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Architecture as a Medium

Watch & Listen

Architecture at its best can excite people and inspire new ways of thinking. It is not neutral nor an innocuous shell but is a medium able to communicate emotions and evoke new experiences through form, light, sound, and texture.

There are few greater examples of this effect than Walt Disney Concert Hall. Not only has the building’s architecture set the stage for some of the world’s most innovative musical programming, but it has also provided a medium for cutting-edge installations, cross-pollinating groundbreaking technology and art.

From the first sketch to the final drawings, architect Frank Gehry had envisioned Walt Disney Concert Hall as an immersive experience that extended well beyond its interior function. This is seen not only in the luscious forms that make up the steel structure but is further understood when we hear about the architect’s initial plans for the facade.

Exterior of WDCH.
Projections by Refik Anadol Studio on the exterior of the Walt Disney Concert Hall during the kickoff of the L.A. Phil’s centennial on Sept. 28, 2018. (Photo Credit: Dustin Downing)

Unbeknown to most, Gehry originally wanted Walt Disney Concert Hall clad in stone. Stone, he felt, would take on the ambient light of downtown LA at night and create a warm, welcoming glow. However, the cost of the support structure for such material would have been astronomical. As an alternative, the architect and his team pursued steel for the billowing exterior. 

Gehry’s choice of metal tied into his hope that concerts happening inside the structure might be shown, in real time, on the outside of the building for passersby to enjoy. The architect envisioned clips of the musicians and conductor performing projected on different panels. Set to the music playing within, the building would truly become a “living room for the city” from inside out.

When designing the building, Gehry tested multiple types of steel to ensure the best projection. The use of stainless-steel panels instead of titanium panels allowed for a high-gloss, reflective finish on the building that would be ideal for video display. This would not have been achievable had he used titanium (as seen with the Guggenheim in Bilbao), and the building would have been far more muted and darker at night.

Though all the pieces fell into place for his vision, ultimately the idea “got shot down,” Gehry told the Los Angeles Times. “It was thought that was offering people who couldn’t afford it to see it secondhand, and that was a demeaning thing. That was brought up by important people in the county.”

It would take 15 years for a version of Gehry’s vision for the exterior to finally come to fruition.

Refik Anadol (Photo Credit: Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)
Refik Anadol (Photo Credit: Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)

In 2018, LA-based Turkish American artist Refik Anadol brought his installation WDCH Dreams to Walt Disney Concert Hall. Anadol, alongside researchers at Google’s Artists and Machine Intelligence program, worked to apply machine intelligence and cloud-computing resources to the orchestra’s digital archives, comprising 587,763 image files, 1,880 video files, 1,483 metadata files, and 17,773 audio files (nearly 45 terabytes of data). 

According to Anadol, “The files were parsed into millions of data points that were then categorized by hundreds of attributes, by deep neural networks with the capacity to both remember the totality of the LA Phil’s ‘memories’ and create new connections between them.” 

WDCH Dreams: Relive the Full Epic Performance in HD

To visually realize these “memories,” Anadol employed 42 large-scale projectors with 50K visual resolution, 8-channel sound, and 1.2M luminance. The resulting patterns—or “data sculptures” as he calls them—formed by the machine interpretation of the archives were displayed directly onto the exterior of the Hall’s facade. The accompanying music, meanwhile, was hand-picked from the LA Phil’s archival recordings. Sound designers Robert Thomas and Kerim Karaoglu then augmented these selections using machine-learning algorithms to find similar performances in the LA Phil’s extensive digital archives.

Interior of WDCH featuring a virtual mosaic by Refik Anadol.
Interior of WDCH featuring a virtual mosaic by Refik Anadol.

WDCH Dreams was not Anadol’s first time using Walt Disney Concert Hall’s architecture as a canvas. He had previously created a video installation that transformed the Hall’s interior into a virtual mosaic tuned to Edgard Varèse’s Amériques. Anadol, in fact, had always been inspired by the building, and even made the idea of using the exterior the subject of his master’s thesis while at UCLA just a few years earlier.

Screenshots from Thought Experiments in F# Minor.

The building has continued to serve as an arresting backdrop in cinema and television as well as for other innovative works of art, including the Hall’s popular Thought Experiments in F# Minor.

Monday through Saturday, visitors are invited to take an immersive AR journey to discover a fantastical world created by acclaimed multimedia artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. The video, experienced through an iPad mini and headphones, is an immersive, 360-degree sensory experience that takes you through the architectural voids of Walt Disney Concert Hall and fills them with art, dance, and, of course, music from the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra.