The $274 million Walt Disney Concert Hall is perhaps the most anticipated concert hall in the world. Designed by California architect Frank Gehry, the hall was on-again, off-again for many years before its soaring stainless steel shape rose to dominate downtown Los Angeles. In the few months since it opened officially on October 23, 2003, this building has been dubbed an architectural icon; it has received a massive amount of press coverage, and has been hailed as the savior of downtown Los Angeles. What Gehry did for Bilbao, he has done for Los Angeles: create an iconoclastic structure, a “must-see” attraction that has put the city on the map.
But there is more to the 293,000 sq. ft. Disney Concert Hall than the expansive, steel and glass curves of a building with nary a right angle that sits on a full city block at the intersection of First Street and Grand Avenue in the historic Bunker Hill section of downtown L.A. As the fourth venue of the Los Angeles Music Center, joining the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Mark Taper Forum, and the Ahmanson Theatre, it has added some much-needed pizzazz to L.A.'s cultural scene. It is also the new home of the acclaimed Los Angeles Philharmonic, an orchestra that is thriving under the baton of music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, and the building reflects the energy and exuberance of the orchestra.
Gehry collaborated with acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics (based in Tokyo and Santa Monica), and Theatre Projects Consultants on the design of the 2,265-seat main auditorium. “The site was earmarked for future music center expansion in the mid-80s, pre-Bilbao,” says Richard Pilbrow, chairman of Theatre Projects, whose Norwalk, CT and London, UK offices worked on this project for over a decade (actually closer to 15 years). “The orchestra's former home, the Chandler, is a multi-purpose hall. The Disney Hall is acoustically tailored for the L.A. Philharmonic and live orchestral music,” Pilbrow points out. The Theatre Projects consultants who worked on the project include: project manager Jerry Godden; George Ellerington for stage engineering; and David Rosenburg, responsible for concert lighting and dimmer system design.
It also seems as if the hall has been tailored to attract a younger, hipper audience to come and hear the orchestra. The auditorium has a unique design, somewhere between a shoebox and a “vineyard” in which the seats are terraced (as vines on a Provençal hillside) rather than stacked in balconies. The intent is egalitarian seating. “The goal was to create a space that is as visually intimate as possible,” says Pilbrow. “It makes for more of a communal experience.” The auditorium is totally isolated from the curvilinear shape of its exterior stainless steel shawl.
The sightlines, worked out by Mark Stroomer of Theatre Projects, are good from virtually every seat in the hall. “This was ever so complex,” says Pilbrow. “There is not a horizontal line anywhere, or right angles: everything curves in three dimensions.” The seats, by Poltrona Frau, are upholstered in assorted floral patterns (as a nod to Lillian Disney's love of horticulture), and surround the stage completely, creating an unusual and very interactive concert-going experience. And this is designed solely as a concert hall: there is no proscenium; and no fly tower.
“The goal of the building was to create a great space for working musicians,” adds Pilbrow. “The other goal was to de-mystify the process of concert-going.” With this in mind, the Grand Street lobby has glass doors that raise up to draw attention to the interior. The lobby has skylights and a travertine marble floor, with columns like tree trunks clad in Douglas fir, with twinkle lights adding a starry look at night. The lobby also has an intriguing funnel-like shape of wood, wired as a flexible performance space with sound and lighting. The blond Douglas fir carries throughout the building, and blends nicely with Gehry's custom-designed carpet pattern, called Lillian, with a leaf pattern in gold, green, mauve, and orange.
Once inside the auditorium, the main eye-catcher is the Gehry-designed free-flowing form of the pipe organ. Described by one observer as giant French fries, the tall thin wood shapes of the organ anchor the wall behind the stage visually. The organ itself was designed by Los Angeles organ designer Manuel Rosales and manufactured by Gatter-Götz Orgelbau of Germany (it has 6,100 pipes and will be ready for use in another year). The hall also has a 36'-high rear window and eight skylights high in the corners that let in natural light during the day.
Protech Theatrical Services of Las Vegas engineered and installed the platforms and LinkLifts for a stage area that is entirely made of lifts — a total of 13 in various shapes including telescopic stairs for seating and chorus risers. The lift system was designed by George Ellerington of Theatre Project's London office to meet the specific needs of the orchestra. The lifts are covered in beautiful 21/2"-thick tongue and groove Alaskan cedar, selected for its acoustic properties. Control for the complicated lift system is Protech's SmartMotion wireless system, with full-function capability. Not only is it unusual to have an entire stage platform made of lifts, but the lifts at Disney Hall travel from stage level up (as far as 11 feet), rather than the typical case from the stage floor down.
The lighting system/network by Strand Lighting includes one 550i and one 300 series console, and CD80 dimmers. There are two Lycian 1290XTL followspots in an interesting curved, glass-fronted booth that is hung over the auditorium. There are 450 dimmers in three dimmer rooms, as well as Cat5 Strand ShowNet Ethernet distribution (also for hand-held remote and video signals) and 12 portable nodes for DMX distribution. Strand SL ellipsoidals (10 degree and 19 degree) provide concert lighting. Four fixtures on the balcony rail and four on the most upstage lighting bridge have Wybron CXI color scrollers. Behind each of the four skylights are motorized white shades to block the sunlight. In each corner are Strand Iris three-color cyc lights, positioned out of sightlines in the hall. These can add blue color to simulate daylight at night, turning the corners of the room into large cycs.
“Frank Gehry didn't want to see any lighting fixtures,” notes Pilbrow. “He finally allowed holes in the wood of the ceiling.” In the end, there are six lighting bridges over the ceiling, two of which can be manually winched open to create extra front light positions. The four bridges closest to the stage are behind permanently glazed glass. The curved wooden ceiling sits 52' above the auditorium, with no moveable canopies — a signature of Toyota's acoustic design. The concrete and wood, as well as the curve of the balcony rails and the choice of all materials in the room, shape the acoustics (and from all reports, the hall sounds great!).
There are also nine “pillows” or lighting ports in the ceiling over the stage. These are also covered in glass so that no sound escapes past the ceiling into the technical attic. “The lighting fixtures are offset at 120 degrees in plan, and are at high angles to provide backlight for the performers that is as shadowless as possible,” says Pilbrow. “The stage is divided into three areas and each area gets light from three directions.” Yet the install was challenging.
“How do you hang lights above small 14" holes?” Pilbrow asks. The answer is a system of clamps and scaffolding, with horizontal pipes and vertical bars, that he likens to an upside down Christmas tree. Fourth Phase Los Angeles was responsible for the install and focus of the concert lighting system. SASCO was the electrical contractor. Chris Akers served as the Strand Lighting project manager.
“The average level of light at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was 160 foot candles,” says Rosenburg. “In lighting the new hall, we wanted something flatter and more sculptural looking. This is important in a hall where the audience is on all sides of the room.” An interesting note regarding the lighting system is that distributed DMX was as high-tech as you could get when the Disney Hall project was put on hold. When it ramped up again Ethernet was the ticket. “We were able to go back and make a lot of changes,” Rosenburg points out. “The Cat5 distribution is effectively less expensive and more state-of-the-art. There are Ethernet taps all over, and the lighting booth is data central.”
The entire room is fine tuned, with such details as lighting pipes with acoustic isolation to cut down noise, and rigging points above the ceiling covered in wood on the “seen” side. There are chain motors in place for rigging of scenery or loudspeakers, as well as additional power points for extra motors. Even the plug boxes have wood veneers and the exit signs are placed behind wood panels. Loudspeakers are tucked into the lip of the stage.
The sound reinforcement system, specified by Engineering Harmonics of Toronto Canada, includes a 96-channel Yamaha PM1D for FOH and monitor, Sennheiser 3000 Series wireless mics, JBL Professional loudspeakers (including VerTec VT4888 midsize and VT4887 compact line array and AE Series units), BSS signal processing, and Crown amplifiers.
David Clark Director of Audio Engineering for Engineering Harmonics points out that the design of the sound and communications systems for the hall had to meet the needs of more than just the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “The Los Angeles Philharmonic Association (the “Phil”) needed communications systems — public address, intercom, video and cable TV — that would facilitate their program of symphonic performances. The public address system had to be invisible to the audience,” he says. “They also needed sound reinforcement that would provide first-class sound for their world music and feature soloist programs, but would be invisible for their purely acoustical programs.”
The sound reinforcement system also had to meet the needs of a variety of musical events that would be in the hall when the orchestra was on tour. In addition, the architects required that the technical systems mesh visually and mechanically with the hall's design. “The result was a fully outfitted hall with a removable sound reinforcement system,” notes Clark, who worked on the project with Engineering Harmonics' principal Philip Gidding, and design engineer Martin Van Dijk, who was responsible for locating and confirming exact loudspeaker locations.
“The acoustics of the hall were driven by the acoustical program of the Phil, resulting in a warm reverberant space with concise early reflections,” Clark continues. “The sound reinforcement systems had to provide clear, intelligible, musical sound without unnecessarily exciting the acoustics; at the same time, they had to satisfy the aesthetic concerns of the architects. Line arrays, recently developed to meet the acoustic challenges of hockey arenas and outdoor stadiums, had the potential to resolve the issues. They could keep the sound focused in the audience, with minimal scatter, while their curved lines mimic the curves of the Disney hall and building.” Engineering Harmonics worked closely with JBL for several years on the specifics of the line-array speakers.
Downtown Los Angeles is enjoying a cultural and economic revival, with the Walt Disney Concert Hall as the center of attention. This may be a big responsibility to put on the shoulders of such a “youngster,” but its stainless steel shell looks like it can withstand the pressure. Anyone who thinks the government should cut funding for the arts should take a good look at the important role a cultural institution can play in the success of a city. The Los Angeles Philharmonic should be applauded for its persistence in getting this hall built.