Walt Disney Concert Hall (迪仕尼音樂廳)
Catherine Fox of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution joins a chorus praising Frank Gehry’s recent Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and Walt Disney Concert Hall as great architecture. The editor begs to differ. Let’s first hear what Fox has to say.
Architect Infuses Disney Hall with Grace, Glamour
The $274 million Walt Disney Hall complex fronts Grand Avenue in Los Angeles and occupies a 3.6-acre city block.
LOS ANGELES — The 1997 Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain established Frank Gehry as the premier architect of his generation. He affirms his position with the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The latest incarnation of Gehry’s exuberant and distinctive vision rises above neighboring buildings in a thrilling concatenation of billowing, swooping forms.
The stainless-steel roof, a mix of matte and polished surfaces, shimmers in the sun — a little Oz, a little glamour in Los Angeles’ bland downtown. And a little mystery. The unpredictability of the shapes as well as the size of the building — it occupies a 3.6-acre city block — ensure that visitors cannot possibly conceive of the whole composition from one vantage point. It’s a structure that entices a visitor to explore, offering the possibility of perpetual surprise.
Like “Rashomon,” what one sees in Gehry’s graceful shapes depends on one’s viewpoint. They suggest ship sails or drapery in the wind here, a ship’s prow there. Some read as a friendlier version of a torquing Richard Serra sculpture. The shell over the Founder’s Room might be a Jell-O mold in an earthquake.
Sculpture meets architecture with such masterful inevitability that it’s shocking how little faith the Los Angeles Philharmonic trustees had in Gehry after he won the commission in 1988. The stalled project was revived only after the success of his Bilbao museum, and it took some strong individuals to go out and raise the money needed to push the project forward. Even then there were wranglings about artistic control; at one point, the Los Angeles architect resigned. Luckily, the Disney family intervened.
The $274 million hall, which fronts Grand Avenue, is actually a complex. It includes a two-story rectangular administrative building, a public garden and two amphitheaters (seating 350 and 150) that wrap around the south and west sides of the main structure. The hall houses a streetside restaurant and a cafe off the lobby, as well as back-of-the house necessities and an underground parking deck.
The fabric on the hall’s seats features a leaf pattern that was designed by architect Frank Gehry. The fabric is also used in a larger-scale pattern for the carpet outside the hall.
Disney Hall is big, but it’s not a bunker. The main facade, which hugs the street, has plenty of glass and a welcoming entrance. The garden, which is accessible by stairways on two sides, ought to be a popular respite from concrete and asphalt. The only jarring note there is the concrete, flower-shaped fountain Gehry designed, Its clever surface — a mosaic of blue and white Delft porcelain fragments, an homage to the late benefactor Lillian Disney — can’t disguise its ungainly proportions. The lobby is open to the public as well, providing access to the cafe, deck and box office. Even the Green Room, where performers greet guests, is visible from the lobby.
But no, this isn’t a piece of urban infill. It is — intentionally, of course — a landmark. Whether the hall will spur urban regeneration a la Bilbao remains to be seen. Certainly it ought to be a draw. With the nearby Museum of Contemporary Art by Arata Isozaki and Rafael Moneo’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, L.A.’s downtown is becoming a hot spot for contemporary architecture.
Though punctuated with unusual wooden columns that curve like a tree trunk and branch and terminate in a swirling, skylit ceiling, the lobby is more like a conduit to other destinations than a grand room. Gehry saves that designation for the concert hall itself, which is, after all, the heart and soul of this community of spaces. And it is a gem, a space that is both inviting and exciting. The audience is made to feel that this is a place for special experiences.
The hall is paneled in Douglas fir, a wood commonly used for cellos and violas. The fir also ripples across the ceiling. The floors are oak. The upholstery is a lovely leaf pattern in red and orange, designed by Gehry and used in a larger-scale pattern for the carpeting outside the hall. Natural light seeps in through skylights and a large rear window.
Although the hall seats 2,265 and Atlanta’s Symphony Hall seats1,750, the Los Angeles room is infinitely more intimate. The warmth of the wood and the palette of the upholstery play their part, but the effect is largely achieved by the vineyard seating (in the round), which means the hall can be narrower and shorter, and more people get a closer view.
The organ is the focal, and exclamation, point. In an ebullient gesture, Gehry encases the pipes in wood and arranges them as if they are a just-flung batch of pickup sticks. According to composer John Williams, Gehry likes to call them “french fries,” but they are too elegant for that.
Disney Hall should assuage any concerns that the world was in for a flock of Bilbao clones. Although there is no confusing his work with anyone else’s, Gehry proves here — and in an exhibition of projects-in-progress at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art — that his vocabulary is as flexible as his imagination. (Thank goodness his ungainly Experience Music Project in Seattle was a blip.)
Gehry’s oeuvre is a model of how technology can be harnessed to keep pace with vision. His staff uses CATIA, a computer program used in the aeronautics industry, to draw plans from cardboard models, and it employed a global positioning system to help plot the roof’s curves.
The future Atlanta Symphony Center has an architect who pushes the envelope as well. The similarities between Santiago Calatrava and Gehry don’t stop there. Both are known for their distinctive sculptural visions. Both studied urban design and try to combine the “wow factor” of their iconic forms with accessible public spaces.
As in Los Angeles, the clustering of important buildings (the future Symphony Center and the High Museum — both the original by Richard Meier and Renzo Piano’s expansion) ought to create a synergy. That depends, of course, on the success of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s as-yet-undisclosed design. One thing is sure: Walt Disney Concert Hall sets the bar high.
As much as I hate to inject a dissonant note into the chorus of approval, I do not consider Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall to be an architectural masterpiece. Far from it. Neither his concert hall in Los Angeles nor his museum in Bilbao qualify as masterpieces — certainly not in the sense that Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1959 Guggenheim Museum in New York or Mies van der Rohe’s 1929 German Pavilion in Barcelona qualify as masterpieces.
Why not? Because a work of architecture deserves elevation to the status of masterpiece only if it expresses the architectonic forces that birthed it. Gehry does not even acknowlege these architectonic forces, let alone express them. The shapes of the Guggenheim Museum Bilboa and Walt Disney Concert Hall reflect neither the structural logic, nor the functional logic, nor the symbolic logic that brought them to light. They are utterly arbitary, and they look it.
What’s wrong with being arbitary? Plenty. To say that an architectural design is arbitrary is to say that it need not be the way it is — that it could just as well be some other way. It could be larger or smaller, taller or shorter, wider or narrower — it really doesn’t make any difference. Can anyone imagine a more damning indictment of a work of art than to say that the way its creator left it makes no difference?
Gehry’s design comes across best on its LA Philharmonic Office and Founders’ Room elevations. These elevations communicate Gehry’s parti with the greatest clarity. Lightweight, brightly-polished titanium curves float weightlessly above the heavy, coarsely-textured, masonry podium below. A bold study in contrasts, right?
Not quite. Take a closer look at the street level, west elevation, where Gehry’s castles in the air are forced to return to earth. How will they make contact with the podium below?
Nobody knows, least of all Gehry. Gehry apparently lost sight of a well known truth: architecture is not painting, least of all surrealist painting. Gehry might indulge his whims by drawing metallic curves floating weightlessly in mid air, but he had better not try to build them.
Is it necessary to point out that this constitutes a major conceptual blunder, and is not something any self-respecting architect can sweep under the rug?
So how was this dilemma resolved? It wasn’t.
Instead, finding no solution, the modelmakers in Gehry’s office furtively hid the unresolved interface behind greenery, aka “growies.” Unfortunately for Gehry these fig leaves must be interrupted at the entrances.
Nor are Gehry’s shapes particularly inspiring as pure art divorced from functional considerations. Richard Serra? I hardly think so. Contrast Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall with Jorn Utzon’s expressionist masterpiece, the Sydney Opera House, and you’ll see what I mean. Utzon’s building is not only more rational structurally and functionally, it is more attractive sculpturally and compositionally.
Some may say that Utzon’s design benefits disproportionately from its magnificent, breath-taking setting, poised between earth, water, and sky. Anyone who thinks this need only perform a simple mind experiment. Visualize Gehry’s building situated on Bennelong Point in place of Utzon’s. See what I mean? Gehry’s design is not even in the same league as Utzon’s. Leave aside the bitter controversy over unauthorized design changes for the moment. Uzton’s forms work visually because they work conceptually. They have no growies, because they need no fig leaves.
The conclusion is depressing, but unavoidable. Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall is indeed significant, but only because it illustrates a steady decline in architectural design standards that began with the passing of first generation modern masters Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.
— Bevin Chu
Explanation: Architect infuses Disney Hall with grace, glamour
Illustration(s): Walt Disney Concert Hall Exterior
Author(s): Catherine Fox
Affiliation: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Publication Date: October 27, 2003
Original Language: English
Editor: Bevin Chu, Registered Architect