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Although it has only been open since 2003, Walt Disney Concert Hall has attained iconic status as possibly the most distinctive landmark in Downtown Los Angeles. As the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Disney Hall has also earned iconic status for its renowned acoustics.
Frank Gehry’s designs for both the interior and exterior of the hall are based on the abstract swooping curves that have become his trademark. Looking at Gehry’s initial sketches for the building, it’s a challenge to discern what he had in mind. But the actual inspiration is nautical. The curves represent a ship with billowing sails; the stainless steel panels covering the entire exterior represent the ship’s riveted hull. The flowing curves also invoke the streamlined form of fish, a concept that has informed much of Gehry’s work.
Walt Disney’s widow Lillian came up with the idea for a new concert hall as a tribute to her husband in 1987. That idea included $50 million in seed money. Frank Gehry won the design competition, and work began in 1992 with a planned budget of $100 million. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors contributed the land, as well as the vitally-important parking garage.
But it turned out to be a most inauspicious time for a major construction project. An economic recession and the Rodney King riots halted fund-raising efforts, even as the budget ballooned to an eventual $274 million because of rework to accommodate requested design changes. The parking garage alone cost $110 million, funded with bonds. Gehry reduced some of the cost by replacing the original limestone exterior, first with titanium and finally with stainless steel.
(At around the same time, Gehry designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. The Guggenheim’s exterior design is very similar to that of Disney Hall, with the same nautically-inspired forms of ships, sails, and fish that seem more appropriate for the port city of Bilbao than for Downtown Los Angeles. The Guggenheim is clad with titanium and limestone panels.)
The Disney Hall thrill ride accelerated downhill in 1995, when the County Board of Supervisors threatened to halt the project unless someone could raise the funds to complete it. Billionaire real estate developer Eli Broad and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan began a campaign to solicit corporate underwriters. They also tried to replace Frank Gehry with another architectural firm. The personal intercession of Lillian Disney’s daughter Diane— which included a $14 million contribution— put Gehry back in charge. By 1998, Broad and Riordan had raised enough corporate money (including $25 million from the Walt Disney Company) to allow construction to resume.
Walt Disney Concert Hall finally opened in October 2003, to rave reviews. But that wasn’t the end of the project’s travails. The stainless steel panels on the hall’s exterior originally had a glossy polish. Frank Gehry somehow never anticipated that their curved shape would act like parabolic mirrors, focusing sunlight on nearby condominiums and on adjacent sidewalks. Sweltering condominium owners faced increased summer air conditioning bills, and passersby risked temperatures up to 59 °C if they stepped into a solar broiler zone.
Gehry’s solution, implemented in 2005, required a contractor to suspend workers from a crane as they sanded the offending panels to a safe matte finish. A few of the panels, in locations where they can’t focus sunlight, retain their original gloss.
Despite Disney Hall’s architectural and artistic pretensions, Gehry made it friendly and approachable. He included stairs and passageways along the exterior that invite visitors to explore it, view it from different perspectives, and experience it close up. You can also take a free self-guided or docent-led tour of the building and gardens.
Disney Hall is the newest of the four performance venues that comprise the Music Center, the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County. First Street separates Disney Hall from the original Music Center complex.