How Disney Hall Redeemed Frank Gehry

Gehry has just gifted downtown with its most potent symbol of renewal; such architectural monuments are expansive gestures of what it means to belong to a city.
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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.