Walt Disney Concert Hall opened its doors in 2003, but the process of conceiving the shapes and form of the iconic venue began in 1987. From initial sketches for the international architectural competition, which led to the selection of Frank Gehry, to construction and the final opening, the hall evolved as Gehry refined his ideas.
In honor of the 20th anniversary of his accomplishment, the Getty Research Institute, which holds the Frank Gehry archive, interviewed Gehry about the history of his work on Walt Disney Concert Hall for the digital exhibition Sculpting Harmony, which features more than 150 models, sketches, and archival photographs tracing the concert hall’s development. Sculpting Harmony is available at gehry.getty.edu. Selections from the interview can be read below.
On connecting the audience with the musicians…
I’ve talked to actors about this, and they always say that [feeling the audience in the room] is important. Musicians also feel that. They can feel it when the audience is disconnected, when there’s no rapport. And so that’s what I was trying to do. The concert hall before this had Continental seating, which meant the audience was spread out on the aisle so people could [more easily] walk by. Walt Disney Concert Hall’s [layout] is harder to get in and out of but feels more intimate. The payoff is incredible. The musicians tell me all the time that they feel the audience, and the audience tells me they feel so connected to the musicians. It makes a big difference.
The space connecting the audience and the performer is the most important part of it. When we were roughly 90% complete with the building, the actress Annette Bening happened to visit with Warren Beatty, her husband. I’ll never forget this. She walked out onstage and stood there for about five minutes, and she turned to me and said, “This is it. This works. I get it. Thank you.”
The musicians tell me all the time that they feel the audience, and the audience tells me they feel so connected to the musicians. It makes a big difference.
On other halls that inspired him…
The architect of the Berlin Philharmonie concert hall was Hans Scharoun. When I was appointed the architect for Walt Disney Concert Hall, the first thing I did was go to Berlin and stay there for a week. I attended all of the concerts in the Scharoun Hall and experienced the intimacy that he achieved. He was a master of people-feeling architecture.
If you go to his library, which is across the road from the Philharmonie, you sit down and you feel like you’re at home. People try to copy this. It’s more subtle than just surrounding the artist with seating. So we ended up [adjusting that idea] to still place seats around the stage but balance for acoustics. It starts to break down the shoebox model that was the paradigm of concert halls for many years. I decided to play with that idea, to not do the fan-shaped concert hall like Scharoun but go more to a hybrid shoe box like Concertgebouw [in Amsterdam].
On using wood inside the concert hall…
There are concert halls in Germany that are plaster and are beautiful. I’m not against that. We looked at that here and decided that the wood had a warmth to it that brought people feeling closer together.
On building the organ…
It was quite a saga. Ernest Fleischmann, who was the executive director of the LA Phil, didn’t want any distractions from the music. And it became clear to me that since there was going to be an organ in the hall, that it was the one opportunity to make a musical instrument that had some movement to it, some excitement architecturally that would be a centerpiece kind of sculpture.
The simplest thing we could do without getting ourselves in trouble was to break the pipes out and make a kind of a cluster, almost like a floral arrangement where the pipes are flowers. We worked with the organ builder [Manuel Rosales] to [develop] a sense of movement, something as a focal point. That led to this design.
On knowing the acoustics worked…
When the hall was nearly completed, I called [then Music Director] Esa-Pekka Salonen one night and said, “Esa-Pekka, I have calculated in my head the amount of absorptive material and reflective material, and my gut tells me it’s close.” I know it’s all under construction and that we’re going to be standing on poles in the floor. But I said, “Could you bring a musical instrument with you?”
He brought a musical instrument, all right. He brought Martin Chalifour, the concertmaster of the LA Phil. I brought my son Sam, and the four of us [stood in the hall]. The stage wasn’t quite finished, so it was wobbly. Martin stood where the conductor would be and played his violin. He did unaccompanied Bach. And it was so beautiful. I realized that Esa-Pekka, Sam, and I were holding hands, and we started to cry. It was so beautiful because we knew the sound was there.