Disney Hall is a building, within a city, and the normal criteria for judging a building are not to be abandonded because the economic & political forces behind the building are powerful and the architect induces flutters amongst some self-described cognoscenti.
My overall impression:
Good as "precious object," fair (at best) as a piece of urbanism.
1. Public Discussion of the Built Environment. Disney Hall promotes discussion and one hopes some subsequent awareness of the built environment. Even though (and I'll pop the cork now) I think the Disney will ultimately be seen to be much ado about nothing, and as a failure on its own terms as an engine of redevelopment, yet, still and even, it will have a healthy impact because it gets people talking about cities. Of course spending $250 million to promote a civic discussion seems a bit excessive. A lot of the discussion is puerile and ignorant but maybe some good will come from it; of course I have been accused of Pollyanish optimism.
2. Parking. We didn't park inside. Somehow my great parking karma led us to one of the few on-street parking spaces in the entire district. But we toured the garage on foot and it looked capacious, spacious and with good way-finding -- every level has a nice pastel color theme to help you remember where you parked:
The multi-level parking garage is beneath the Hall. Access to the sidewalk/entry level of Disney is through a grand stair & escalator passage with visual connection to each level of the parking garage via doors and windows:
(Yes, that is a Bentley/Rolls-Royce visible through the window.) There is a visual connection between the parking level and the vertical circulation. That's good. It feels friendly and safe. It's an outstanding touch and justifies my insistence that Gehry is a competent architect.
3. The Grand Avenue Frontage It's good. The building comes up to the sidewalk like a real urban building. It's a normal streetfront with a restaurant, shop and entrance. Nice.:
This frontage could be used to demonstrate that a goofy, "arty," "post-something" building by a "genius" architect can be a good urban building.
A lot will depend on the quality of the restauranteur -- no I don't mean the food per se but how well he is able to expand the somewhat hidden restaurant space and expand it onto the sidewalk with tables & chairs, thus adding some vitality to an otherwise dead environment.
The problem is that this frontage is only 25% of the entire city block; that's not enough good urbanism for a building which is reputed to be a work of genius. Genius, especially, needs a much higher bar.
4. Some nice interior details But nothing beyond what one might find in a good airport or office building:
If you are a teaser, you can find some philosophical profundity in this incomplete column yearning...yearning.
5. Monitors We noticed at least one in the snack bar which shows you what is happening on stage:
I'm not sure of the function. Maybe it's to let you know when the musicians are assembling or so you can keep eating even when they are playing. Anyway, they were pretty nice quality screens.
1. Blank walls The three other street frontages are almost entirely blank walls. Here's one:
(click on image to enlarge)
These fronts are bad. They kill the building as a generator of redevelopment. The Disney is supposed to catalyze an active urban neighborhood. It won't. There cannot be an active pedestrian environment when there are blank walls. Period. And no carping about philistinism can change the reality that people do not like to hang around blank walls and if there is anything that urban redevelopment must mean, for it to have any meaning at all, is that one creates places where people like to hang around.
2. Harsh lighting For an architect based in world movie capital Los Angeles, Gehry seems to have made an odd mistake about lighting. There is a reflective concave wall at what is essentially the 100% spot for the entire building --- the ticket office:
As the pedestrian passes by, the reflection of the sun is shocking, as this woman shows by her shielding hand:
(Yes, there is a lot of sun in LA; one can count on it.) The experience is unpleasant; oh I guess one could turn it around and talk about what a stroke of genius it is...that the building actively reaches out and engages the walker...etc and etc and blah blah blah...It's obviously a mistake; or I hope it is.
3. Too few restrooms Not enough on the main entry level. Only one (and that was a uni-sex handicapped) near to the snack-bar. Supposedly we weren't the only ones to look for them; while I was inside, my companion counted twelve people come up to its door. Of course the absurd prices at the snack bar -- we paid $5.95 for a cup of coffee and an iced tea and I remember something like a can of import beer for $6.00 and tiny little salads for $8.50 -- may mitigate the demand.
4. Snack bar hidden inside Moreover the snack bar is hidden well inside the building. It should have been placed at the edge, at the sidewalk, so that people could start making a habit of stopping by, maybe listening to old recordings of the Philharmonic, even when the major part of the Hall is closed. I mean they say they want to change the neighborhood...so that means getting people there...and that means food and drink! :)
(Of course we never got up stairs to the main hall because we didn't have the right tickets so maybe there were plenty of restrooms a long flight up from the main assembly level.)
Who knows. The design is undeniably striking; it photographs well, even beautifully, in the hands of a professional photographer, which I'm not:
I'd be lying to you if I said that I didn't agree that the exterior is diverting and interesting and different. In fact I'd agree that it is beautiful. Yes, beautiful:
It is a striking "precious object." I'll even agree "beautiful" at the purely visual level. But would I want to go spend time there? Would I saw "hey babe, let's go stroll around the Disney?" To just hang around it? No. The place is cold and sterile and with a (largely) bad pedestrian environment.
And there the emphasis on beauty shows its limits. And that's why so many of the reviews of the building are so silly (Muschamp's cited below, in particular) or focus on the gossipy politics behind its finance & construction.
It seems to me to take a coarsened and cynical personality to have to stoop to find such swoon-inducing beauty in Gehry's sort of gimmickry. There is beauty all around; when I hear people "ooh" and "aah" (and that seems mostly in print --- I heard no such reactions when at the Disney itself) over the beauty of the Disney I wonder if they ever look around them in their ordinary lives.
Now I like freaky things, too, and maybe it's just my own snobbishness that makes me reluctant to join in the quivering with everyone else. For instance, driving south from LA one chances on this remarkable object:
The Cube's visual impact as one is driving south is truly astounding, remarkable, a veritable transcendent aesthetic experience. Honestly. A true "wow" moment which prompted us to turn around, get off the freeway, and investigate more closely. (Try to time it as the sun is setting.) But is it great architecture? A work of "genius?" A significant contribution to the city? Probably not. Or maybe so. Time will tell. It's certainly iconic and a landmark and its location right at the edge of Interstate 5 creates a marvelous vista for drivers. It's fun and frisky and we should take joy in such things. But does it make any "useful statement" (to turn Muschampian rhetoric back on itself) about the urban condition? No.
And nor, I suggest, does the Disney. The Disney is also a large-scale gimmick, a freakish series of swooping roofs. If you like it, you like it. If you don't, you don't. I actually happen to like it; but so what? End of useful discussion. What does it teach us? What is repeatable? Does it fulfill its own goals of helping to change the neighborhood? I doubt that it will.
In terms of the daily life of people, of a city, it's eye-candy trivia. It is an embarassment that so many "design critics" would spend so much time bowing and scraping before it. I won't mention them all for they are many and foolish. Herbert Muschamp's A Moon Palace for the Hollywood Dream and Martin Filler's Victory at Bunker Hill are typical of the syncophantic babble which this building has provoked. If you read these articles and others like them very carefully, I think you might agree that there is not much direct commentary on the physical building itself and/or its context...lots of fancy allusions but nothing very solid.
Of course I make no mention of Disney simply as a place to listen to music, to its acoustics and as a comfortable venue for listening. There are two reasons:
• I haven't heard any music there --- we never got into the music hall per se and
• even if I had I wouldn't waste your time with my opinion about concert halls as I know nothing about music.
So don't get me wrong. The Disney is not a complete failure; the failure is in the critics total and complete failure to be able to view the building as anything but a cartoon. The building indeed has got some positive attributes. But it's basically an example of freak-show architecture and should be considered in that light. I can understand that some people might like freak-shows but I can also recognize that they are not a good model for how humans should evolve. Freaks stand alone and isolated by their unfortunate and tragic nature.
The parallel tragedy of course is that had Gehry paid more attention to the edges, to truly "taking things to the edge," he and Los Angeles could have had a comfortable urban buildingand a glamorous precious object. There is, to my mind, no inherent contradiction. The Disney could have been a truly great urban building had Gehry followed the Three Rules.
UPDATE in response to Michael Jenning's remark:
Well perhaps I didn't emphasize one aspect about the Disney and that is that the structure does "enfront" the street very directly on all four (yes it takes up a full city block) sides. But of course three of those walls are dead and deadening.
Whether, practically, the three blank sides could be punctured, I don't know. I don't know the arrangement of uses at the periphery of the site behind those walls.
But come to think of it, to be rigorously fair, I should post a photo, here:
It gives onto some sort of administrative office, at sidewalk level obviously, on the very far side of the building. It shows exactly how an institutional building could bring some of its own internal activities --- janitorial, security, purchasing and so forth --- to the edge and puncture its blank walls. Of course an awful lot of institutions are afraid of admitting to any connection with "trade" and so hide these functions away, thus losing an opportunity to enliven the street, if at least with offices. More the better for institutional pride & dignity and the worse for the neighborhood.
And then there is also the matter of "no on-street parking" around the Disney --- you can sense it from the railing which separates the sidewalk from the street in the photo above --- which is also a great detriment to the development of anything exciting happening at the Disney neighborhood. You can also see that the Disney is unfortunately isolated amidst the proverbial asphalt jungle: