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The Communal Relationship

Watch & Listen

Frank Gehry’s impact on the spaces in which we hear orchestral music cannot be overestimated. He famously designed the iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall from the “inside out,” form following function to create a welcoming home for live music.

Although Gehry broke new ground in rendering the building’s oft-photographed steel wave exterior, it was the interior—with its acoustical clarity and its vineyard-style seating surrounding the stage—that set a new standard for concert halls worldwide. Gehry’s revolution was to foreground the orchestra-audience relationship and create a democratic space where they could be in dialogue.

Walt Disney Concert Hall maintains the same impact it had upon its opening in 2003: it still appears futuristic; it still evokes wonder in passersby. The way in which classical music is presented, however, has evolved, and the boundaries between disciplines are more porous than ever. Gehry has himself contributed set pieces to productions on the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage, including the LA Phil’s performance of Don Giovanni and choreographer Lucinda Childs’s Available Light. Here Gehry speaks with journalist Reed Johnson about how he might approach designing Walt Disney Concert Hall differently today, as well as what the future may hold for concert hall construction and his own plans to design a center for the LA Phil’s Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) program.


JOHNSON: If you were designing Walt Disney Concert Hall today from scratch, are there things you’d do differently? Are there features you would enhance or tone down to accommodate the way concert halls are changing?

GEHRY: For Disney Hall, the client brief to me was, “Design a classical music concert hall.” Period. They weren’t thinking of ballet, they weren’t thinking of opera, they weren’t thinking of film—they weren’t thinking of all those things. At that point, the number of concert halls that worked for classical music were few. The best example was the Berlin Philharmonie. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the first one that brought the people into a communal relationship with the orchestra. That was a breakthrough.

That’s a crucial element in all the performing arts: the audience-performer relationship. If you’ve given a speech in a hall that’s crappy, where you don’t feel the audience, you’re uncomfortable. I’ve experienced it many times myself. People don’t think about what Shakespeare said, that all the world’s a stage. We are all actors on the stage, talking to each other. And the place where we’re acting has to promote the interaction, so that it’s not off-putting, so that it’s seamless, so that the performers are playing music, and they’re acting, and they’re doing their thing—and you in the audience are with them. That’s the biggest goal. I think we got there quite a bit with Disney Hall.

We did plan to have an orchestra pit; there is space under the stage for an orchestra pit that was in the original design. It was value-engineered out, because they didn’t think that they would ever need it. But I do think that the new [performances] coming down the pike could use that. It didn’t have to be totally submerged; it didn’t have to be a Bayreuth pit. You want to see the musicians, you want to see the orchestra, you want to feel their presence, because it’s a concert hall. But you also want to see the musicians’ relationship to the actors and the singers.

JOHNSON: Whereas when you designed the set for the opera Don Giovanni in 2012, you had to put Gustavo Dudamel and the musicians toward the back of the stage.

GEHRY: Well, that was something we tried. If you put the orchestra back there, they can’t conduct the singers. But Gustavo said, “Let’s try it.” We knew it was going to be problematic. And it was difficult. We wouldn’t do that again. In a traditional opera house, you don’t see the musicians; if you’re lucky you see the top of the conductor’s head. But I think when you bring opera in to a concert hall, it’s a different kind of thing. If we build an orchestra [pit], it looks like we’re trying to become the opera house, and I don’t think anybody has that intention.

We are all actors on the stage, talking to each other. And the place where we’re acting has to promote the interaction, so that it’s not off-putting, so that it’s seamless, so that the performers are playing music, and they’re acting, and they’re doing their thing—and you in the audience are with them.
Frank Gehry

JOHNSON: Do you sense a tendency of wanting to bring all performers closer to the audience, and vice-versa?

GEHRY: It’s complicated because you don’t want them to be a distraction. You want them to be an intrinsic part of it. And then when you bring film in, that adds another layer. Sometimes the film is a distraction; people look at the movie and don’t hear the music.

JOHNSON: Is there a way to deal with film or video architecturally?

We’ve tried a bunch of stuff. In Miami at the New World Symphony Hall, Michael Tilson Thomas had to teach conducting on the Internet to orchestra students in foreign countries. So they would be in their hall, with their orchestra, and Michael was in Miami with his orchestra, and they were seeing what he was doing and he could stop and critique them. So there was a back-and-forth that the multiple screens helped. But the opening concert in Miami was Polaris by Thomas Adès, and they had a big film thing, and the film was extraordinarily beautiful. But it and the music kind of competed with each other, even though they were written to be together. So it’s not a slam-dunk. People are attracted to the film over the performers. The film is more seductive.

JOHNSON: What advances in design, materials, or technology will impact how future concert halls are built?

GEHRY: We’re always looking for new technology. We always have been exploring the highest level of computer stuff you can get, that can serve the construction industry. But the construction industry is slow to take it in. [Laughs] They want to remain somehow in the past. They’re getting there, but it could be a lot faster. For example, they still use 2D drawings. There’s no need to use 2D drawings anymore. There’s no need for the building department to have 2D drawings to approve a building; it’s confusing. 3D drawings coordinate the trades three-dimensionally. You know, the last time I looked, air ducts are three-dimensional, pipes are three-dimensional, and walls are three-dimensional! So we’re dealing with three-dimensional objects in space.

But, boy, there are some vested interests out there that don’t want to let it happen. Some people are like, “Don’t bother me with that kind of stuff, I just want to do it the way I always do it. I feel comfortable doing it that way. I know it takes longer, I know it costs money, but I know what it is.” Versus, “How does that work?” [Laughs] But we’ve talked to the insurance companies; everybody would come in to play, and it would be win-win for everybody. The insurance guys, in my discussions with them twenty years ago when I first started proposing this stuff, [said] that they would lower premiums based on the amount of detail. So I see that as the future, as a big plus—it’ll happen.

JOHNSON: You attend concerts and performances at Disney Hall all the time. What else have you noticed about the way the hall functions that you didn’t expect?

GEHRY: Well, we designed it for classical music. So that meant that giving speeches in there was not intended, or bringing actors on stage, or doing jazz, or doing whatever different manifestations that contemporary music brought to the table with electronics and stuff like that. The building wasn’t set up for that. For the first few months there was trouble. For example, a jazz concert needs amplification, but if you put amplification in a room that’s very “live” you get a muddle. So there were challenging times with some of the concerts. But over time they figured it out.

JOHNSON: How about the other parts of Disney Hall—dining areas, rehearsal rooms, other public areas—what sorts of changes would you envision for these types of areas in the concert halls of the future?

GEHRY: Well, they could be more user-friendly for the people going there. When Disney Hall was being built, they hired other people to do that. So I had my problems with it, but maybe they’re my ego problems! [Laughs] It could be done better, I think, and we’re hoping to do better—we’re hoping to do things with it. With the coming of the Grand Avenue commercial project across the road, the developers have offered to help us with the programming of the commercial parts of our building. So that’ll be a big asset if we pull it off.

JOHNSON: It was recently announced that you’ll be designing a new space for YOLA, the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles. Are there any new features that you’ll be investigating with that building, elements that you’ll incorporate that you previously haven’t given full rein to?

GEHRY: Well, we did something recently in Berlin where we took an old warehouse and built a concert hall inside, and it’s been very successful. YOLA is not about doing that, quite. YOLA is a school for children. So it’s going to be rougher, it’s not going to be fancy. It’s an old building, an existing building, and it’s got its limitations. In order to do a proper venue for real orchestral works, there has to be more volume—the ceiling has to be higher. We’re studying that. That’s a serious cost issue. We’re trying to figure out if it’s feasible with their budget. It’s not intended to be a finished hall or a venue for paid concerts, but it may become that because the YOLA program is turning out to be incredibly high-quality. I think it’s a work in progress; we’ll see how it goes. It might warrant doing the extra work.

JOHNSON: Concert etiquette still is holding up pretty well. People still unwrap their throat lozenges at concert halls, but they don’t use cellphones, they don’t shoot selfies when the orchestra is playing, they don’t tweet and text. But those things have become commonplace at most entertainment and cultural venues. Do you think that’s something that classical halls will need to address—this desire people have to be interacting constantly with a screen?

GEHRY: Well, I think as you get into more popular realms of presentation you might find yourself mimicking the way that happens, you know what I mean? You may inadvertently fall into a performance organization that lends itself to taking pictures and stuff. I think that, as long as we stay in the classical realm, we’ll be OK.