lobbied the board to let us do a 2,200-seat hall because of the intimacy, because that was important to the perception of the hall, and see how many seats we could squeeze in to get closer to the 2,500. We got to 2,365 as I recall. ... Ernest retires, a guy from Holland comes in. [Willem Wijnbergen, the orchestra's managing director for two years starting in 1997.] He's 6 feet 6 inches, and he sits in the mock up and his knees are hitting the thing. And he says, we can't have this. … So we took two rows out, and that's how we got down to 2,265.

On Disney Hall versus the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion:

[The Chandler] had a persona and an importance whether you like it or not. I wasn't particularly excited about the design. It was sort of pseudo-Lincoln Center. But everybody loved it — Buffy Chandler was still alive — and I wanted to respect that. … I was trying not to upstage it formally. Because the persona of the Chandler is bigger than this in a way. It has a certain majesty — that word is not the right word. Formality. It still has a prominence as a building, and it's not undermined by this.

On his original conception for a stone exterior:

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