The Walt Disney Concert Hall, which recently opened in Los Angeles, culminates and synthesizes several strong directions in contemporary architecture: a new freedom, unleashed by digital technology; society’s need for cultural expression; Los Angeles’s advancing urban trajectory; Frank Gehry’s personal maturity as artist and architect, and the increasing mastery of the men and women who practice with him. Like the symphonic music it houses, the structure of Disney Hall knits together individual motifs, offering a coherent, polyphonic whole in a single, compelling work emblematic of this moment’s whirling, unrealized aspirations.
Like other great works of architecture, the Disney Hall invites analogies, including comparisons to music. Several immediately come to mind. With its centralized, spectacular organ and broad, oval interior focused on a central stage; with its propensity to soar spatially and to embellish a spare volume with particular details; with its tendency toward ascendance and resolution, the interior of the Disney recalls the Baroque: the Bach of the St. Matthew’s Passion or the chorales.
With its strong forms and gleaming appearance, the inclination might be to view the building as an isolated act of brio, of simply showing off. However, other antecedents hover overhead. Architecturally, the exterior envelope suggests kinship with Borromini or the later Corbusier, with its asymmetrical, balanced gathering of forces addressing the street. Yet Borromini-Corbu married to Gustav Mahler, whose great chordal sheets twist and crash and rise again like waves, as do the walls of the Disney.
Symbolically, the structure signifies the end of the freeway in a great metal leap—a steel temple to American aspirations of freedom and mobility that have coalesced in Los Angeles. Simultaneously, the Disney Hall brings a fully realized urban awareness, offering a rich variety of experiences to city dwellers and to visitors. The project abounds in points of view out to the larger downtown, including decks, apertures, full windows, a garden, an amphitheater, multiple staircases, and solid walls that provide a rectilinear podium or plinth to contain the complexity above.
While the development of the Disney has followed a circuitous path, its progress has been mapped in a clear succession of models in full public view. We thought we knew it well. Yet no familiarity with its development prepares the visitor for its unfolding array of surprises. To enter the lobby is to be confounded by opposing three-dimensional forces, in which curving walls drop behind strongly delineated structural members, and pathways offer promise of new experiences around a corner. This calculated spatial drama draws upward, away from the primary entrance to opposed oblong stairwells that ascend to skylit atria—two totally unexpected pathways of spiraling ramps with ocean-liner luxe.
The interior, for all its capacity, achieves grandeur and intimacy simultaneously. At no seat in the house, with the exception of the highest rows, does the space overwhelm. Instead, the hall offers a comforting sense of intimacy throughout, binding audience and performer in shared experience. While the acoustical qualities await a more complete analysis, initial reports suggest aural, as well as visual, presence.
Architectural historians may argue that only time can seal a building’s worth, that what may seem appealing today may fade in tomorrow’s daylight. The details will have to hold; it must not rust. However, the ambitious Disney Concert Hall warrants taking a critical risk. More demanding programmatically than the Guggenheim at Bilbao (whose planning it precedes), more powerful and fully realized, perhaps, than anything this architect has yet accomplished—sculpturally, urbanistically, and as an integrated unity of interior and exterior elements—the hall deserves calling by a word we use sparingly, if ever: Masterpiece.