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Will Disney Hall and the New Broad Museum Get Along? 

Thursday, Nov 14 2013
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One thing that can make it difficult to wholeheartedly like Frank Gehry's Disney Hall, the sensual steel home of the L.A. Philharmonic, is all the hope that was hung on it from the start. If you paid attention to public disagreements and budget battles during the 16-year process, as well as the inflated rhetoric that surrounded its completion, it can be hard to look at the hall and not see all that civic baggage and ambition. "It's going to do for L.A. what the Eiffel Tower did for Paris," composer John Adams said when it opened. It would turn L.A. into a "great cultural center," former mayor Richard Riordan declared, echoing others.

But all by itself?

Now the building is 10 years old and about to get some help. New York firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro designed Disney Hall's new neighbor, the Broad, a museum to house billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad's art collection, set to open in late 2014. One might expect the buildings to be antagonists — the designs and the architecture firms are different in many ways, and Gehry and Broad have clashed in the past. Yet Gehry is a collaborator on the Broad, through his engineering and construction firm Gehry Technologies, even though DS+R designed its building as a counterpoint to his. Could this convergence result in two buildings whose contrasting elements actually complement each other?

click to enlarge COURTESY OF MUSIC CENTER OF LOS ANGELES COUNTY - Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall
  • COURTESY OF MUSIC CENTER OF LOS ANGELES COUNTY
  • Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall

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Back in the 1990s, Broad helped fund and raise funds for Disney Hall, but he butted heads with Gehry during the process. He wanted Gehry to relinquish control to cut costs; Gehry temporarily resigned. This experience and others like it prompted Gehry to found Gehry Technologies in 2003, the same year Disney Hall opened. He intended the company to help architects avoid the kind of miscommunications and hassles with clients, engineers and contractors that almost kept the hall from opening.

Gehry Technologies, or GT, became involved in the Broad project for pragmatic reasons. "I was peripherally in it because Eli's a friend," Gehry tells the Weekly.

But they weren't friends as Disney Hall neared completion. "My assessment is that we're just two control freaks and our control mechanisms got tangled up with each other," he told interviewer Barbara Isenberg a few years ago, quoting wife Bertha's suggestion that he and Broad make up: " 'You know you can go through the rest of your life in L.A. hating each other. But you travel in similar circles ... and it's just uncomfortable.' "

Gehry and Broad had dinner with L.A. civic leaders on Disney Hall's stage just before it opened. Now, they seem to understand each other. "He has been generous with his advice ... on our new museum," Broad recently wrote in his book, The Art of Being Unreasonable.

Regarding the Broad Museum, "There was a lot of anxiety about what [Eli] could afford," Gehry continues. "I mean, he can afford anything." But DS+R's design, with its skylights on all exterior walls and roof, had potential complications. "It was scary."

Elizabeth Diller, the principal architect on the Broad, has been frank from the start. First, she had reservations about building on Grand Avenue. Dating back to when Victorian houses were torn down to turn the area into a business district, Grand Avenue development plans have been criticized for acting like, in her words, "an overly gentrified urban vacuum that attempts to solve L.A.'s urban problem through the creation of monuments instead of connective tissue," she has said. She also had reservations about Broad, who, as she pointed out in a 2011 lecture at Princeton, "has a really big reputation for screwing architects," such as the history with Gehry and the heavily criticized Renzo Piano building Broad commissioned for LACMA's campus.

Then there was the problem of doing something provocative in a box-shaped space in the shadow of Gehry's curving fortress. DS+R is something of an antidote to Gehry. His work, with its authoritative strangeness and undulating surfaces, can be recognized by an untrained eye. DS+R's work often grows out of other buildings or mimics shapes around it.

At a September hard-hat tour of the museum, Diller showed a slide to illustrate her strategy. It pairs a photo of the surface of Gehry's building, labeled "smooth and shiny," next to the surface hers will have, labeled "matte and porous." (When it's pointed out DS+R took his hall into account, Gehry says, with light sarcasm, "You think?").

The matte, porous skin, which gets compared to honeycomb, though it's more slanted and elongated, initially was supposed to be structural, holding the building up. But codes and concerns about seismic activity made this prohibitively expensive and complicated, and GT came on board to help Diller's team re-strategize.

GT's work with Diller's team appeared in architect-researcher Scott Marble's recent book Digital Workflows in Architecture, as an example of how to address "fragmented, silo-working environments," which deter "truly integrated" collaboration.

GT uses the software program CATIA, initially developed for aerospace and used by Boeing in building aircraft. Gehry Partners adopted it in the early 1990s after assigning a team to research what sort of modeling software would work best for what the company did. They could scan Gehry's hand-built models into a computer, which would ideally make it easier to help contractors and engineers understand exactly what the architect had in mind.

Contractors often don't understand architects. During the Disney Hall project, when Broad and others wanted to hire another firm to do the working drawings and execute Gehry's design, other firms couldn't understand the models. Contractors and engineers did a lot of head-scratching, too. A Los Angeles Times story collected quotes from workers on-site, all basically saying this was the craziest project they'd worked on.

In 1997, Gehry told the New York Times he'd "been geniused to death," meaning he had been too often dismissed as a brilliant, impractical artist, when in fact he and his firm knew best how to build their design.

"The assumption is that the architect doesn't know what he's doing," Gehry says now. "Architects are degraded. They're thwarted by the construction industry." That was the idea behind finding one software program to use, and drawing up contracts that require construction companies and other contractors to use software compatible with his firm's.

"What we like to do is come in and help train people," says Meaghan Lloyd, who has worked with Gehry for 13 years and now is CEO of Gehry Technologies. "We actually just want to help."

Gehry doesn't need another company, he says. In fact, he'd prefer not to have one — "We've already moved [GT] across the street" from Gehry Partners' Playa del Rey location — but he's frustrated by an industry that inhibits exciting work.

There are a few other firms doing what GT does, and they're especially helpful in a field where few construction companies work with the same architect twice, according to architect Matt Fineout. He worked with Gehry's firm in the 1990s and has spent much of the last year in Dubai, consulting on buildings with especially complex exteriors. "One thing about Frank is he always knew how to build," Fineout says.

Gehry's teams also know how much information a construction company does or doesn't need, something young architecture graduates with digital modeling skills but little field experience don't know.

For the Broad, the individual parts of the veil had to be remodeled to fit fabricators' constraints. So GT delivered 3-D computer models, 2-D drawings extracted from the models and a plan for reusing molds to fabricate each veil panel (2,500 of them were needed). This didn't change the look or feel of DS+R's design — it just made it more feasible.

Often when Diller talks about her plans for the Broad, she emphasizes that she wants people to understand, as they move up escalators, peer into the collection's storage facilities and then wander through the sunlit upstairs galleries, that they're experiencing just one idea of what matters in culture — one collector's vision. This implies that other, equally compelling visions could butt up against it.

If Diller's "matte and porous" museum works as planned, it might free Disney Hall, at least a little, from its status as the L.A. cultural monument and pull it into more of a back-and-forth about what cultural institutions can look like.

Reach the writer at cgwagley@gmail.com

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