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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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.”