The Man With the Most Unusual Lines
During his second year as an architecture student at the University of Southern California in 1950, Frank Gehry got some unsolicited advice from his teacher. "He called me in and said, 'Frank, this isn't for you. You should get out,'" Gehry recalled. "When he said it, it meant nothing to me. I mean, I was devastated, but I didn't give up."
Forty-six years later, Gehry would be on the receiving end of a similarly damning assessment. It was 1996. Los Angeles had been through Rodney King, O. J. Simpson, the Northridge earthquake, and a recession. Now, Walt Disney Concert Hall, one of the most ambitious projects in the city's history, was well on its way to becoming another L.A. fiasco. After five years, $50 million, and enough melodrama for a Hollywood thriller, the would-be home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic was little more than a high-priced hole in the ground. And Gehry, the maverick architect whose unorthodox design had won him the job, would be told once again that he should get out. Once again, he would be devastated. And, once again, he wouldn't budge.
Today, Disney Hall, with its soaring, steel surfaces and breathtaking mix of beauty, grace, and optimism, is downtown L.A.'s "it" building. Completed in 2003, it is the envy of orchestras around the world and has given L.A. the kind of cultural credibility that had eluded it for years. It has also become the focal point of a nearly $2 billion downtown renaissance.
But in addition to its most obvious public contributions, Disney Hall marks the beginning of a series of architectural triumphs by Gehry that not only have redefined the intersection of art and architecture but transformed the way computers can be used in construction and design and helped change the language of building from cones, squares, and cylinders to an unlimited array of nontraditional shapes and surfaces.
As for that underestimated USC architecture student, Gehry, 77, has become an icon, with buildings all over the world and a 150-person design firm in L.A. that is a mecca for promising young architects across the nation. "With Disney Hall, Gehry was not just the first architect to conceive of a building this way," says architecture Prof. Richard Weinstein, who was a member of the search committee that chose Gehry out of 72 architects to design the music hall. "He was the first to figure out how to build it."
Tribute. In retrospect, that looks like the easy part. The project began in 1987 with a $50 million gift from Walt Disney's widow, Lillian, who wanted to create a world-class concert hall as a tribute to her late husband, who loved classical music. Gehry's firmjust 40 people thenwas chosen for the project on the strength of his sweeping design (which bears almost no resemblance to the hall today), his agreement that the music came first, and his friendship with Lillian, who liked Gehry better than the sculpturelike exteriors of his buildings. (She once sent him a note with her vision for the hall: a nice little cottage wrapped in vines with a duck pond.)