CAPTION: Frank Gehry’s new Colburn design could change Los Angeles

CAPTION: Frank Gehry’s new Colburn design could change Los Angeles

In 2016, the Colburn School — a community music school, conservatory, academy and dance school — purchased a bleak outdoor parking lot on the corner of Second and Olive streets downtown for $33 million. It was on a steep, pedestrian-unfriendly hill that led to the Colburn Grand Avenue campus, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and the Broad. There was little traffic and the area was deserted at night.

But the school had always wanted to create the medium-sized concert hall that it and the city lacked. Now, after many ups and downs, Colburn is announcing plans to build a concert hall, performance arena and Frank Gehry-designed dance studios on the site. The institution, which looks after music and dance education, will not only serve students from infants to the elderly, but will also outreach and provide a place of civic gathering for a wide audience.

The hall will stand behind the Grand – the stunning multi-purpose complex across the street from Disney Hall that was also designed by Gehry and is scheduled to open in May. Its potential is to become the backbone of finally transforming Grand Avenue into a thriving arts district of international importance.

The buildings’ appearance has changed radically from the flashy designs that Gehry and partners released to The Times in 2020 in hopes of spurring philanthropic support. Fundraising came to a halt during the first summer of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the future looked very uncertain economically.

But a continuing donation from Carol Colburn Gregor, daughter of the school’s founder, Richard D. Colburn, saved the concert hall. Further contributions from Terry and Gerry Cole, after whom the hall will be named, will help fund the hall’s endowment, making it possible for it to be widely used as a community venue and helping to keep ticket prices low. Eva and Mark Stern are the other major donors. Individual amounts were not announced, but the total budget for the entire project and its initial endowment is estimated at $350 million, of which $270 million has been raised.

However, the concert hall’s budget, which was scheduled to be about $300 million, had to be cut in half. Instead of the concert hall/opera house and cabaret as originally planned, there will be a single 1,000-seat concert hall on the tour. In an effort to cut costs, Gehry replaced the dazzling glass facade with a less conspicuous exterior, which will be either stainless steel or, if affordable, a pink tint of titanium.

View east from Olive Street towards the new urban square that will be created at the entrance to the concert hall.

Colburn School Campus Expansion View. View east from Olive Street towards the new urban square that will be created at the entrance to the concert hall.

(Jerry Partners)

As for Jerry, the original design is ancient history. Standing next to a model of the hall in his studio, the 93-year-old architect is excited that his new ideas for the hall are not compromises but improvements. He proudly embraced cost-cutting as a symbol of producing a wide range of music, for which he had a lifelong passion.

He wants to learn the basics of what a concert hall should be like in serving the needs of the music, the community and the city. He notes that this became one of the major missions of his late career, as embodied in the Judith and Thomas L. Pikmin YOLA in Inglewood and the transformative cultural center he designed for the Los Angeles River at South Gate.

The interior of Colborne Hall will be plain plywood, and will be more picturesque because of it. An elegant hanging balcony with two rows of seats will become the crown of the hall. Capturing white Gehry-esque clouds will create a dramatic ceiling. Above them will be platforms designated for events and performances, making the roof a unique active part of the hall.

Yasuhisa Toyota will be the sound master, as has been the case at all of Jiri’s concert halls, starting with Disney. The slight oval shape, with the audience surrounding the stage, represents Gehry and Toyota’s latest ideas for indoor concert spaces. Both the architect and acoustics expert are hooked on the concept of modular spaces in the round, with that touch of a suspended balcony that they pioneered five years ago with Pierre Boulez-Sall in Berlin.

This small and unassuming hall also turns out to be one of the most magical places anywhere to hear music of all kinds. At every seat, you feel as if you are in direct contact with the performer. The sound has an immediacy and presence unlike any other space I’ve encountered. With imaginative concerts that take place almost every night in Berlin, Boulez Saal has brought a new vitality to the cultural life of a cultural capital already so vibrant that it did not know it needed the place.

Sil Cardin, Colburn’s president and CEO, told me that Paul’s Salle Hall is a model for what the new hall could become, but on a larger scale. Not only will the Colborne Hall be a third larger than the Boulez Salle, with a high, airy ceiling providing the acoustic volume to handle a full orchestra, but it will also be equipped for theatrical performances as well as purely musical performances.

Gehry designed a full-sized orchestra pit that can accommodate up to 70 players when in use, making it the perfect size for Baroque opera, Mozart and 20th-century chamber opera, and experimental work that excites young composers today. Dancing in the round becomes an interesting prospect. The Los Angeles Opera, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra are eager passengers.

But Cardin is equally keen to make the hall available at low cost to community groups working in a wide range of genres and cultures, as well as making the space a place students can imagine. “It’s a music school,” Jerry exclaimed. “You don’t need fancy materials.” Students need to feel free.

Interior of the 1,000-seat concert hall located at the western end of the project site.

A model of the concert hall within the Colburn School expansion. Interior of the 1,000-seat concert hall located at the western end of the project site.

(Jerry Partners)

Like the Boulez Salle, the hall will be active almost every night, bringing new life to the area, especially in the summer. This audience energy is also central to Gehry’s goal, which was to connect the hall and its adjacent dance building culturally and physically to the street. A new metro station is under construction a block east of the buildings. The Second Street hill will be leveled, creating a landscaped pedestrian walkway. The halls will be accessed by elevator or stairs.

The first thing pedestrians will encounter is the three-story dance building designed entirely of glass, with a large studio on the ground floor visible to passers-by, bringing the art to the street. The concert hall would open onto a proposed large plaza (for which the city council still needs to give final approval), with a panoramic video wall and a suspended surround sound system capable of broadcasting performances, free of charge, inside the hall to up to 800 people outside. Balconies in the hall provide spaces for musicians to break down barriers to indoor and outdoor performance.

Jerry insists that I take a trip with him downtown to get a sense of the size. Standing in the parking lot where the auditorium will be built, he looks approvingly at Grand (which he found better than he expected) and points to the corner of Grand and Second. The difference between the liveable arts district and the corporate towers to the south or the government buildings to the northwest is striking.

He may be in his 90s and already revolutionizing Grand Avenue, but Jerry acts like he’s just getting started. As we walk to Disney, Jerry explains how the new Colburn complex will become the hub connecting Grand Avenue. Inside the already famous concert hall, he describes his ideas for converting the BP Hall, where pre-concert talks are given, into a small chamber music hall, with a suspended balcony. He wants to turn the little-used amphitheater in the park into an indoor jazz club, but is wondering where to put the bar. Jerry spends a moment walking around and finding a space. He has ideas for the lobby and dark café at Disney, which he didn’t design but wanted to.

Grand Park is next. He says the city buildings have to go. They have asbestos and are in poor condition. See it? Tear them down, build a tower on what will be the last empty lot on 1st Street for the city courts and management so it can expand the park and create affordable housing around it.

Years ago, he proposed lowering the music center to street level, but no one listened. Do it now, he says, and everything will connect. What you get is a full-fledged arts district, with museums, theaters of all sizes (12,000-seat), housing, and, thanks to Grand, shops, restaurants, a hotel, and three metro stations nearby. He calls for Grand to include a market. Between the 1st Street and Colburn metro stations, a strip of cake shops, cafes and falafel stands is proposed that could serve as a hangout for music and dance students. He wants life everywhere.

Ultimately, Jerry sees Colburn’s project as a driving force for a utopian vision for DTLA. The truth is that the arts have no right to flourish at the expense of society, and I ask Jerry if Los Angeles could be the kind of city that could invest in a comprehensive, unique arts district — not instead of investing in whatever it takes to overcome… That, but along with it. Homelessness and other critical issues. He has no answer, just a vision. The challenge and fundamental promise of the new Colburn complex is to make it a starting point in creating that vision. Think about what that might look like in the summer of 2028, when the world turns its attention to the Los Angeles Olympics.

A few years ago, $33 million would have seemed like a lot of money for a dismal parking lot. “It wasn’t cheap,” Cardin says. In the best of all possible worlds, this is a historic deal.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *