Walt Disney Concert Hall: A Los Angeles Cultural Icon

Main image for article titled Walt Disney Concert Hall: A Los Angeles Cultural Icon
Photo courtesy of Candice Montgomery, Flickr 

A trip to Los Angeles isn’t complete without visiting Walt Disney Concert Hall (WDCH), one of the city's premier cultural destinations and home to the LA Phil and the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

From the stunning architecture to the incomparable sound and tranquil public garden, WDCH has become one of the symbols of Los Angeles since its grand opening on Oct. 24, 2003.

Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry, with acoustics by Dr. Yasuhisa Toyota, WDCH is part of The Music Center’s collection of world-class performing arts venues and outdoor spaces. Along with WDCH, the Music Center's venues include Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Ahmanson Theatre, and Mark Taper Forum. Other Grand Avenue cultural attractions include The Broad (next door to WDCH) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and the Colburn School, both across the street.

Read the story of Walt Disney Concert Hall and discover why it's considered one of the best in the world, why Angelenos embraced it as a symbol of LA's rise as a cultural destination, and why it's a must-see attraction for visitors.

Walt Disney Concert Hall at sunset
Walt Disney Concert Hall at sunset | Photo: The Music Center

History

In the mid-1990s, construction at Walt Disney Concert Hall had come to a halt. Estimated costs of the building had increased to $265 million, well above Lillian Disney’s initial donation of $50 million, which launched the project in 1987. At one point, Los Angeles County was close to pulling the plug on the civic project. The building itself was little more than a steel skeleton.

It’s a far cry from the smooth Douglas fir columns and bright stainless steel curves that characterize WDCH today. The hall is undisputedly an iconic building - it's one of the most recognizable concert halls in the world. With its sleek, machine-inspired aesthetic working with the warm interior woods and floral patterns, the hall has helped push Los Angeles to the forefront of global cultural destinations.

In retrospect, it’s miraculous that WDCH was completed. After near-failure, the project picked up momentum again with donations from civic leaders such as the late billionaire/philanthropist Eli Broad and former mayor Richard Riordan - each contributed $5 million toward the rejuvenation of construction. Broad, along with former Chairman of the Music Center Andrea Van de Kamp and County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, took the lead in fundraising efforts, drawing in donations from major corporations like ARCO.

More was at stake than just the concert hall. The project was a linchpin in the redevelopment of Downtown LA as a cultural destination. If WDCH failed, it would have signaled to the world that Los Angeles couldn’t pull together to support its cultural community. But with Broad and others at the forefront, donations began pouring in. At the fundraising deadline, the project had received more than $100 million to complete the ambitious structure. The Disney-style magical ending proved that LA could unite to create a civic icon. It was also a reminder that Grand Avenue was once called Charity Street.

Many look at the Downtown LA renaissance and consider WDCH a major reason for its revival. All it took was 16 years, $274 million, 30,000 architectural drawings, 300 tons of bolts and welds, and 12,500 pieces of primary steel.

Pipe organ at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Pipe organ at Walt Disney Concert Hall  |  Photo: Gustavo Turner

Highlights

Tree Columns
As you step inside the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation Atrium Hall, you’ll notice the large columns clad in Douglas fir. Although aesthetically pleasing, the columns contain the inner workings of the building and deliver air conditioning and lighting to the main lobby. The "tree trunks" are an example of WDCH’s dialogue with nature. Throughout the hall, you’ll see how Gehry was inspired by Lillian Disney’s love of gardening - she once told Gehry that she wanted the hall to feel like a little cottage in England covered with vines. That was Gehry's "aha" moment for incorporating her wishes into his design. In addition to the tree trunks, you’ll find floral patterns of the fabric (named "Lillian") used in the carpet and seating; and flowering motifs throughout the public garden area.

Walt Disney Concert Hall steel panels
Photo: Walt Disney Concert Hall

Steel Elements
Many people are surprised to learn that Gehry originally wanted the hall to be covered in stone. He changed his mind after some time - and prodding by civic leaders - and decided to go with stainless steel. All the curves that Gehry envisioned made the building extremely difficult to construct. Gehry and his team used aerospace software called CATIA (Computer-Aided Three-Dimensional Interactive Application) to piece the steel beams together. In fact, the project was so historic and labor intensive that many of the steel workers signed their names on the structural beams. Also worth noting is the exterior area of the Founders Room. Shortly after the hall's opening, tenants of the neighboring condos complained that the glare from the building’s stainless steel skin heated up their rooms by as much as 15 degrees. The solution was to dull the surface and reduce glare with a new finish.

"A Rose for Lilly" at Walt Disney Concert Hall
"A Rose for Lilly" at Walt Disney Concert Hall  |  Photo: Yuri Hasegawa

A Rose for Lilly
The rooftop garden serves both as a public space and an urban oasis for Downtown LA locals. Forty-five trees represent six different varieties from Orchid Trees to Pink Trumpet Trees. All the trees come from Los Angeles and were installed using a 350-ton crane. The designers scoured the city for the best trees, and often bought trees from private residences. The views range from the nearby Central Library to the Hollywood Sign and the San Gabriel Mountains.

As you stroll the garden, you’ll come upon a wonderfully orchestrated fountain. Gehry designed "A Rose for Lilly" as a tribute to the hall’s initial donor. Knowing that Lillian loved Royal Deft porcelain, Gehry's team broke more than 200 vases and 8,000 tiles to create a mosaic for the fountain. Even with a team of eight artists working nearly seven days a week, it took more than four months to complete the fountain. The fountain is the size of a large SUV and weighs about 15 tons. Look closely at the fountain for "signature" tiles - some of them are tributes to Gehry, others include an artist’s personal touch.

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the LA Phil
Gustavo Dudamel conducts the LA Phil | Photo: LA Phil, Facebook

Acoustics

The auditorium at Walt Disney Concert Hall sits like a pearl in Gehry’s architectural wonder. In contrast to the cool steel of the building exterior, the auditorium conveys warmth and intimacy in its lofty sail-like curves and rich woods.

But where the room really creates magic is in its acoustics. The sound, so important for the home of the LA Phil and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, makes Walt Disney Concert Hall one of the best in the world. Members of the orchestra don’t declare this lightly. They traveled to concert halls around the world and chose halls in Berlin, Boston and Amsterdam for acoustical standards.

In combination with Gehry’s philosophy that the hall should welcome the city, the sound creates a unique communal experience for visitors. Suitably, Gehry described the auditorium as a wooden boat that takes the orchestra and audience on a journey. In the early stages of tuning, acoustician Dr. Yasuhisa Toyota claimed that the billowing ceiling and warm woods actually improved the sound.

The “vineyard style” of the stage — in which the audience unconventionally surrounds the orchestra — also adds to the communal experience of the hall. As Gehry said, he wanted a space where the orchestra and the audience would have intimate dialogues with each other. It’s exactly this experience that makes Walt Disney Concert Hall one of LA's bucket list cultural icons.