Dulling Disney

Is Frank Gehry’s spectacular Disney Hall too spectacular? An official report released the day before Thanksgiving, examining the glare and heat that bounce off the undulating steel exterior, says yes. The report, authored by USC architecture professor Marc E. Schiler and commissioned by the county Board of Supervisors, which owns the $274 million landmark, declares, "Disney Hall is a scintillating building in every sense of the word." Temperatures on the sidewalk outside REDCAT, for instance, can reach 138 degrees. You won’t spontaneously combust when those rays hit you, but you’ll get a sunburn if you idle for 10 minutes. Gehry, whose office cooperated with Schiler, proposes to sandblast his landmark to dull the offending surfaces. If you thought those billowing forms and glistening surfaces were a perfect homage to the sun-drenched and blistering Los Angeles climate, well, think again. The sunshine muse, it seems, is too sunny for Los Angeles.

Under pressure of possible lawsuits from residents of the nearby Promenade Towers, the county and Gehry are ready to sacrifice aesthetics for comfort. The Promenade condo owners have been complaining since June 2003 that the highly reflective polished stainless-steel cladding of the Founders Room is toasting the interiors of east-facing apartments. In July 2003, the county hired Schiler to figure out how to reduce the glare from some of the panels and also from the CalArts Theater marquee. It seems the sun hasn’t cooperated with the original assumptions of the environmental-impact report prepared by the county in 1999. That’s led to parts of the building being shrouded in a gray mesh fabric — hardly what the architect envisioned when he switched the building’s exterior sheathing from expensive limestone to less costly brushed and polished stainless steel.

Schiler’s study reveals that the situation is somewhat worse than at first believed, and that more of the building’s prominent features will have to be temporarily cloaked in the gray mesh. The sandblasting, which will take months to plot out, should be completed by next June. Gehry’s office acknowledges that the mirrored panels, once sandblasted, will resemble the brushed stainless-steel panels used on most of the building.

According to County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the estimated $180,000 tab "will not come from the county. This is Frank Gehry’s issue, and he will have to fix it," Yaroslavsky told the Weekly. It is likely that private donors will pay.

Winter, spring, summer and fall, morning, noon and twilight, the curvaceous swoops and swirls of Disney Hall focus sunlight into hot beams and a powerful glare. As the report notes, "The light is very bright and collimated" — like rays of intense sunshine. At First and Hope, immediately north of the Founder’s Room, Schiler says, "There are moments when the sun is reflected directly . . . into the intersection. This can interfere with a clear view of traffic and pedestrians, especially when heading south on Hope Street and turning left or heading east on First Street."

Disney Hall also superheats the air. Anyone who has stood just outside the ticket booth on Grand Avenue on a hot summer day has felt the concentrating effect of all that steel: The sidewalk is engulfed in a wave of thermal air, as if a Santa Ana had baked, then wafted off, those slippery, shimmering surfaces. By REDCAT, it often gets worse

Still, with the exception of the Promenade residents — whose problem could perhaps have been fixed without the sandblasting — it’s hard to see what everyone is griping about. (In all, just 4,000 square feet of the total 200,000 square feet of cladding is causing the trouble.) Schiler, who has devised his own method to determine the brightness of glare, and its potential to cause discomfort or disability, found that, while Disney Hall can reach the discomfort zone, a number of other buildings around downtown produce significantly greater glare. Wells Fargo, on Grand; Mellon Bank, on Hope; Deutsche Bank, in California Plaza; and the Bonaventure Hotel, between Flower and Figueroa, all "register glare significantly in excess of the brushed stainless steel surfaces and all but the worst of the polished . . . surfaces on Disney Hall," according to the report.

What Schiler’s report makes plain, in the end, is Los Angeles’ propensity to cannibalize itself. Disney Hall barely became a landmark, and now, like hyenas, we’re anxious to gnaw away at it. Maybe that’s the real proof of just how much of an L.A. icon the building has become.


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