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With its sweeping silver façade dancing like musical notes on the Los Angeles skyline, the Walt Disney Concert Hall is perhaps the most recognizable and architecturally significant building in the city, if not country – and perhaps even the world.
Designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, the hall is trumpeted as one of the most acoustically perfect venues ever built.
Certainly, Angelenos feel privileged to have the Gehry-designed masterpiece located in the city. And following an interview with the architect, Gehry is equally as gratified the hall became the shining star that it is.
Is it his proudest architectural achievement? Gehry demurs like a proud father of many.
“That is like asking someone who their favorite child is! Having said that, Walt Disney Concert Hall was a big game changer in my own life. It was a long process, the early part of which was personally quite painful for me. After a multi-year hiatus, the project came back online. It was very gratifying to work with the many people who helped bring it back to life,” Gehry said.
Home to the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the hall’s genesis began in 1987 with a $50 million gift from Lillian Disney, widow of Walt Disney, to erect a concert venue in homage to her husband’s devotion to the arts.
As Gehry alluded, the project met with challenges, some political, and the development shut down in 1994. But like a phoenix rising, the steel structure took flight with support from public and private donors and ultimately opened in 2003.
“I had never seen Los Angeles come together so enthusiastically around a concert hall. Folks from every level of government, institutions, private donors all jumped in to help get the hall built. Particularly Los Angeles County and our then supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky really pushed to get the building built. I go to the hall a lot, and I am always grateful to see the multitude of donor names all over the building,” Gehry said.
Gehry and Zev Yaroslavsky, former Los Angeles County Supervisor, have known and admired each other for years.
“I’ve known Gehry for decades,” Yaroslavsky said. “Our relationship was really cemented during the Walt Disney Concert Hall project. I supported his role as its architect. I was the Board of Supervisor’s representative on the Disney Hall project committee, and we all worked together to get it done,” Yaroslavsky added.
With seating to accommodate an audience of 2,265, the interior of the hall is paneled in Douglas fir, emitting a warm glow to the expansive room. The impressive organ stands at the front of the hall, with a crescendo of 6,134 stalk-like pipes extending toward the steel roof. The organ is a collaboration between Gehry and Manuel J. Rosales, a Los Angeles-based organ designer. Gehry presented a concept that looked like a cluster of flowers shooting out of the ground. Rosales recommended European organ builder Casper von Glatter-Götz to fabricate and install the organ. The final result, which Gehry refers to as “French fries,” culminates into an acoustical masterpiece.
Enjoying a performance of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Concert Hall is the culmination of Gehry’s brilliant design, Yasuhisa Toyota’s acoustical talents and Gustavo Dudamel’s musical prowess. With the orchestra seated, the crowd quieted, conductor Dudamel takes the stage and commands the violinists to guide their bows in unison followed by the oboe, flute, cello and tympani. And the concert begins.
Frank Gehry was born Frank Owen Goldberg on February 28, 1929, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. In 1947, Gehry and his family immigrated to Los Angeles, where he studied architecture at the University of Southern California and city planning at Harvard University. It was during that time he changed his name. After working for several architectural firms, including those of Victor Gruen in Los Angeles and André Remondet in Paris, he established his own company, Frank O. Gehry & Associates, in 1962, and later Gehry Partners in 2002.
As a child, he drew inspiration from the people with whom he surrounded himself, like his grandmother who encouraged his creativity by utilizing items from his grandfather’s hardware store to fashion imaginary buildings. When he went to college, peers and artists influenced the designer.
“The artists embraced me from an early point in my career. I grew up with them and their process, which was more intuitive and rigorous and iterative than the architects at the time,” he said.
Gehry continues to be inspired by his contemporaries, both past and present.
“I look at history of art and architecture and certainly find inspiration from the great artists of the past like Bernini and Borromini and my contemporaries like Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Kenny Price, Billy Al Bengston – I could go on and on,” Gehry continued.
“As for young architects, I have a lot of young talent in my office. We have developed an incredible design team, which I suppose we are known for, but we have an equally talented technical/construction team. The leadership group has been with me for 25-plus years, and we have built a lot of buildings together. They are about the work – the art of it and the craft. They know how to design and build with excellence. They know how to hold to budgets, collaborate with clients, and create innovative but human spaces.”
Indeed, the Gehry team’s many accomplishments include the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago, the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, among others. However, Gehry, doesn’t rest on his laurels. He drives his team forward with passion and integrity.
“When I look at the other firms practicing today, some of the younger architects, in my opinion, are ambitious at the expense of their architecture. With my team, they have their heads screwed on straight. I am very lucky to have this group of architects to play with,” Gehry said.
In keeping with that spirit, another large project flows from his creative mind – the 51-mile L.A. River revival. It’s a huge undertaking, revitalizing miles of space into an urban sanctuary.
“The L.A. River is an exciting 51 miles of public right of way that manages flood control for the county of L.A. My hypothesis was if the flood control part of it could be managed in a tunnel, that the 51 miles could be turned into a wonderful landscape connector for the entire county, connecting rich and poor neighborhoods at the center of the cities that it crosses through.”
Again, Yaroslavsky and Gehry meet at the headwaters, with the then-supervisor helping to secure necessary funding. In fact, a half-mile path located in Studio City is named the Zev Yaroslavsky L.A. River Greenway Trail. The trail brings back native habitat to the river’s edge and reincorporates the river into the urban San Fernando Valley neighborhood. It wasn’t Yaroslavsky who lured Gehry to the L.A. River project.
“I have no idea who mired him in,” Yaroslavsky mused.
Gehry attributes his overall interest in the L.A. River Project to helping the environment and the children who live in urban areas.
“I found there were communities in the southeast of the county where park space is non-existent, and kids growing up have a 10 year less life span. This is recorded and confirmed by the U.S. Department of Public Health. After I saw this, I couldn’t help but get involved,” Gehry said.
Buildings, projects and causes have afforded Frank Gehry to travel all over the world – France, Spain, China, Germany – and in the U.S. New York, Chicago, Minneapolis. Yet Gehry still calls Los Angeles home. Living in Santa Monica since the 1950s, the original Gehry home is described as an architecturally convoluted design, with glass, corrugated steel and wood combined to create a feeling of a tree house. He designed and built a new home a few years ago with his architect-son Sam. With a modern Adirondack lodge feel, the home features exposed Douglas fir timbers and expanses of glass. It’s more luxurious than the original, which has also stayed in the family.
As to why Gehry stayed in Los Angeles, he puts it simply.
“I grew up professionally here. L.A. attracts great writers, musicians, artists and even architects. The energy here seems to push individuals to explore their craft.”
As Angelenos, we are all better for having our city and county graced with the works and the imagination of Frank Gehry.
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