It’s safe to say that Frank Gehry has attended more interesting dinner parties than any other living architect. Take for instance the night in 1974 when Gehry was asked to dinner at the Malibu house of billionaire Norton Simon. Around the table that evening sat Simon's wife, the actress Jennifer Jones, dressed in a sunny Halston outfit; Max Palevsky, a cofounder of the Intel Corporation and prominent Democratic fund-raiser who had recently helped place Tom Bradley in the mayor's office; Dorothy "Buffy" Chandler, the iron-willed arts patron and wife of Los Angeles Times publisher Norman Chandler; and David Niven, the guest of honor, looking dapper as usual. At the time, Gehry says today, he was "considered the maverick, off-the-wall, doing chain-link fences and all that shit." He was also an outsider to L.A.'s WASP establishment—a Jew from Toronto born Francis Goldberg who had changed his name while attending USC in part because he was told he couldn't get into the campus's architectural fraternity with a name like Goldberg. His best friends were artists like Larry Bell and Ed Moses, two other outsiders with whom he'd formed the band the Five Bags of Shit, and asking him to a dinner party that included the wife of the Times publisher and David Niven was a bit like having a Black Panther over for tea. He was exotic, but you certainly wouldn't hand him the keys to the city's arsenal.
Sally Kellerman had been invited over as Gehry's date, but Simon seemed even more interested in bringing together the architect and Buffy Chandler. Famous for raising the $33.5 million it took to build the Los Angeles Music Center and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Chandler had also stepped in to save the Hollywood Bowl in the 1950s, when the property was shuttered and the orchestra thrown out of work for being $200,000 in arrears. Not long before Simon's dinner invitation, Gehry had completed a temporary remodeling of the Bowl's acoustics—suspending or standing 60 giant cardboard "sono-tubes" like Greek pillars around the shell—but Simon was unsure if Chandler knew of the architect. Gehry's reputation then rested mostly on smaller projects for idiosyncratic clients—a hay barn in San Juan Capistrano that was as much minimalist sculpture as it was shelter, a rhomboid-shaped, corrugated metal house in the Malibu hills for painter Ron Davis. The ongoing Hollywood Bowl redesign was Gehry's first civic project in Los Angeles, and as of that night in 1974 it was just a bunch of cardboard. Chandler's taste in architecture was as well known as her domineering personality. She had chosen the Music Center's architect—Welton Becket, whose firm had designed the Capitol Records building, the Cinerama Dome, and Parker Center and whose own house sat just down the beach from that night's gathering. But was Chandler aware of Gehry?
At the table Simon made a passing attempt at introductions. "You know, Buffy," he said, "Frank is doing our house. We're very proud of what he's doing—it's a lot of work." Either Chandler was caught up listening to another conversation or she just didn't hear; no glimmer of acknowledgment crossed the 73-year-old woman's face. The talk drifted on until Simon made a second attempt. Once again, Chandler seemed not to hear her host. Before the vegetable course arrived, Simon made one final go at it, saying, "Buffy, Frank here is ..."
"Norton, stop it," Chandler snapped, ignoring the architect beside her and looking directly at her surprised host. "I know who Mr. Gehry is. I know what he has done. And I know what he is doing. I don't like it. And I don't want to discuss it anymore."
Just then a server carrying the vegetable platter entered the dining room, stumbled, and showered the entire course on Gehry's suit. As Kellerman tried to brush dinner off the architect's lap, Max Palevsky—breaking an awkward—leaned over and politely asked, "So what other work have you done that I might know?"
"Well," Gehry replied, "I did the Ron Davis house up the beach here."
Palevsky stared back at the architect, then blurted, "That piece of shit?"
Buffy Chandler died on July 6, 1997. By the time of her death, she had long known that the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which she had worked so hard for and which was named in her honor, was being vacated by its orchestra for a new home designed just 24 years after the Music Center's completion. What's more, the new Walt Disney Concert Hall had been thought up by the man she last saw wearing the vegetable course.
The architect, however, was not alone in his task. Disney Hall is the invention of three organizations: Gehry Partners, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Nagata Acoustics, each of which is represented by its own figurehead. On the last day of June this year, inside the newly completed hall at the Los Angeles Philharmonic's first private concert, it was impossible to miss them. They were everywhere: the Black Brigade.
Esa-Pekka Salonen is the brigade's most steadfast member, lounging preconcert onstage dressed in a black T-shirt, black slacks, black shoes, black socks, and black belt. Even when relaxing, the Philharmonic conductor is always enveloped in black. Gehry, the brigade's second member, sat beside former mayor Richard Riordan and was dressed in a black gym shirt and one of his many black Issey Miyake suits. Several years ago the architect designed a store for Miyake, and since then, black suits and shirts have arrived as regularly as checks in the mail for Gehry. The brigade's third and final member, dressed in a black suit, black shirt, and black shoes, was Yasuhisa Toyota, the Japanese acoustician who has spent the last 14 years working on Disney Hall's sound and is never, ever seen AWOL from a black getup.
The Music Center has made a calculated $274 million wager that the Black Brigade's hall will be the best in the country. Gehry designed the space—his first concert hall—and Salonen will have to adapt the orchestra. But if Disney Hall is a failure, if it shows up lampooned in the national press as Philadelphia's Kimmel Center did two years ago opening with poor acoustics, the blame will fall most heavily on the third member of the brigade, Toyota.
Toyota moved almost unnoticed through the crowd, the dark wisps of his sparse beard and thinning hair whirling around his head like a lazy dust devil, his quiet gaze drifting across the elements of the hall's acoustic design. Overhead floated the ceiling's 15 wood "pillows," puffy, convex shapes of Douglas fir conceived by Toyota and the Tokyo-based firm Nagata Acoustics to reflect sound back to the orchestra and outward to the audience. Pressing against the outer border of the pillows, like two long, golden fish bellies, were the hall's angled side ceilings, sitting at an almost 45-degree slant and meant to catch what skyward music the pillows missed. The room's free-form walls were laced with warrens of fabric hidden behind latticework—compartments whose contents could be adjusted to help "tune" the hall should stray echoes be heard bouncing through the architecture. Dominating it all were the 51 fir pipes of the German-built organ, popping over the stage like the contents of a supersize fries order.
This feature was originally published in the October 2003 issue of Los Angeles magazine.
Members of the Philharmonic board, along with men and women who had donated at least $5 million to the project, milled about beneath Toyota's pillows, finding their seats. They spoke of upcoming cruises to Sardinia, about which artist painted the latest mural on their office wall, about the meal of salmon and heirloom tomatoes for 140 guests that would follow today's noontime performance. "It's a grand day, isn't it?" a woman in a peach suit asked businessman Eli Broad.
"It certainly is," Broad answered. In the mid '90s, Broad and then-mayor Richard Riordan led a fund-raising campaign to ensure the hall's completion. Now Broad turned his attention to the row behind him, where Riordan was taking a seat beside Gehry. "Hey," Riordan barked at Broad. "What are these rumors around town about you and the L.A. Times being together?"
Broad laughed, and then smiled at Gehry. The architect looked away
Gehry has always had a prickly relationship with downtown's elite. For years no major corporation offered him a commission of any size, and the architect thinks the program to redevelop the city's core is wrongheaded—a sputtering attempt to rebuild Rome that has left L.A. with "a mediocre Dallas." He believes the city's power brokers missed out when they didn't capitalize on Wilshire Boulevard's rolling potential, developing a swath, six blocks wide, from Figueroa Street to Ocean Avenue as a downtown that traversed the city. If Gehry had his way, he would place MOCA across the street from LACMA, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels near MacArthur Park's lake. Disney Hall he would set next to Wadsworth Theater.
Instead, Gehry has just gifted downtown with its most potent symbol of renewal: a hall that crests like a ship's prow atop Bunker Hill, breaking over the city as Sydney's opera house first breached Sydney Harbour when it opened in 1973. Before Disney Hall, Los Angeles lacked a building that could stand in as the city's proxy the way the Chrysler Building sums up the century for Manhattan or San Francisco's TransAmerica Pyramid—seemingly caught in mid stride over the Embarcadero—evokes movement into the future for the Bay Area. Such architectural monuments are expansive gestures of what it means to belong to a city. Urban life would be hard to imagine without them. In L.A., though, the Getty Center is more a place to visit than it is a building, and City Hall hasn't hummed in the psyches of Angelenos since the first Dragnet went off the air.
Disney Hall has been designed by Gehry as a gathering place for the city, but its steel forms appear stretched apart by L.A.'s constituent gravitational forces. The building buckles, arcs, loops, veers, deflects, cracks, and splits open. Its steel walls look whipped along by space winds; its exploding masses seem driven sky-high by core pressures. It falls in on itself and rises up again. Gehry has always thought that Los Angeles's sprawling development was a symbol of the country's particular form of political democracy—chaotic and unguided and interesting for just those reasons. He wanted a democratic hall for the city, and in his building we see L.A.'s marked idealism reflected—a city whose best intentions are continuously coming undone. The structure is our own beautiful, symphonic bully pulpit mounted on Bunker Hill, an articulation of L.A.'s colliding cultural fault lines.
Disney Hall, however, turned out to be a steel trap for Gehry that came close to ending his career in L.A. Before the project Gehry had only ventured into downtown's core twice—most famously to design the Temporary Contemporary, now the Geffen Contemporary. He was known more for his cardboard furniture and galvanized contraptions, an aesthetic that borrowed from low to fabricate high and played out most famously in his own Santa Monica residence, with its stripped-lath walls and chain-link screens. The Disney Hall project, which the architect won in an open competition in 1988, was to be a kind of marker in Gehry's development, in his career, his hometown—a city landmark that served the entire public and at the same time didn't alienate it with its design. It was also the largest commission ever offered Gehry in his own city, an acknowledgment by L.A.'s corporate elite of the importance of its maverick architect. Yet by 1997, the following events had occurred: The project had been delayed because of complex negotiations between county agencies and private developers; new cost estimates from construction subcontractors spiraled the hall's price from $110 million to $264 million; construction was stopped and the project abandoned for lack of funding and political will; Gehry was informed that if the hall was ever restarted he would be denied the tide of executive architect; Gehry lost out on several major public commissions, including the Getty Center and the new cathedral. In the case of the latter, it is rumored that Gehry was told his name had been removed from a list of prospective architects due to the reputation he'd acquired after the Disney Hall conflagration. If L.A. was beaming a message to the world about the architect, it would have read, "Frank Gehry cannot be trusted."
That summer, after Broad and Riordan stepped in to revive the project, $50 million was raised by boosters to place the hall back on track. Broad, however, was still insisting that Gehry's firm not generate the project's working drawings—documents that translate the building's complex design into construction blueprints. The businessman believed Gehry Partners was not up to the task, and over this disagreement Gehry was threatening to walk. It was a second unhappy marriage for Broad and Gehry. The first took place in the late 1980s, when the architect was commissioned to design Broad's Brentwood home, and Broad—fed up with Gehry's meandering design process—pulled the house away from him. Gehry eventually removed his name from the project. Now the two were feuding in the press, with Gehry promising to step down if Broad got his way and Broad maintaining that Gehry would have to forgo the position of executive architect.
The project destined to position Gehry as L.A.'s most acclaimed living architect was quickly shuttling him back to his outsider address, and discussion among architects within the Gehry Partners office had turned to leaving Los Angeles for good. Craig Webb, the hall's project designer, remembers, "We were all talking about 'Let's get out of this fucking city.'" Tokyo was brought up; so were New York and Paris. Gehry in particular, was looking at a sleepy little fishing village in Spain. It sat just down the coast from a decaying shipbuilding port that almost nobody in the world paid any attention to called Bilbao.
At the last concert of his tenure at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in May it was impossible to tell that EsaPekka Salonen had arrived in L.A. just as Frank Gehry had—a bit of an outsider to everything. Sure, he may have been the most celebrated conductor the Philharmonic had ever tapped—billboard campaigns across town featured the handsome Finn in the throes of conducting, his energetic hair flying like Ken Burns's in a frenzy—but he spent most of his time sitting in meetings with people who shared none of his core beliefs. They didn't believe Shakespeare was the greatest dramatist of all time; they were not impressed by Beethoven. "Both Gehry and I came in from the north, from the cold," he says today, "and I think the initial shock of Los Angeles was the same." The conductor knew that L.A. represented the future of the world, that change was good—that even in London they weren't so wild about Shakespeare anymore. But he also felt that he had to be defensive around these new people, and sometimes he even got lonely.
Something had happened, however, during Salonen's tenure: He started listening to the Foo Fighters and Radiohead, he began talking about multiculturalism and the problems of an aging art form, he became a bit of a New Worlder. That night at the Chandler, after leading the Philharmonic through Mahler's Third Symphony, Salonen stood for several encores wearing a coat of bouquets thrown by an audience who adored him. Mahler's Third was the first piece Salonen conducted outside his native Scandinavia, when—in 1983 with the London Philharmonia Orchestra—he was called in at the last moment to substitute. Mahler had always meant his symphony to take on nothing less than the meaning of life, suffering, death, and Nietzsche to boot, and the short-fused Austrian composer might as well have thrown the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion into the mix. With its worn blue choir benches looking like spectator seating in an ice rink gone to seed, its beaten wallpaper wrapping the proscenium arch, its plasticky chandeliers dangling against faded wood paneling, the hall appeared as if it had suffered a few dozen kicks over the years.
It was not always so. The Dorothy Chandler opened its first season on December 6, 1964, with a Jascha Heifetz recital and a rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" led by conductor Zubin Mehta. Buffy Chandler stood beaming in the new founders room, greeting admirers before a full-length portrait of herself, and Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Rock Hudson were in attendance along with the L.A. Times, which wrote the next day of the beauty of the "asbestos curtain" and particularly of the hall's acoustics, describing them as "enormously realistic." Mehta, after opening with Richard Strauss's Fanfare, turned to the audience and announced, "We like the acoustics!"
They were all, unfortunately, wrong; the Dorothy Chandler has always been a mediocre venue for symphonic performances. Salonen may have picked Mahler to close out the Chandler because, along with Stravinsky, he is one of the few composers whose booming work carries well in the house; pieces that highlight clarity and precision, such as those by Haydn or Mozart, sound like a wet blanket has been dropped on them inside the Chandler. The hall's bland acoustics are a result of the fact that, even in 1964, fewer and fewer people were enjoying classical music in Los Angeles. It was designed with economics as much as acoustics in mind—a multipurpose hall capable of hosting operas, ballets, and the Philharmonic in the hope that the combined receipts would fund the property's upkeep. Great halls like the Boston Symphony or Carnegie feature walls of huge mass that help carry bass resonance and reflect instrument sound. But the Chandler is essentially a granite roadhouse with a movable three-quarter-inch plywood stage shell. That flexible housing accommodates different types of performances, but it also sucks up the sound. Brass and woodwinds have to blow like mad to reach an audience, which makes them sound shrill at times, and the hall's bass resonance, as Salonen believes, is just a disaster.
Salonen was hired by then-director Ernest Fleischmann, who had been tapped by Burry Chandler in the late 1960s. Fleischmann was a bully and an egotist; he humiliated subordinates and reportedly once said to Secret Service agents barring his way onto a hotel floor that contained the vice president, "Do you realize who I am?" He is also one of the most affable and urbane world travelers you will ever meet. It is somehow appropriate that his first sighting of a stretch limo came on the Anchorage tarmac in 1962, when the ladies of the local symphony, hearing that Fleischmann's plane was refueling, drove out to feed him cake and milk. He was born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in 1924, fled to South Africa with his family when the Nazis rose to power, earned a degree in accounting, and then, at the age of 31, found himself organizing Johannesburg's first major international arts festival. By 1959 he had left South Africa for England, where he was named manager of the London Symphony and became, for all practical purposes, a complete snob.
Fleischmann was appointed to the Philharmonic by Buffy Chandler in 1969. At that time Chandler and her board were controlling much of the artistic decision making at the Music Center. Fleischmann thought that classical music was too important to be left in the hands of socialites and philanthropists—it should be run by aesthetes—and he made it a condition of his hire that he didn't have to answer to the board. You can imagine what Chandler and her board must have thought of their new director—a prima donna with a flying accent and a dripping disdain for the provincialism of American philharmonic boards. He was perfect, one of those Europeans brought in by city elites in the middle of the century to class up the place, and when he first walked into the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, he thought, "What are all these awful chandeliers hanging about here for? How American!"
Like Salonen, however, Fleischmann turned out to be something of a New Worlder disguised in European hounds-tooth. "The funny thing is," says Gehry, "that for all his guff, Ernest is really a pussycat. He had a dream—that by some miracle, classical music would transcend its museumlike character and become something that's contemporary and open and inviting to the community. He truly believed it. He wanted an infinitely democratic hall where everyone was equal—no balconies." Ten years after being hired, Fleischmann started dreaming of a hall to replace the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. He had visited the Berlin Philharmonie, which is called a vineyard hall: In contrast to the typical shoe box design of concert halls, the Philharmonie's seats are laid out in a circular pattern, folding the audience into close proximity with the orchestra. Fleischmann liked it—the vineyard hall dissolved the class aspects of the shoe box hall's staggered balconies. He was an autocrat who desired a populist space in Los Angeles, and when Gehry walks through Fleischmann's dream today, he says, "This is where you see Ernest's logic revealed, the logic of democracy"
When Salonen arrived at the Philharmonic in 1992, he was assured by Fleischmann that a new hall, standing across 1st Street, would soon be handed to him. Yet by the time Buffy Chandler died in 1997, the entire Disney Hall project had ground to a halt. All that existed was a parking structure that cost $80 million to build. It looked as if Salonen might end up entombed in the old matron's looming legacy just beneath the gaze of her oil portrait.
Then two things happened. The first occurred when the Philharmonic traveled to Paris for a brief residence at the Theatre du Chatelet. The orchestra had always felt a little unnoticed—a great ensemble in a so-so hall—but that month in Paris it soared under the Chatelet's premier acoustics, tackling a program of Stravinsky and a Peter Sellars production that led to a long story in the Los Angeles Times by critic Mark Swed. Every member of the Philharmonic's board read or heard about that piece exalting the orchestra's sound inside a great hall on a foreign shore. Exactly a year to the day after Swed's story appeared, Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao opened—built on time and under budget by Europeans for not much more than it cost American contractors to construct a parking structure on Grand Avenue.
"Because Frank's stuff looks unusual," says Gehry Partners architect Jim Glymph, "it is often perceived to be unbuildable or unpriceable. He works in a three-dimensional process that is generated in a computer, and in Disney Hall you can see that maybe the technology was seen as a bit too pioneering here. Then it worked in Bilbao."
The money to put Disney Hall back on track had been raised, but Gehry and Broad were still at an impasse over whether the architect's firm would produce the project's working drawings. The deadlock was finally broken by Diane Disney Miller, the daughter of Walt and Lillian, who had donated the hall's seed money. Miller pulled a Gehry on Broad: She threatened to remove Walt Disney's name from the hall if it was not built to Gehry's plan, then came up with $14 million for Gehry Partners to produce the working drawings. Gehry was named executive architect, Broad was established as chairman of an oversight board for fund-raising, and in December of 1999, building began on the $274 million hall. As far as anyone knew, Gehry and Broad never spoke on friendly terms again.
There are 130 people who work at Gehry Partners in Marina del Rey, and each has a computer except for one man—Frank Gehry. Gehry is allergic to his own architecture when it's displayed flatly on computer screens—his synapses swell up, his eyes film over. When Jim Glymph arrived at the office in 1989, there were no computers to be found anywhere. "There were typewriters," remembers Glymph. Gehry's recent buildings look as if they were stretched like taffy in cyberspace, but the architect, in fact, designs with children's blocks of wood. Round, rectangular, shaped in all sorts of sizes, those blocks are problem solvers. Every space—or element—of a building asks a question: How do I relate to the structure? Disney Hall has eight elements—the concert hall, the founders room, the Philharmonic offices, the restaurant and retail area, the lobby, the preconcert hall, and two atriums. Gehry plays with his blocks—shifting an atrium, angling a preconcert hall, moving a lobby—until a relationship between, say, the concert ball and the founders room is resolved. He then hands his blocks to project designer Craig Webb and waits for Webb to scan them into a computer and return with the next problem.
With Disney Hall, Gehry's block problem was fitting his design onto the grid pattern of Bunker Hill's streets. At the turn of the century, Bunker Hill was a collection of winding avenues and Victorian houses. Then in the 1960s, the county razed the hill and asked architect I.M. Pei to help design a streetscape. Gehry is allergic to Pei. He believes that when Bunker Hill was leveled and Pei was brought in as a consultant, the whole fabric of the city was destroyed. Gehry was trying to fit his blocks into Pei's grids, and the blocks kept piling up on one side of the concert hall—he felt confined. Then came Gehry's block breakthrough. He spun his blocks so that the seven attached elements whirled around the hall like petals on a flower. Problem solved: The flower form freed Gehry from Pei's midcentury grid, allowing him to turn the building whichever way he liked, eventually landing its entrance on the corner of Grand and 1st.
When Gehry was satisfied with his flower, Webb's team scanned the design into a computer program called CATIA, which was invented by the French to help build better jets. It creates, in 3-D, every piece of steel, every connection, every bolt of a structure. Disney Hall may not be the most complicated building ever raised, but it's close. There are 30,000 pages of shop drawings and 12,500 pieces of primary-frame steel, almost every one of which is different from the next. Without CATIA telling contractors where an L-shaped beam meets a U-shaped beam on the third floor of the fifth element, the project could have taken another decade and a billion more dollars to build. So important is CATIA to Gehry's designs that when his firm was unsure if a particular tree would fit into Disney Hall's garden, it scanned the entire plant into CATIA. The tree fit.
When Gehry thinks of icons in L.A. he imagines "palm trees, the Hollywood sign, searchlights at premieres, mountains." He is not sure if L.A. contains a building that symbolizes the city but that will not stop people from opining that his hall is the most important building in L.A. They will look at its undulating steel, and they will divine how Gehry has summed up Los Angeles.
They will be mistaken. Gehry set out to design a concert hall, not a monument. "People assume that Frank starts on the outside," says Webb, "and that he's mostly concerned with making a statement with the exterior architecture. But the architecture of this building is developed from the inside to the outside. We started with the hall and its acoustics, then designed layer by layer outward, so that the outside of the building is derived from what happens on the inside. And it was really Ernest Fleischmann who wrote the brief on what the sound should be like, what the criteria were, what the primary focus of the room should be." Yasuhisa Toyota would be the man assigned the task of translating Fleischmann's brief.
Toyota grew up in Hiroshima during the 1960s, when Japan was busy falling in love with the Beatles and Coca-Cola. Toyota fell for Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and since then he has lived in quiet rebellion against the 20th century, unimpressed by modernism, invoking the Stradivarius violin when he wants to knock the tenets of our world. "I have no idea of the technology they had then making the Stradivarius," he says. "And people now have more information, more technology. But with their thinking and knowledge they cannot produce an instrument like that. Why do you think this is so?"
He is a taciturn man who moves slowly, answers questions with questions, and one is not surprised to learn that his instrument of choice in high school band was the oboe. When he was handed the Disney Hall job by Nagata Acoustics in 1989, he was untested as a lead designer of a project so large. Despite the dubious merits of newfangled silicon chips, he set about building computer programs. He created dozens of digital versions of the hall, shooting sound waves off their walls, watching bounce patterns, moving the walls again, and taking notes. He had wood models of the hall's envelope built, filled them with nitrogen, shot sound blasts through them, and took more notes. He told Gehry Partners that if they wanted to create the bass resonance that the Dorothy Chandler lacked, the best wood for the stage would be hinoki, the wood that sushi bars in Japan are traditionally made from. Whatever decisions Toyota made on the hall's acoustic design would be permanent—you don't knock down a concert wall if you're not happy with it. There was no way to know if he was right or wrong until the first performance, and on the day Toyota took the job, that wouldn't come for another decade and a half. Gehry told his architects, "Whatever Toyota wants, do it."
Gehry and Fleischmann went on a world tour, visiting concert halls. They sat in Boston Symphony Hall, perhaps the best classical hall in the country and listened to the bass resonance, which, as one Gehry architect puts it, "vibrates through the floor, into the seats, and then goes right up your ass." They toured the Berlin Philharmonie, then ate dinner with Minoru Nagata of Nagata Acoustics and Lothar Cremer, the German acoustician who had designed the Philharmonie in 1963. The discussion turned to what makes a good vineyard hall. "Cremer," remembers Gehry, "was in his eighties, very heavy-handed, and would say, 'This is how it has to be!' Nagata, very politely, would say, 'No, no, it's got to be this way.' They got into a really stormy little fight over there in Berlin. It made me think, 'Here are two giants of the industry each exemplary and they are 180 degrees in opposite agreement over what makes a hall like this work.'"
Acoustics is a relatively new science, and many of the best halls in the world—Leipzig, Vienna—were built before physicists could explain why your name shouted into the Grand Canyon bounces back. Then in 1898, an assistant professor at Harvard, who lived with his mother in a Garden Street walk-up, was asked by backers of the new Boston Symphony Hall to serve as acoustic consultant. Three years earlier, while trying to explain why Harvard's Fogg Art Museum had such poor acoustics, Wallace Sabine had indirectly discovered a theory to explain reverberation. For the Boston Symphony he codified reverb into a simple equation, and modern acoustics was born. Yet as the equations piled up through the last century, concert halls did not necessarily improve. The sound design of Philadelphia's $265 million Kimmel Center was conceived by Russell Johnson, the country's preeminent acoustician. Johnson threw everything modern acoustics offered at Kimmel. He installed remote control curtains and banners to absorb reverberation. He hung a canopy of panels above the stage that can be raised and lowered to reflect sound patterns. He carved hollow chambers into the walls, then attached doors that can be electronically opened to catch stray echoes. After philanthropist Sidney Kimmel, who had given $30 million to the project, took the stage on opening night to sing "My Way," the reviews of the hall's acoustics came in: "dim," "diffuse," "both muddy and bone dry."
All Gehry knew was that he didn't want a "movable-changeable" hall, as he calls Kimmel. "It's intellectually dishonest," he says. "It assumes there is something wrong with the hall to begin with." Gehry wanted a fixed hall.
Toyota wanted the impossible. "Toyota is after paradox—two opposites really," says Salonen. "He wants warmth and clarity." Adjectives that describe wine are equaled only in number by acoustic descriptions: "warmth," "clarity," "brilliance," "muddy," "dry," "unity," "brightness," "diffused," "lush," "flat," "boomy," "crisp," "dead." "If you taste wine for the first time," says Toyota, "you cannot understand it. If you taste it over a period of time, you have a scale to evaluate it. The same is true of sound." Toyota likes his sound just so, but he is no Robert Parker. The warmth, or reverberation, Toyota loves results when a sound—like an oboe note—hangs in the air for just the right amount of time. The note, leaving the stage, soars out in a thousand directions. If its flight takes too long before bouncing off the walls, listeners hear an echo. The sound is muddy. If the flight is too short, the sound is dead. There are sound enthusiasts who will argue with you: 1.873 seconds is a perfect flight time for optimum warmth, 1.754 seconds is immature. And a 1.904-second reflection is a vessel of warmth that has aged too long.
Toyota was forgiving. When told that Gehry Partners couldn't get their hands on sushi-bar wood for the stage—Toyota could have yellow cedar—he said, "Sure." When informed he wasn't getting a six-foot gap between the floor and the underside of the stage for reverb—he was getting 15 feet-he said, "Great." "He had one rule," says Craig Webb. "Within 80 milliseconds after the concert sound first hits your ear, you need to hear three reflections off three different surfaces of the hall." Webb thought this was like playing pool on a storm-wracked ship—the sound was bouncing off everything in Toyota's computer models. The acoustician simplified things. After the Philharmonic's business office reviewed its budget and requested a hall with close to 3,000 seats, Toyota put a cap at 2,400. "Too many seats in the room would push the walls too far apart," says Webb. "The sound reflections would come back too late, and you would lose warmth." The Philharmonic settled for 2,265. When Ernest Fleischmann requested no balconies in the hall, Toyota told him that democracy was bad for sound. "Balconies allowed us to push the walls even further in," says Webb. Fleischmann settled for one balcony. As Gehry struggled with the ceiling's design—he couldn't get a vaulted one out of his mind—Toyota told him to flip the image in his head so that the ceiling pressed down into the hall like an overstuffed cushion. "That was a hard one," says Webb, "because the ceiling needed to be 16 meters over the floor, but the floor rises back into the hall. Nothing was working. Then Toyota said, 'Well, break the ceiling.'" Thus Toyota's pillows.
Gehry has always loved working with Douglas fir, especially plywood, but Disney Hall required close to a million square feet of the world's finest fir, the equivalent of grade 000 caviar, the top 10 percent of the top 10 percent of what is produced by the country's Midwestern mills. On their first visit to Cincinnati to scour for wood, Gehry's people—along with Joe Patterson, whose company, Columbia Showcase, did the hall's woodwork—were able to come up with just 50,000 square feet of the nearly one million needed. Columbia Showcase then had to cut the wood, using computers attached to nine-ton saws, forming shapes that would fit Toyota's sound design. Eight thousand shapes of wood were cut to produce Toyota's pillows.
If Gehry lived in Idaho, we would see snowmobiles in his designs; he is an architect stuck in a feedback loop with his surroundings. As it is, he lives by the Pacific and owns a sailboat, and so it is seagoing vessels we see in his buildings: the boat-shaped main gallery of the Guggenheim Bilbao, the concert hall in Disney. "When I started Disney Hall," says Gehry, "I saw a show at the Toledo Museum in Ohio called In Praise of Ships in the Sea, and I got really excited about these shapes. I saw them in the wood ceiling I was already doing, and I brought them in." A metaphor took hold of Gehry: A concert was a journey, the hall would be a boat, the steel forms that shot into the air over L.A. its sails. One day this summer, Gehry, Fleischmann, and Toyota boarded the boat to listen to Salonen run the Philharmonic through morning practice.
Salonen sat slumped on a high stool, dressed in black, keeping up an ironic patter punctuated by strict commands. "I am so happy to have lived to the day where I have more bass resonance than I need," he drawled in a dry Finn tone and then, noticing that two cello players had shifted their chairs away from the orchestra for more leg room, barked sarcastically "Why don't you move back and join your friends?" At 45, Salonen is entering a tenuous age at which his face seems poised for time to take hold of it, but his mode of command—apple before stick—has already become set in its ways. Gehry walked into the hall, caught Salonen's eye, and threw him a flying salute. The conductor returned it. In the higher altitudes of the room, Toyota was moving quietly along the walls of the boat's hull, running his fingers over the caviar fir as one might dangle a lazy hand in the water, occasionally stopping to take a picture of his design. Within a week he would leave the country for a new project.
Disney Hall's vineyard form can confound orchestras that have lived their lives in classic shoe box-shaped halls. Toyota had designed one other vineyard hall, Japan's Suntory Hall, and he knew what trouble could beset a philharmonic suddenly thrust into strange architecture. "When Suntory opened," says Toyota, "the complaints were very bad. The Tokyo orchestras sounded muddy, dirty, not clear. At the same time, when European orchestras came in to play, they sounded beautiful. They had played in similar halls." On that summer afternoon when the L.A. Philharmonic first played for its board, Toyota, Gehry, and Salonen had heard the "Suntory effect." "The orchestra sounded stiff that first day;" says Toyota. "They were not emanating—the sound was not leaving the stage." Toyota's sound tests had also found an echo in the hall. The compartments of fabric he had designed into the walls were being adjusted to catch the fugitive sound wave.
One level below Toyota sat Fleischmann, now in his late seventies, dressed in khakis and a crumpled white shirt, looking tired. Fleischmann, too, had heard the Suntory effect the day the Black Brigade unveiled the hall to the Philharmonic's board. "There was a kind of harshness," he said. "The brass were too loud and the woodwinds exceedingly thin." After 39 years of playing under the Chandler's rickety acoustics, the philharmonic needed to explore the shape of its new hall. Today Fleischmann listened to an orchestra finding its bearings. "I don't think I've ever heard an orchestra sound so warm, so rich, so clear," he said with some amazement. "Not even in the Berlin Philharmonie." Next to the autocrat, who had sidestepped Buffy Chandler to eventually create his populist hall, glowed a large red sign: EXIT. Fleischmann looked out over the orchestra he once ran like a tyrant. "It sounds like the greatest concert hall in the world," he said.
Gehry, after pausing to share a few words with Fleischmann, had climbed to the highest row in the hall, taking a seat beneath the blue light that flooded in from the cathedral windows behind him. Onstage, Salonen moved his orchestra into Sibelius's Oceanides, a marching progression of strings that slowly transforms into the effervescent sounds of twittering woodwinds. One Silver glint reflected off a lens of Gehry's glasses, but it was becoming hard to discern the architect's outline in the ambient glow. The sound of dust motes in motion rose from Salonen's woodwinds, a trilling lullaby In the scattershot light, Gehry's form went luminous; blurred and indistinct. He looked like he was being whittled away, a shock of his white hair the only thing in focus. The orchestra's sound swelled in the boat. Gehry, who had spent his life breaking from the history of forms, was now being swallowed by his own. He was disappearing into his building.
On the evening of August 6th, Gehry hosted one of the more interesting dinner parties of his life. He threw some blue carpet onto Disney Hall's stage, set up a few tables, and invited several dozen people. Patina catered the event. The guest of honor was Eli Broad.
Broad and Gehry had spent the last decade unhappy with each other. They had feuded, fought in the press, but it was Broad who finally raised the funds for Disney Hall's completion. Gehry asked back some old friends from his outsider days. Ed Ruscha was there. Anjelica Huston showed up with the artist Robert Graham. Richard Riordan—who had been thinking about running for governor until Arnold Schwarzenegger went on Jay Leno that afternoon—walked in looking a little shaken. There was a salad, followed by a fish course, and then Gehry stood up to make a toast.
"This evening was specially arranged by Berta Gehry and myself," he began, glancing over at his wife, "to thank Eli and Edye Broad for their support of this building. Eli and I have had our differences, as you all have read and know, and these differences will probably be aired in the press ad nauseam. Some of it's correct, some of it incorrect. It was basically, as I saw it and see it, that we are both control freaks, with different language, and we didn't understand each other's language. We collided and created issues. But here we are."
Gehry sat down. Broad had asked earlier if he could make some comments after dessert, but he rose from his seat then.
"Yes," Broad said, looking out over Toyota's pillows, "it's true we've had some differences. But I just want to announce, to everybody here, that Frank Gehry was right."
A pause hovered over the tables. A few diners shifted in their seats. And then someone asked, "Could you please repeat that?"
"Frank Gehry was right."