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Disney Hall Turns a Corner

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How does that little piece of tin foil fit in to LA’s future? In last night’s AIGA/LA presentation, its designers gave a comprehensive overview of Walt Disney Concert Hall, how well it works for the LA Philharmonic, and what’s in store for the Silver Queen.

Craig Webb, of Gehry Partners, begins by flipping through the famous working models of Disney Hall–14 years, 30,000 drawings and models. In the milk-carton, squiggly stage, potential concert hall shapes ranged from Legos to Millenium Falcons. The final design was actually dictated by Lillian Disney’s love for gardening; it was decided that Disney Hall would emulate a flower.

Inside, the Gehry kids worked closely with acousticians, your word of the day, to coordinate the hall’s performance space (it’s a 10 as music venues go–we’ll get back to that). The rippling, topographic map of wood in the concert hall itself is like a basket with an organ of loose sticks on one end. Webb described the entire project as “putting a boat in a box” and then “disguising a box” within a stainless steel shell. Oh yeah: it was originally planned to be limestone–the steel was a budgetary thing.


The only bad thing about stainless steel, of course, was the infamous glare issue: a section of Disney Hall was originally polished to a gleaming, waterfall-like sheen but refracted the light in such a way that neighboring condos were cooked. After a temporary solution of tarps, the section was buffed to dullness.

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But the reflectivity of the building was used to garden designer Melinda Taylor’s advantage: as a mirror for her landscaping. She planted trees that would bloom a certain color in each season, plus flowers and shrubs that would coordinate nicely. The fall to spring Philharmonic season moves from pink to red to yellow. Currently, we’re in the fuschia-to-red stage.

Taylor can rattle off the Latin names of plants as if they were her own children. She describes one season in the garden where two flowers have complementing sugar cookie dough and vanilla scents. She talks about how the shapes and the composition of the plants play off of the buildings downtown and the hills in the distance. And finally, she tells us about her brilliant quest to bring mature trees to Disney Hall: they literally drove around LA looking for good ones, and knocked on doors to ask if they could be “acquired.”

But it was the LA Phil’s Alexander Mickelthwate who stole the show, not only as a dead-on Kevin Bacon lookalike, but as the amped up conductor who gave a dizzying ten minute account of concert halls throughout history. The 50′s and 60′s seem to be the dark ages for American classical music, when developers threw money towards all-in-one opera/concert/dance venues that Mickelthwate sneers at (“Those places,” he says). When he auditioned for the job at Disney Hall, every conductor in the world wanted to end up there–and mostly because of the promising new design. With its vineyard seating (audience on all sides), close quarters for musicians, and warm, clean sound, this, he says, is the Ferrari of concert halls.

The only real design flaw, then, is Mickelthwate’s inability to get a sandwich during his Saturday rehearsals in the largely unresidential area. Webb and Taylor are going to fix that, too. A cluster of development along the Bunker Hill area will bring apartments and retail to the area, but most importantly, a grocery store. The design is still largely conceptual, but Gehry’s squiggles are there and Taylor’s tiered landscaping tops each level like green icing.

Webb looks at the most recent model and professes his ultimate design philosophy, which could also be a new motto for downtown LA. “Make a big mess. The more you add to it, the better it gets.”

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