From the outside to within…its sweeping contours, undulating surfaces and sophisticated acoustics leaves no doubt why Disney Hall is known as one of the most breathtakingly stunning feats of the last century.
When approaching the main entrance from Grand Avenue, we first noticed the beautiful exterior, sheathed in billowing sheets of steel floating above expanses of glass at the top of the staircase.
Past the oval courtyard through the massive clearstory glass-paneled doors, we signed in at the Grand Lobby’s front desk for the next 60-minute guided tour. Our docent explained the concert hall’s history from conception to completion while guiding our small group through much of the interior space and throughout the gardens while presenting the highlights of this architecturally stunning building.
Disney Hall is located on Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles, next to the Dorothy chandler Pavilion between First Street and Grand Avenue. The 367,000 square foot concert hall built on 3.6-acres took approximately 16 years to complete, from its design conception in 1987; construction, which began in 1999; and finally to its inauguration in 2003, with an estimated cost of $274 million.
The plan to build a world-class concert hall in the city was launched in 1987, when Lillian Disney, widow of Walt Disney, donated $50 million to build a performance venue as a gift to the people of Los Angeles and a tribute to Walt Disney’s devotion to the arts and the city.
Frank Gehry, a world renowned Los Angeles based Pritzker Prize winning architect, was chosen to design the Disney Hall following an international competition, in which there were over 70 submitted proposals. The synthesis of acoustical and architectural design is an iconic example of deconstructivist architecture (a type of postmodern architecture with roots in the late 1980’s), and represents the style of Gehry. He blended design elements inspired by a clipper ship with its wind filled sails, reflecting his love of sailing, and inspirations from Mrs. Disney’s fondness of flowers, gardens and nature.
Taking the escalator up to the sunny fifth-floor overlook, our tour started with views of City Hall and the downtown skyline. Fingerprints are not a problem here…that’s because a sign at the edge of the observation area warns visitors not to touch the building’s hot steel surface. Our docent told us on a typical sunny Los Angeles day, the steel surface gets hot enough to fry an egg.
As our tour continued, we learned Gehry had employed software used in the design and construction of French fighter jets. Called CATIA (computer-sided three-dimensional interactive application), this software translated Gehry’s organic forms, panel by panel, into buildable construction plans for the contractors. Each of the 12,500 pieces of corrugated stainless steel take a unique form of agreement to their location, and no two are alike. In areas outside of regular forms, stone was used. Glass surfaces function as a link between the various volumes.
We’re lead to an area where the building’s structural skeleton has been left uncovered by the building’s steel panels. “There are no right angles here,” our guide explained. She pointed to a rain gutter “lip” which keeps water from sheeting down the curving side of the building during stormy weather. The most frequently asked question is “How is this building washed?” A good rain is the easiest way, although maintenance crews use ladders, cherry pickers and an automated rooftop device for cleaning. Fingerprint-removal is a frequent task in high-traffic areas, shaded from the sun.
We proceeded through the glass-doored entry that leads to the performance hall balcony level. Architectural curves and movement from the outside, continues inside with the use of products and materials conveying a warm and comforting feeling. The stairwell ushering us down towards the third level performance lobby cascades with curved terraces, illuminated by a combination of natural light from glass panels, skylights and subtle electric lighting. Gehry’s intricate composition of convex and concave forms with a play of light and shadow creates exquisite visual ‘melodies’.
We walked onto the wool/linen carpet of geometric floral design in colors of red, orange, green and yellows. Gehry himself drew up the ‘lily’ design, called “Lillian” representative of Lillian Disney, and is replicated in the fabric upholstery created for the performance hall’s 2,265 seats.
Features throughout the Concert Hall are named for benefactors. As we approached the main auditorium, we’re shown the subtle yet striking Cornerstone Donors Wall. The names of major donors are spelled out in steel lettering embedded in laser-cut industrial felt, which from a distance appears like a greyish speckled solid wall.
We were escorted through the thick acoustical doors of the auditorium, and soon realized why it’s considered the “Pearl” of this architectural wonder. Acoustician Yahuhisa Toyota was integral in making sure that sound coverage from an unamplified orchestra were as amazingly breathtaking as the chamber itself. Gehry designed the auditorium to look like the hull of a ship, with a Douglas fir ceiling forming voluptuous curves, wilting down over the room like wind swelled sails. The aesthetically pleasing concave “walls” surrounding the room are an optical illusion; sound passes through transparent mesh and reflects off a series of convex curves hidden behind the concave mesh. Angled shingles on the terraced walls direct the sound down toward the audience rather than up into the air, aides to the room’s resonance. Natural light from the upper four skylights and a wide T-shaped window just behind the top balcony seats provides a soft, warm glow. The wild flower design of the seat covering adds a striking dimension to the auditorium, and the vineyard style seating brings the audience close to the orchestra, and offers an intimate view of the musicians and conductor from any seat. Suspended silver shapes sparkle from the ceiling lights, adding to the holiday ambience.
But of all the eye-catching features in the auditorium, the most spectacular is the Disney Hall’s organ; a collaborative design of Ghery and organ builder, Manuel Rosales. We’re told some refer to it as “the French fries” or “hurricane mama”; but wherever you’re seated, it claims your attention. The $3-million organ has 6,134 pipes, reflecting a marriage of form, function and ‘a larger-that-life set’ piece that still manages not to overwhelm by maintaining the human scale.
Our tour then took us down the sweeping Henry Mancini Family Staircase to the third-floor’s Blue Ribbon rooftop garden and Fraternity of Friends courtyard.
Nearly an acre in size, tucked beneath the hall’s gleaming exterior, the garden serves both as a public space and an urban oasis for Downtown LA. All 45 trees come from Los Angeles, and represent six different varieties from Orchid Trees to Pink Trumpet Trees, surrounded by lush landscaping that blooms throughout the year. Chefs of the flagship restaurant, Patina, maintain the organic herb and edible flowers throughout. From here, you can also catch views of the Los Angeles Central Public Library, the Hollywood sign and San Gabriel Mountains to the north.
The centerpiece of the community garden is The Lillian Disney Fountain. Inscribed with “A Rose for Lilly”, the Gehry-designed fountain pays tribute Lillian Disney and her love for Royal Delft porcelain vases and roses. Its large rose shape echoes features found throughout Disney Hall, and is artfully covered in thousands of broken pieces of Delft porcelain tiles, creating a one-of-a-kind mosaic.
Weaving our way towards the outdoor performance space, the towering steel lined path invites a unique photo opportunity.
Once back inside, we continue down the staircase to the second floor, where the Library of Congress Ira Gershwin Gallery displays rotating musically themed historical exhibits for the public to enjoy. Walking past another space dedicated to thanking the many donors, we came to the intimate B.P. Hall. Like the main auditorium, B.P. hall was built with both acoustics and the concertgoer in mind, and hosts pre-concerts talks, musical performances, receptions and private events.
Once descending the travertine staircase back to the Grand Avenue lobby, where the Lobby Bar made of glistening layers of sanded blue glass is located, we’re ushered just around the corner to the Founder’s Room. Its signature Frank Gehry wavy plaster ceiling rises 50 feet to reveal a skylight, making you feel as if you’ve just entered an upside-down tulip. This 4,800-sq. ft. dining room with its dozens of suspended glass chandeliers, millwork, private dining patio with travertine stone, is normally reserved for board members and VIPs during symphony performances.
As we headed back to the Lobby’s front desk, our docent points out the aesthetically pleasing rising wood columns shaped like tree trunks, noting each column contains the inner workings of the building and deliver air conditioning and lighting to the main lobby. Before ending our tour, we’re shown the Lobby’s abstract Christmas tree display, and Menorah commemorating the season.
Once outside, we look back up to Disney Hall from Second Street and attest that perhaps this building does symbolize the creative spirit of the city that houses it.