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Building an Icon: The Making of Walt Disney Concert Hall

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A Living Room for the City

A Gift for the LA Phil
Lillian B. Disney, in honor of her late husband Walt Disney, donated $50 million to the Music Center for a new concert hall.  The Disney family had a long-standing association with the Music Center, and the donation was a reflection of her husband’s love of music, a love he had shared with the world in his collaboration with conductor Leopold Stokowski to combine classical music with animation in the 1940 film Fantasia.

A Living Room for the City
Architect Frank Gehry envisioned a place in which people would come together and feel comfortable doing so - an iconic destination with which people would identify and think of as their own. He wanted to create “a living room for the city” where music would be accessible to great numbers of people.

I’m trying to make a building that invites you in - the body language is welcoming.
Frank Gehry


16 Years in the Making 


It took 16 years from Lillian B. Disney’s initial gift in 1987 to the time Walt Disney Concert Hall was ready for the public. When it finally opened in October 2003, it was recognized as an architectural masterpiece and acoustical marvel, forever changing the musical landscape of Los Angeles.

The Architect
Finding an architect for Walt Disney Concert Hall began in 1987 with a committee headed by attorney and real estate developer Fred Nicholas. An initial list of 80 architects from around the world was whittled down to 25, then six, and then to the final four.

Among the four was architect Frank Gehry, who may very well be the one architect alive whose imagination has so much in common with Walt Disney’s. His work offers a sense of wonder and delight with serious undertones, similar to Disney’s movies. Gehry has an intuitive ability to understand what people want, with an immediacy that connects to all types of people.

Gehry won the commission decisively, with a thoroughly considered design and the potential for a highly original architectural statement. With its openness and space for lush gardens, Gehry’s scheme evidenced a full understanding of what a building in Los Angeles should be.

Architect Frank Gehry
Architect Frank Gehry
Frank Gehry's original sketch of what would become Walt Disney Concert Hall
Frank Gehry's original sketch of what would become Walt Disney Concert Hall

Gehry’s competition-winning project proposal for Walt Disney Concert Hall marked just the beginning of the design process. Now, with the architect named, the client group could begin to address the complex set of issues involved in the Concert Hall’s planning and implementation. Among the key concerns were the acoustics of the Hall, use of the overall site, urban planning beyond the immediate site, and the contractual agreements among the entities involved.

The design of the hall and acoustics evolved together, as Gehry designed the Hall from the inside out. Dr. Minoru Nagata was selected as the acoustician because of the bright and clear, yet warm, sound of Tokyo’s acclaimed Suntory Hall. He and his assistant, Yasuhisa Toyota (who became chief Concert Hall acoustician upon Nagata’s retirement in 1994), worked with Gehry by fax machine and traveled to Los Angeles monthly.

The building of Walt Disney Concert Hall became ever more complicated, and the decision-making turned cumbersome and lengthy. A complex mesh of political, planning, management, and bidding problems led to a shutdown of the project in 1994. But in 1996, through press articles, key events, professional support, and a fund-raising campaign, Walt Disney Concert Hall began to show signs of life. When it at last opened in October 2003, this architectural masterpiece and acoustical marvel forever changed the musical landscape of Los Angeles.

Time lapse of Walt Disney Concert Hall construction

In the end, what matters most, of course, extends beyond the people and the particulars of its creation to the future life of the building itself. Walt Disney Concert Hall has engaged audiences with the greatest ideas in music and architecture. The space of the Concert Hall has challenged conductors and musicians to rise to a new level of performance. It has transformed the Los Angeles Philharmonic, inspiring it to be more daring and creative, just like the city of Los Angeles itself.


Designed from the Inside Out

From its striking outside to its intimate inside, Walt Disney Concert Hall is an architectural marvel that never loses sight of its main function - bringing music to the city of Los Angeles and beyond. Get to know the building that architect Frank Gehry designed “from the inside out.” 

Virtual Tour
Take a high-def virtual tour in and around Walt Disney Concert Hall. Explore the lobby, auditorium, backstage and garden, then read on to learn more about the unique features that make up the world’s most iconic concert hall.

The virtual tour experience begins on the corner of 1st Street and Grand Avenue atop Bunker Hill in Downtown Los Angeles.

The first view of Walt Disney Concert Hall most people see is the curving stainless steel skin of the building’s exterior. Resembling silver sails, the curves echo the billows in the auditorium and play off the bowed cornice of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, forging a link between new and old. 

In architect Frank Gehry’s original design, Walt Disney Concert Hall was intended to be clad in stone. After receiving much acclaim for his titanium building in Bilbao, however, he was urged to change the stone to metal. With this new material Gehry was able to tweak the shape of the exterior, creating the iconic silver sails we see today.

Gehry’s team visualized the lobby as a transparent, light-filled “living room for the city,” opening onto the sidewalk. In contrast to the tightly enclosed foyer of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the lobby would have a separate identity and serve as a symbolic bridge between everyday life and the inner sanctum. Walt Disney Concert Hall was intended to be a center of civic activity, not just a destination for concertgoers.

Inside the warm, Douglas fir-lined interior are 2,265 seats that are steeply raked and surround the stage. Ernest Fleischmann, former Executive Director of the LA Phil, felt that balconies and boxes reinforced a social hierarchy and proscenium arches separated players from listeners, and he urged that they be eliminated. In Walt Disney Concert Hall, the orchestra plays in the space in which the audience sits. The vineyard style seating brings the audience close to the orchestra and offers an intimate view of the musicians and conductor from any seat.

The stage, made from Alaskan yellow cedar, provides resonance and can be configured to hold larger performing forces by removing the first rows in Orchestra View (behind the stage).

Past the barge with billowing sails is a public park that doubles as an oasis for concertgoers. At the center of the garden is a rose fountain dedicated to Lillian Disney, who provided the initial donation for the Concert Hall. The fountain is constructed from broken pieces of Delft China, Lillian’s favorite. Gehry named the fountain, “A Rose for Lilly.”


Connecting Musicians to the Audience 

Walt Disney Concert Hall is one of the most sophisticated concert halls in the world. The design of the Hall and its acoustics evolved together.

Acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota on the collaboration of sound design and architectural design at Walt Disney Concert Hall

The Perfect Instrument
When architect Frank Gehry designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, he took into account how musicians would experience the building. He believed if the sound is good, the musicians would feel more confident and, in turn, would play better. With this in mind, Gehry worked closely with expert acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota and then-Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen to create the perfect instrument for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Acoustical Details
An orchestra is only as good as the hall they play in, and to that extent, a hall becomes an instrument of its orchestra.

In the building of Walt Disney Concert Hall, acoustic tests were performed on a one-tenth-scale model. Everything had to be reduced by the same amount, which required that the frequency of sounds be increased tenfold to reduce the wavelength to a tenth of normal, and the model was filled with nitrogen to expel the oxygen and water vapor that absorb high-frequency sounds. Testing was considered dangerous since no one could breathe in the oxygen-deficient model.

The acoustical clarity of Walt Disney Concert Hall caused members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic to be both excited and anxious. Repertoire that they had learned, and knew how to play well, would have to be relearned in the new Hall.

Walt Disney Concert Hall auditorium ceiling with the ribbon effect to help with acoustics
Every aspect of Walt Disney Concert Hall auditorium was designed with acoustics in mind. No feature of the Hall better demonstrates the fusion of acoustical imperatives and architectural invention than the ceiling.
Model of the auditorium
Model of the auditorium


Inspired Form, Flawless Function

A dominant feature of Walt Disney Concert Hall is the 6,134-pipe organ that towers above the rear of the stage, its external pipes often referred to as “French fries.”

Architect Frank Gehry devoted a great deal of time to the design. He worked with Los Angeles organ designer and builder Manuel J. Rosales to create something different from a typical church organ with its rows and rows of metal tubes. Gehry’s initial designs included pipes hanging from the ceiling and the organist in a cage halfway up the wall. Rosales found the concepts fanciful and marvelous, but he knew there was no way they would lead to the construction of a practical musical instrument.

Eventually, Gehry presented a concept that looked like a cluster of flowers shooting out of the ground. Rosales found this design wonderful and agreed that it was something they could pursue. Rosales recommended European organ builder Casper von Glatter-Götz to fabricate and install the many complex components. What we see today is the dramatically splayed composition of beams which Gehry refers to as “French fries.” (And they are certainly Super-Sized!)

The famous “French fries” of the Walt Disney Concert Hall organ

Because of its complex design, Rosales requested that the organ not be finished until 2004, one year after the opening of the Hall. He would need to “voice” the organ and the process required absolute silence in the Hall, meaning that no rehearsals could take place during tuning. Rosales would place a weight on a single key to test the note and then walk around the Hall listening from various seats. Judging one note could take up to 30 minutes. Only such detail in tuning would produce the best possible instrument.

"The Walt Disney Concert Hall Organ" – watch videos and learn more about the organ

Defining Downtown LA

Changing the Face and Energy of the City


Walt Disney Concert Hall captured the eyes and ears of the world from the moment it opened, radically reshaping the cultural landscape of Los Angeles.

A Symbol of the City
Located at the corner of First Street and Grand Avenue, Walt Disney Concert Hall is a long-held dream become an exhilarating reality. As the powerfully beating heart of the city, it catalyzed the astonishing artistic, civic, and social revitalization of downtown Los Angeles. In this remarkable new home, the LA Phil entered a new chapter in its history we continue to write today.