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At 10, Disney Hall Has Become a Living Room for Los Angeles

Concert space helped transform Downtown and the L.A. Philharmonic into premiere destinations

When the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall opened in October of 2003, it became an instant Los Angeles landmark, right up there with the Griffith Park Observatory, the Capitol Records building and the Hollywood sign.

An undulating mass of stainless steel curves with hardly a right angle in sight, it provided a marked contrast to the city’s best-known historic structures, many of them of the deco persuasion and in need of a facelift. But Disney Hall today looks as new and innovative as it did 10 years ago, with its gleaming, reflective surfaces serving as a beacon for the promise of arts and culture in the City of Angels.

As Carole McMichael Reese wrote in Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design: “We instinctively react to the concert hall as if it were energized with something akin to a life force. It bursts onto the scene with such vivacity that it creates a continual urban celebration, like a Fourth of July municipal fireworks display.”

walt disney concert hall

The Disney Hall’s unorthodox, curvilinear profile is such that no two pieces of structural steel are the same.

Gehry, who competed with two fellow Pritzker Architecture Prize finalists before winning the bid, designed everything from the exteriors to the concert space — working closely with Yasu Toyota of Nagata Acoustics — to the administrative offices to the floral pattern that adorns the seats and carpet in the lobby to the famous match sticks or French fries-shaped organ pipes that crown the stage. According to Gail Samuel, chief operating officer of the L.A. Phil, no two pieces of the building’s structural steel are the same.

The Hall not only acts as magnet for sightseers, but it’s become just as important as the programming in attracting concertgoers and pumping up the L.A. Phil’s subscriber base. During its first year, the number of concerts for the philharmonic’s winter season doubled. And when conductor Gustavo Dudamel arrived on the scene in 2007 as music director, he provided the frosting on the cake. According to Deborah Borda, president and CEO of the L.A. Phil, attendance at the Disney Hall has been above 90% over the past decade.

“One of the important things to think about in the opening of the Hall was it literally gave us, this institution, the opportunity to totally reimagine who we could be,” Borda tells Variety. “And so we reinvented the organization in so many different ways. Instead of being simply a symphonic institution, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has the single largest budget of any musical presenting organization in the country.”

walt disney concert hall

The Hall’s intimacy and design create a visceral impact, says L.A. Phil CEO Deborah Borda.

A recent tour of the Hall, which seats approximately 2,200, revealed a startling intimacy as opposed to the cavernous space that was the L.A. Phil’s prior home, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. “The Hall has such a visceral impact, you feel that you are part of the musical experience,” says Borda. “It feels like about 13-, 14-hundred seats to me. And in fact, when I go out to make announcements, I feel like I don’t even need a microphone.”

In fact, in the early stages of management’s strategy for the Hall, Gehry said to Borda: “I want you to make the Hall a living room for the city.”

“And when I thought about living rooms,” recalls Borda, “I thought, you know in my living room I don’t just play classical music, I play chamber music, I play jazz, I play world music, I play popular music. And the so idea was, we should be presenting all of these things to truly give a spectrum that would open it up to really integrating ourselves to the fabric of the larger community.”

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