When the Los Angeles Philharmonic (LA Phil) made Gustavo Dudamel its music director, in 2009, his resumé went well beyond leading professional orchestras. The Venezuelan-born conductor, then only 28, also had deep knowledge of El Sistema, the program, founded in his native country, that gives intensive musical training, mentoring, and orchestral experience, free of charge, to youth in low-income and underserved areas. As Dudamel — himself an El Sistema alumnus and longtime director of its youth orchestra — knew, it is rigorous and immersive, based on the idea of empowering social change through music. It was also the model for the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA), a community outreach program that the LA Phil had launched a couple of years earlier. “That was one of the main reasons I came to LA,” said Dudamel recently, emphasizing his passion for El Sistema’s now widely emulated approach and mission. In just over a decade, YOLA has grown from 80 students in a single venue to 1,200 pupils in four sites across the city, each partnering with an existing educational institution. And now, as the Philharmonic enters its centennial year, YOLA has just unveiled plans for a permanent home of its own—a mothership to its other locations—designed by Frank Gehry.

Frank Gehry
Photo © Craig T. Mathew

The architect, who created the Walt Disney Concert Hall—LA Phil’s main performance space— in downtown Los Angeles, will be converting a one-story, 1960s bank building in Inglewood, California, for this thriving community program, whose ensembles have performed in top venues around the world. The new facility will accommodate up to 500 students, advancing LA Phil’s goal of doubling YOLA’s current enrollment, across all its locations, by 2022. Inglewood, in southwest Los Angeles County, was chosen because of its population of underserved families, and also, says LA Phil CEO Simon Woods, because it “has become a community on the move, an increasingly happening place, with supportive leadership that gets things done.” Currently, the city is in the midst of ambitious renewal, including the introduction of a sports-and-entertainment district with a new NFL stadium (slated to host the 2022 Super Bowl).

For YOLA’s headquarters there, Gehry intends to expand the former bank’s existing rectilinear pavilion from 18,000 to 25,000 square feet, enabling it to house a 4,450-square-foot, 260-seat concert hall at its core (reconfigurable and sub-dividable for rehearsal modes), along with practice, ensemble, and recording rooms. While the banking hall was already column free, the renovation will drop its floor into the basement and raise part of its roof. “To achieve great acoustics, I knew we had to clear that magic number of 45 feet in ceiling height over the orchestra,” says Gehry, who has taken on the project pro bono (as he has done for other community arts organizations). “Of course,” he adds, “I roped in my friend Yasuhisa Toyota,” the acoustician who also collaborated with him on such works as Disney Hall. The $14.5 million project in Inglewood—to be named the Judith and Thomas L. Beckmen YOLA Center—will have a glassy facade that renders the midcentury sensibility of the existing storefront, with its original shading canopy or arcade, even more transparent and welcoming. From the street, it will be possible to look all the way down into the raked auditorium and also see people mingling on the mezzanine just behind the facade. A large day-lit volume, a lantern by night, will project upward from the flat roof, giving the concert hall added height where it’s needed most. (This pop-up will have shading and acoustic treatment.) The architect describes his design for this creative workplace and learning venue as “flexible and not precious.”

In the spirit of El Sistema’s emphasis on engaging not just its students, but also the families and broader community, the center will welcome other communal activities (to be determined) during the hours when YOLA—primarily an after-school program—is not in session.  

Construction is slated to begin in early spring 2019, with completion in the summer of 2020.

“It’s been a real journey since the beginning,” says Dudamel. “And giving our children, however challenging their backgrounds, the very best—a place of inspiration—will be a dream come true.”