When John Mauceri steps onto the podium for this season’s Hollywood Bowl opening gala on June 25, the crowd settling into Myron Hunt’s curving, climbing amphitheater will be struck by a visual enigma. Though everyone will surely know that the glistening white band shell is new and different — it’s 40 percent larger and has much less of an arch — it will nevertheless look enough like the old one to pass for that fixture of memory. What everyone will be looking at is the 90-foot-long ellipse hovering beneath the canopy and 30 feet above the orchestra floor like a giant unleashed Frisbee. The accomplishment of the new Bowl’s architects, Hodgetts + Fung, is not in revamping but in reinvigorating an icon.
Fourteen million dollars in construction costs and six years after Los Angeles County adopted a plan to rectify the muffled acoustics and cramped space of the 1929 shell, the respectful and graceful work of Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung is done. With a million visitors a year, the county has gotten more than its money’s worth. In very subtle ways, the husband-and-wife architectural team has amalgamated the needs of the present and the future to the necessary demands of the past. Their shell is neither nostalgic nor egotistically expressionistic. It is a crisp and vigorous interpretation that, by inserting a new and what in time will seem to be an obvious shape, contrasts the Enlightenment with Sturm und Drang — a rousing Space Age disc offsetting a serene, neoclassical semicircle.
The effect wasn’t achieved overnight. When the firm was hired, the idea was to preserve the existing shell and make it sound good. That meant retaining the essence of the original lightweight, tubular steel–and–asbestos contraption, which, when it was completed 75 years ago, was supposed to be rolled into storage when the Bowl’s summer season ended. (The steel wheels simply flattened under the dead weight, and there the shell stood.) Seven decades later, the steel had rusted and the asbestos needed to be removed.
“We were really excited by the prospect of a visible prosthesis to make it work, as Frank Gehry had been with those balls,” Hodgetts says. He is referring to Gehry’s installation of the 11 fiberglass acoustical spheres that looked like errant nitrogen molecules from an early DNA mockup. Gehry’s gizmos failed, but that didn’t stop Hodgetts and Fung from looking for ways to solve the inherent problem of the shell: It was too small to house the sounds emanating from the orchestra. Plus, the orchestra could not hear itself, the violin was inaudible to the tuba, and, unbelievable as it seems, the conductor could not control how the orchestra sounded to the audience. That was the sound mixer’s job, executed at a console near the middle of the seating area. Each instrument was individually miked, and the artistic interpretation was secondhand, filtered through pots and limiters manipulated by the engineer.
After repeated tinkering with the shell — modeling such things as hydraulic pistons to raise the shell for rock & roll concerts or adding two rings to thrust the shell farther into the audience — the architects knew their assignment was impossible. The old shell had to go.
In the middle of all this, the L.A. Times invited a few local architects and culture mavens to weigh in. “What would you do?” the paper asked, while prominently featuring a design by Gehry that scrapped the shell — “It’s so idiotic to carry that legacy forward,” he insultingly pronounced — and proposed a box for the stage and speakers suspended from cables above the audience, much like his Millennium Park project in Chicago.
Hodgetts and Fung were undeterred. The form would stay, albeit elongated and enlarged. “The new shell is the result of this conclusion about the old one: The shape has the enduring quality of something that has an elemental, Platonic configuration,” says Hodgetts. “If you look back at the four previous shells, the consistent form was an almost emphatically man-made artifact, with resonances of [17th-century French visionary architect Étienne-Louis] Boullée and his big sphere. It was not copied from nature. It was not a shack, like Tanglewood. It was not rustic. It was juxtaposed to nature.”
For Hodgetts and Fung, who like to play with geometry and aren’t shy about introducing dynamic elements to rupture formalism, retaining the shell shape went against their designers’ instincts. The temptation was to do something like plunging an enormous knife’s edge — presumably an acoustical device — into the shell. Among the 30 studies they did, one of the more enticing, from a purely architectural point of view, put a detached arch in front of the shell from which enormous speakers were dangling on invisible wires. The array seemed to hover, levitated by anti-gravity. Each such design conception made the shell disappear, not exactly the desired effect.
By contrast, the Bowl’s arch — the old and the new — is pure, and when set against the backdrop of the rugged Hollywood Hills, its irreducible geometry makes an indelible imprint in our minds the same way that I.M. Pei’s pyramid has defined our idea of the Louvre. And, despite the current vogue in architecture for dismantling the ordered and the rational, we love the shell because we rely on symmetry and equilibrium to ease our jagged reality: The shell calms the evening as gently and simply and directly as the night air. This is also why it is an icon and why, Hodgetts and Fung realized, its shape had to stay.
Inserting the ellipse into the shell allows this to happen and a whole lot more. The suspended acoustical halo preserves the clarity of the arch yet has sufficient technological prowess of its own to allow the orchestra to hear itself and still be properly amplified to the benches on the farthest reaches of the amphitheater’s periphery, some 450 feet away. The rim of the halo itself, made up of six segments fashioned from aircraft aluminum and weighing 10 tons, embraces 20 movable louvers. These are the acoustic reflectors. A central computer controls the louvers, which can be moved in minute increments, like the ailerons on the tips of airplane wings, allowing the shell to be tuned specifically for each performance. When not needed (if, say, Tony Bennett is on hand), the sound reflectors fold up like butterfly wings and disappear into the canopy, and four of the rims lower to the ground to be trucked away.
Just as importantly, the halo provides an aesthetic and physical impact. The underside of the rim is skinned in fiberglass, and the louvers are made of a hard, translucent plastic. The opacity produces an interesting effect. At times, the halo is seen only as a surface, resembling the bottom of a flying saucer, burnished to a dull, metallic gray. Like one of those flat, lens-shaped cirrus clouds standing still in an otherwise clear blue sky, it is the solitary stroke that animates a static backdrop. At other times, when the louvers are positioned parallel to the stage, they reveal, in shadow and silhouette, a tracery of the metalwork that is holding everything together. Hodgetts calls this the “Brechtian quality” of the halo. It demystifies the acoustical works, like peering at an engine going full bore with its valve cover removed.
Meanwhile, the halo is geometrically locked into the pitch of the amphitheater: You can draw a straight line from its rear to the hedgerow that describes the topmost arc of the Bowl’s seating area. This projection connects the audience to the performers and vice versa. The radiating quality is the palpable expression of the sound waves emanating from the shell and the emotions of the audience wafting back to the stage. At the very least, this dialogue harks back to the earliest days of the Bowl when one of the finest natural amphitheaters in the world was not poisoned by buzzing helicopters and the constant, sibilant hiss of the Hollywood Freeway, and a more intimate communion was possible.
The new band shell and halo will have their critics. In all likelihood, Hodgetts and Fung will be pilloried by preservationists and architectural purists alike. The former will pine for the old shell despite its evident decrepitude, and the latter will search for a sweeping gesture that explodes the myth of tranquillity the team has so openly embraced. Lucky for us, neither dogma prevailed. Los Angeles saved one icon, the band shell, while gaining another, the halo.