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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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.