Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall is a “living room” in Los Angeles

Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall is a “living room” in Los Angeles

Next, in our deconstruction series, we take a look at the iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry.

Located on a full block in downtown Los Angeles, the Walt Disney Concert Hall is an architectural landmark that took more than 15 years to build.

It is one of Gehry’s most famous projects, known internationally for its facade made of curved metal panels that echo the giant hall below.

Top: The Walt Disney Concert Hall is one of Frank Gehry’s most notable projects. Photo by Tuxyso. Above: It is distinguished by its curved facade. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Gehry, now 93, was chosen to design the music center in the late 1980s by Lillian Disney – the widow of American animator Walt Disney – from a list of 80 potential architects.

Lillian Disney donated $50 million (£38.5 million) to the project in memory of her husband. Its construction began in 1991 and was completed in 2003 when it became home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Although the Walt Disney Concert Hall was commissioned before the equally famous Guggenheim Bilbao, a building with a similar aesthetic, it was completed six years later due to reviews and a lack of fundraising.

However, Gehry said this arrangement of events “worked well” for the project.

The building is located in downtown Los Angeles. Photo by Levi Clancy

“The Guggenheim Museum’s accomplishment was a training ground for the city of Los Angeles,” he said in an interview at the building’s opening. “We have to figure out how best to build it.”

The delays also allowed planners to note praise for the Guggenheim’s titanium cladding, leading them to ask Gehry to change his design for the stone exterior to its famous stainless steel cladding—a decision he did not make lightly.

“Disney Hall would look beautiful at night in stone,” Gehry once told Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Isenberg.

“It could have been great. It could have been friendly. Metal at night gets dark. I begged them. No, after they saw Bilbao, they had to have metal.”

The entrance leads up from the main street outside. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith

As with all of his buildings, the Walt Disney Concert Hall was designed “from the inside out,” Gehry said.

Its plan centers around a large 2,265-seat concert hall with a vineyard-style seating arrangement intended to make the audience feel close to the orchestra.

Unlike many traditional concert halls, it has no boxes and balconies to avoid the implicit social hierarchy. The room is also column-free, thanks to the large steel roof structure.

The silver waves and arches lining the exterior were later developed using CATIA, a French computer modeling software program.

This technology, most common in the aerospace and automotive industries, allowed Gehry to transfer complex project models into buildable forms and show contractors how his vision could be realized.

However, despite the long design process, the studio did not specify what problems the interface might cause later. After installation, the metal’s reflective coating contributed to an increase in traffic accidents, requiring sanding of the steel to reduce glare.

Its outer surface is clad in stainless steel. Photo by Tobias Keller

Today, the Walt Disney Concert Hall is considered a prominent example of Deconstructivist architecture—an architectural movement from the 1980s that opposed rationalism and symmetry.

However, Gehry does not consider himself, and never has considered himself, a deconstructionist. He has claimed that the overall goal of the project is to create a “living room for the city” that can make music accessible to people.

“I felt like there was a need for a place that people would feel comfortable, that they would want to come to, that would become a destination, that people would recognize and feel like it was theirs,” Gehry said in an interview about the building. In the year 2013.

“So I thought of this term, ‘living room for the city,’ because we needed that.”

The building is designed around the hall. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic

To create a sense of publicly accessible space, the entrance to the space features a grand staircase that connects to the surrounding streets.

The staircase leads to a light-filled atrium lined with expanses of glass and accented by a grand staircase surrounded by curved walls.

Inside the main hall there are a few right angles. Oak lines the floor, while the stage is made of Alaskan yellow cedar and the walls are finished with Douglas fir.

This space is designed to achieve the highest level of acoustic clarity. Image by Daniel Hartwig via Wikimedia Commons

These details form part of the building’s elaborate acoustic design, which Gehry developed in collaboration with acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota and former music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra Esa-Pekka Salonen to ensure the highest level of acoustic clarity.

To achieve this, acoustic tests were carried out on a scale model of the building during its development.

Today, Gehry cites “Clarity of Voices” as Walt Disney Hall’s most successful score.

“When the orchestra is full, it feels like a receptive audience because the audience can hear it,” the architect once said.

“They feel it. It’s like theatre, you feel it. Like when you give a lecture, you feel like you’re meeting her. And when the orchestra hears that and feels it makes them play better.”

Features an organ designed by Gehry. Image from Cultivation 413 via Wikimedia Commons

The centerpiece of the Walt Disney Concert Hall is the 6,134-pipe grand organ, which Gehry designed with organ consultant Manuel Rosales.

Developed over two years using 40 different models, it is lined with external tubes that the architect is said to refer to as french fries.

According to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the collaboration between Rosales and Gehry was essential in designing the organ, as while Gehry’s initial designs were “imaginative and brilliant”, they could not “lead to the construction of a practical musical instrument”.

There is a light-filled entrance to the building. Image by Codera23 via Wikimedia Commons

The Walt Disney Concert Hall is equipped with an elevated urban park that pays tribute to Lillian Disney, who died before the project was completed.

It features a flower-like fountain designed by Gehry, which is covered in a mosaic made from thousands of pieces of blue and white china.

Upon completion, the building was well received and celebrated for revitalizing the downtown area and reviving the city’s cultural scene. At the time, architectural critic Jonathan Glancy hailed the building as “nothing less than a masterpiece”, while Herbert Muschamp stated that it was “the most courageous building you are ever likely to see”.

However, the building also inadvertently highlighted the gap between the city’s rich and poor.

At the extravagant opening of the building – on a red carpet – a number of demonstrators carried banners reading “For the extravagance of the abundant rich” and “For shoes for the poor.”

A fountain outside pays tribute to Lillian Disney, who started the project. Image by Carol M. Highsmith via Wikimedia Commons

Today, Gehry is developing a high-rise hotel and apartment complex called The Grand for a site opposite the building. It has been in development for over 10 years.

The project consists of several buildings on three acres (1.2 hectares) and will be connected to the Walt Disney Concert Hall by a large pedestrian area. In addition to a hotel and apartments, it will contain restaurants, shops and a cinema.

Illustration by Jack Bedford

Deconstructivism is considered one of the most influential architectural movements of the 20th century. Our series showcases the buildings and works of its main proponents – Peter Eisenman, Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, Bernard Tschumi, and Wolf Breaks.

Read our deconstruction series ›

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