The Art of Warp

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For a city devoted to spectacle, Los Angeles doesn't have many places where you can just sit around and take things in. The Walt Disney Concert Hall, Frank Gehry's magnificent new building, is located across the street from a big multilevel parking lot. That's a very Los Angeles place to be, of course, but not a great place to be seen from. Gehry's other masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, stretches out along the Nervion River, across from any number of cafes, where you can kick back and enjoy how it reclines along the water like Cleopatra on her barge. The Disney Hall, which opens this week in a glittery blast of galas and concerts, deserves nothing less. Its silvery cascades are one of the most beautiful sights anywhere in the U.S. If you have seen the Grand Canyon, another sun-drenched, curvy thing of hypnotic power, you have some idea of what the Disney Hall is like.

Splendor is not too strong a word for what Gehry has brought to downtown Los Angeles. But for a long time, trouble was an appropriate word too. "We went through hell," says Gehry, sitting amid the huge bustle of his office in a converted warehouse in Santa Monica. "But in the end, we made it work." That's putting it mildly on both counts. The Disney Hall may be one of the most anguished creative triumphs since the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But now that it's here, it can be counted on to reverberate not just through L.A. but across the U.S., raising the stakes everywhere for what a building can be.

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It began in 1987, when Lillian Disney, Walt's widow, provided a surprise gift of $50 million to build a new home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which for years had been unhappily stashed in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a slab of '60s-style bureaucratic neoclassicism with mediocre acoustics. The following year Gehry won the competition to design the new hall. At the time — a decade before the debut at Bilbao — Gehry was best known as the man who made chain link and plywood into respectable building materials. Lillian, who was nearing 90 and whose taste ran to brick and thatched roofs, was utterly puzzled by the whiplashing scoops of Gehry's design, which he had developed with the help of software used to design fighter planes. To convey what he had in mind, he once brought her a white rose floating in a bowl of water, an image that captured both her love of flowers and the sailing ships that are his favorite way of explaining the place he eventually built. The Disney Hall, he says, "is a boat where the wind is behind you."

Winning over Mrs. D. was just one of his problems. The '90s were plague years in Los Angeles — riots, earthquake, recession — and a risky new classical-music hall looked like the last thing a threadbare city wanted. When it seemed as if the project would founder entirely, Richard Riordan, then mayor, brought in Eli Broad, billionaire home builder, financier and all-purpose Los Angeles power broker, to head a $175 million fund-raising campaign to get the thing finished. (In the end, it cost $274 million.)

When Lillian died in 1997, the project she had hoped would be a monument to her husband consisted of a completed underground parking lot and a disappearing dream overhead. Then Bilbao Guggenheim opened, abruptly making Gehry the most celebrated architect in the world and giving him a new level of credibility in L.A., the city he has called home since moving there from Toronto as a teenager. All of a sudden his work didn't look so crazy anymore. "Frank became this international superstar," says Esa-Pekka Salonen, the musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. "And if ever there was a town that understands celebrity, it's L.A." In 1999 there was a second groundbreaking ceremony, and this time the ground stayed broken.

For the Philharmonic and its subscribers, the essential thing was to get the acoustics right, which is a task of near impossible complexity. What kind of space can do justice, say, to the plunks and skittering knock-knocks in Lou Harrison's Concerto in Slendro and also to the sustained, exalted moan of Mahler's Fifth Symphony? Can the huff and puff of the Carmina Burana sound any good in the same space where soprano Dawn Upshaw unfolds that lucid, liquid C? The curving interior of the Disney Hall was developed by Gehry with Yasuhisa Toyota, a partner in the Tokyo firm Nagata Acoustics.

Maybe the most important test of a hall's acoustics is in its ability to transmit bass resonance. "The sound on which the rest of the orchestra's sonority can rest," is what Salonen calls it. In June, he says, when the full orchestra first tried out the place in a rehearsal of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony, "the bass players all had this mad grin on their faces." Gehry was sitting out in the auditorium. "One of the bass players looked at me," the architect says, "and gave me this big thumbs up. That's when I knew it was all O.K."

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