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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.