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Gehry’s Walt Disney Hall

Posted by acdtest on October 11, 2003

Gehry’s Walt Disney Hall

he current New York Review of Books has a splendid article by Martin Filler, architecture critic of The New Republic, on the genius of architect Frank Gehry, with the focus on Gehry’s just-about-to-open major new Los Angeles concert venue, Walt Disney Hall.

Writes Filler:

Since 1964, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has been housed in Welton Beckett’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a mediocre subclassical bandbox in the Lincoln Center mode, infamous for its dreadful acoustics. The new building site, on Bunker Hill across from the Chandler Pavilion in downtown L.A., was meant to help revitalize the heart of a diffuse city that has epitomized the urban sprawl metastasizing so destructively across the American landscape.

The lingering insecurity and philistine obtuseness of Los Angeles businessmen-philanthropists were personified by one Philharmonic backer who was alarmed by Gehry’s earlier use of offbeat materials such as chain-link fencing, unfinished plywood, corrugated steel, and chicken-wire glass. He implored Disney Hall’s architecture subcommittee, “You can’t pick [him]; we’re going to be the laughingstock of the whole universe.” This occurred while a much-admired Gehry retrospective organized by Mildred Friedman of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis was installed at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), just down the street from the Disney site, after having traveled around the country for over a year and introducing him to a national audience.

And how did the Hall turn out aesthetically?

The glory of Gehry’s Disney Hall is that it seems to reflect, much more so than the Getty, the ideal of the Stadtkrone, or “crown of the city,” as articulated by early-twentieth-century European theorists, most eloquently the German Expressionist architect and planner Bruno Taut.[1] The visionary yet practical Taut-who designed colored-glass glaciers for the Alps and built modern workers’ housing in Berlin-saw the construction of such a building not merely as a symbolic act but as providing a place that would encourage social cohesion. That is precisely what some of the people involved in Disney Hall want it to be: not just an acoustically excellent auditorium for performances, but a catalyst that will help to make the center of Los Angeles more alive.

A feeling of contagious energy is palpable as you approach Disney Hall; it flares up on the messy downtown horizon like a silver galleon with full sails billowing in a brisk westerly breeze. This maritime impression is not unintentional. Gehry, an enthusiastic sailor, is intrigued by the suggestive shapes of wind-blown canvas, and has used expansive, taut surfaces that resemble sails-they are neither rigidly constrained nor unrestrainedly freeform. As one comes closer one sees restless but harmonious arcs of stainless steel. Their graceful curvilinear rhythms attest to the architect’s skill in conferring on earthbound buildings the gravity-defying motion of ballet and syncopation of music. Gehry is the great Gesamtkunstwerker of our times, and this is his masterpiece, surpassing his Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

And what about the Hall’s acoustics?

I was among a group of some 125 guests invited to attend the first orchestral rehearsal in Disney Hall on June 30 for an audience that also included members of Gehry’s office and Philharmonic staff, donors of $5 million and upward, and three local journalists. The orchestra’s music director since 1992, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conducted a forty-five-minute sampler of excerpts from familiar works that demonstrated a wide sonic range and allowed even nonspecialists to understand what the project’s principals were after.

It took only the first few bars of the final movement of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony to realize that Disney Hall’s acoustics are phenomenal, with a full, vibrant resonance, balanced by a limpid clarity of tone and an overall warmth. When the orchestra commenced the slow second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, one could feel the thrumming bass line through the soles of one’s feet. The effect prompted Salonen to remark that the orchestra had a “newly discovered bass octave,” the absence of which was one of the Chandler Pavilion’s worst deficiencies. Although four extra months were built into the construction schedule to allow for the tinkering that is usually needed to work out acoustical kinks before an opening, [Yasuhisa] Toyota [the acoustician] decided that none was necessary. […] The sound seemed to me sublime.

Yes indeed. Old Walt, creative genius and lover of great music that he was, would have been proud to have his name associated with such a project, and such an architect.

More here and here.

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