There will be no fish, no ships; none of the outward spectacle, the sublime abstractions or thrilling curves of a Frank Gehry masterpiece. The former Security Pacific Bank at 101 S. La Brea Ave., in the heart of downtown Inglewood, will retain its stocky midcentury bones, a glass encasement rising through the roof to optimize acoustics and a transparent façade to let the light in. But inside there will be room to grow: an elegant, versatile space to consecrate a vision decades in the making, and the promise of transformation.
The L.A. Philharmonic last week unveiled Gehry’s design for its $14.5 million YOLA Center (the full name is the Judith and Thomas L. Beckmen YOLA Center @ Inglewood), a permanent home for the organization’s youth orchestra program that provides free after-school music education — as well as instruments, academic support and unparalleled performance opportunities such as the Super Bowl halftime show — to young people from underserved communities.
Beneath a luxury-branded tent, donors mingled with politicians, educators and community members over miso-glazed pastries, collectively enthralled to the celebrity friendship between the orchestra’s star conductor, music and artistic director Gustavo Dudamel, and “Pancho,” as Dudamel affectionately calls Gehry.
“The fact that classical music sometimes or arts are very far from the community, this concept of a small group of people that have access to something that is untouchable — I think we have been living with that history in classical music and art,” said Dudamel, who came up in Venezuela’s revolutionary El Sistema program, now a global blueprint for socially impactful arts education and the inspiration behind YOLA.
“In this case, we are transforming that concept. It’s not that the community comes to us, it’s that we go to the community.”
YOLA had been working with community partners in Inglewood for several years when the idea arose to acquire the city-owned building, which is nestled among City Hall, police headquarters and the public library. It is also at the center of a development and infrastructure renaissance, following decades of deep decline, that ultimately will include new light rail stations — meaning children from other neighborhoods will be coming to Inglewood for a world-class music education. More than a symbolic gesture, the move illuminates how cultural and economic power are geographically dispersed, and how targeted projects within the current, steroidal construction boom might offer alternatives to gentrification.
According to the L.A. Phil, there are currently only seven students from Inglewood in YOLA. When the new center is complete, at least 35 percent of YOLA Center participants will come from the Inglewood School District (which has for years been plagued by financial turmoil and declining enrollment).
In addition to doubling the number of students YOLA serves (currently around 1,300) by 2022, L.A. Phil hopes the prestigious new center will support its leadership role in creating models for intensive arts education that can be replicated throughout the Southland and beyond.
“It has to be a partnership. We have to work with communities who want to work with us,” L.A. Phil chief operating officer Chad Smith told the Weekly, when asked where they might go next. “It’s not just transactional, the work we do. … It’s allowed us to get to know the city of Los Angeles in a very kind of granular way. It’s changed the institution, changed the way we define ourselves,” he said, calling YOLA an integral part of programming, rather than a parallel activity.
“We try to create a program which is about replicable models. In reality there are 575,000 kids in LAUSD. The L.A. Phil is not going to be able to scale up YOLA to that size. But it can continue to increase numbers … and in a really intense way. This is 15 hours a week for these kids, it’s a very in-depth program,” Smith said.
Whether driven by the passions of Dudamel or by more calculated organizational directives, that spirit of expansive, symbiotic community engagement complements an ambitious artistry that has propelled the organization’s ascendance in recent years. Approaching its centennial anniversary with a dynamic season of programing, L.A. Phil is riding high on a wave of elan and historic successes that last year prompted The New York Times to declare it “America’s most important orchestra. Period.”
For Dudamel, who sees arts education as “a right for the people,” and argues that spaces for underprivileged children should be the best, most inspirational spaces available, housing YOLA in Inglewood is “a message to the world … this place will signify dignity” — while the design is “a metaphor that says beauty matters.”
Gehry, who along with other design partners took on the project pro bono and sought ways to make the most of a tight budget, acknowledged that transformative spaces needn’t be “precious.” Recalling the widely lauded Pierre Boulez Saal, a concert hall he coaxed from a Berlin warehouse, he said, “In that spirit I thought when I heard about this, and my offices are in Marina del Rey, which is down the block from here, and I offered to help and look at it and make it special.”
Speaking to the Weekly after the event, Gehry likened the creative process to making the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA — a former police car warehouse he renovated more than three decades ago. The YOLA Center will be a work-in-progress, built to provide 500 students with orchestra-quality rehearsal space each year and grow into other functionalities.
“The important thing I felt was that we create a room that they could have a full orchestra in and the sound would be real. So we lowered floor and raised ceiling … and that makes it reasonable. Now there’s other things that to make it a real concert hall that we can’t afford to do right now. Lots of stuff. But this will do and we’ll outfit it as we go,” Gehry said.
“There’ll be places where we have echoes and things that we’ll have to fix. ... And, it’s not expensive, it’s just putting sound dampening and reflective and breaking down the scale of the wall so there’s a texture, so it refines the sound and stuff like that. The first go-round doesn’t do that. But it will be real enough for a full orchestra of kids to go in there and play, and it will be real enough that I’m hoping members of the Phil will want to come and play with them.”
Gehry is working with master acoustician and frequent collaborator Dr. Yasuhisa Toyota, who, as he put it, is responsible for making Walt Disney Concert Hall “the most perfect in the world.”
Toyota described the challenge of meeting high expectations for a project that means so much to the community — and in a space where programming will not be simple or singular but built around a large, adaptable central space with temporary divisions (the details of which he said are currently being worked out).
“Not only for rehearsal space and an orchestra, but also together with several ensembles. And also the place where we would expect communication in many different ways. So programming-wise, it’s very challenging,” he said.
Compared to Disney Concert Hall? “I’d say maybe this is more challenging,” Toyota said, smiling. “In many ways, yeah.”
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Construction is expected to begin this spring and wrap by summer 2020, and the redesign will transform the existing 17,000-square-foot building into a 25,000-square-foot campus. The Inglewood site will be the first dedicated facility but it adds to existing programing in Rampart, South L.A., MacArthur Park and East L.A. Smith said L.A. Phil is in talks with Gehry to consider a South Gate location next, part of the architect’s master plan for L.A. River revitalization, but has not made any decisions.
L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas described YOLA as part of a broader movement in the county to “use the power of the arts to tackle challenging social problems” by focusing on inclusion and equality.
“This is the first,” he said. “There are other sites, more land, more young people, more interest, and the county has more capacity to invest in it. I do not expect them to end here. … We’re going to seek to replicate.”
[Ed. note: L.A. Phil COO Chad Smith was misidentified as Brad Smith. We regret the error.]