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How Walt Disney Concert Hall Was Designed To Be Pitch Perfect

Today AD welcomes back architect Valery Augustin to tour Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown Los Angeles. Designed in 1987 by Frank Gehry, music runs through the veins of this building. A unique steel exterior houses an acoustically perfect auditorium designed by Yasuhisa Toyota and is home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Join Valery as he takes an in-depth look at how the concert hall pioneered new design techniques and became a true gift to the people of Los Angeles.

Released on 08/10/2023


I'm Valery Augustin and I'm an architect.

And today, we're gonna be taking a walking tour

of Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown LA.

[gentle jazzy music]

[light jazzy music]

So, Disney Concert Hall was designed in 1987,

and was originally funded

by a generous donation by Lillian Disney.

It's designed by Canadian-born Los Angeles based architect,

Frank Gehry.

The construction process

for this building is incredibly unique.

One of the things that you'll see

when you look at this building

is that it's clad in steel panels,

when they originally designed this building

it's original intent was that

it was going to be clad in stone.

But during the design process,

one of the first things they figured out

is that stone panels were going to be incredibly heavy,

and would make the cost

and the size of the steel structure much more expensive

than they needed it to be.

So, they switched to the steel panels,

which also happened to align with the fact that

in between the time of the design of this building

and when this building began construction,

Frank Gehry had completed the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

One of his most celebrated projects at the time

which was clad in metal panels as well.

Every single one of the panels on the building is unique.

Now these particular types of forms

can't be designed in traditional architectural means.

They basically had to invent new technologies

to build a building like this.

So, one of the things that they pioneered

in designing of this building

is the use of a software called CATIA,

which originally was used for designing of planes and boats.

Many people consider it a deconstructivist style building

which is a type of building

that is really characterized by non-linear forms,

a lot of curving geometry, and use of glass,

and other similar materials.

The concert hall was built

because originally the Los Angeles Philharmonic

played across the street at the Music Center,

but it was time for the Philharmonic

to have a purpose built hall

that was specifically designed

for the playing of symphony music.

Now, one of the interesting things

about the project is the first thing that was built

was the parking garage.

This allowed the building to generate funds

before the concert hall was even open

to help fund the cost of construction.

[jazzy music]

Right now, we're in the main entry lobby.

Frank Gehry likes to talk about

when he first met Lillian Disney,

and she told him that she really wanted a place

to feel like a home.

And so what Frank interpreted that to mean

was that she really wanted a building

that felt warm and inviting

because this building really is supposed to be a gift

to the people of Los Angeles.

And so, that's really reflected

through the use of the many materials we see

in the interior of the building.

The floor uses travertine,

and one of the other important components of this building

is the use of Douglas fir which clads some of the columns,

and then also some of the utilities

that you see in the building.

So, intake returns are hidden within those

as well as providing warmth for the building,

they also perform an important functional use.

Now, the interesting about Douglas fir

is that it's also the same wood

that's used for symphonic instruments.

So, there's a really great symmetry there

that Frank Gehry was cognizant of

when he made those design choices.

A couple of other things that you can see in this lobby

which are really amazing,

is that instead of hiding the structure,

the architect really celebrates the structure

inside the building.

A lot of the steel is visible

and you can see that it's painted gray,

and that paint is actually a fire retardant

so an event of a fire,

this material actually swells up

to protect the steel and keep people safe.

Another really cool part of this building

is that the entire front facade can actually scissor open

which allows during the summer months for people

to enter in and out of the building

directly onto Grand Avenue.

Another great thing that you can see

in this space is Frank Gehry's dedication

to really creating a building

that's open and provides visibility

across both the city as well as the overall space.

So starting from the uppermost level,

you have access to the auditorium

that also provides views out to the city,

and it also takes us all the way down to a cafe dining area

and also to the parking garage access

that we talked about before.

[light jazzy music]

So, here we are in the Founders Room

which is a special space in Disney Concert Hall

for donors who have given

over $185,000 to the LA Philharmonic.

Now, this room is the only room

in the building that's not open to the general public.

And one of the things that you'll notice

is that in this room, much like the entire concert hall,

is that the space is connected to the outdoors.

So one of the things that the architects

were really adamant about was making sure

that even though this is a interior experience,

every room has access and visibility to the outside.

Another thing that you'll notice here

is this beautiful carpet.

Now, this carpet was a special custom design

that was made specifically for the concert hall

and it really embodies some of the important aspects

that Frank Gehry spoke about with Lillian Disney.

And that was to, once again, create a building

that was really warm and was welcoming to all Angelenos.

You can find this carpet throughout the entire concert hall,

and so the flooring is either going to be the travertine

or this beautiful carpet that you see behind us.

The ceiling in this space is especially unique.

Now this space is treated differently than drywall

which is a traditional sheathing material

for the interior of the building.

But here they did a special plaster finish

which is the only way to achieve these sensuous curves

that we see in this space.

And if you look more closely,

you can actually see the plaster finish

because there's a little bit of like a shimmer

that you're gonna get when you're using plaster

that you don't get when you're painting a surface.

[light jazzy music]

Right now, we're in one of my favorite spaces

of Disney Concert Hall, and that's the Blue Ribbon Garden.

The Blue Ribbon Garden

was an important part of this building

because it really talks about the idea

that this building really is a gift

to the city of Los Angeles.

It's open to all Angelenos any day of the year.

You can come up here and have lunch,

and take a view of the city behind us.

Another thing that you can see behind us

is one of the most impressive parts of this garden

and that is the Blue Ribbon fountain,

which is called A Rose for Lily.

Now, this is a special story that came about

during Frank Gehry's interaction with Lillian Disney.

On a visit to her home,

he saw that she had many pieces of fake Delft porcelain.

Apparently, it was something

that she and her husband Walt would enjoy,

was purchasing fake pieces of porcelain

to see if their friends could spot the fakes.

Now, this turned into a wonderful story

between Lillian and Frank,

and so they decided that it would be a wonderful

and most appropriate way to create this fountain.

So Frank Gehry worked

with artists Tomas Osinski and his wife Ewa,

along with eight other artists

to see the fountain that we see behind us.

Over 200 Royal Blue Delft vases were broken

in the making of this fountain.

You can also find 60 Easter eggs,

which include pieces of porcelain

from the artist's personal home,

as well as the depiction of Frank Gehry.

Another thing that you can see up here

in the Blue Ribbon Garden is a closeup view

of the steel panels that cover this building.

One of the interesting things about the design

is you'll see that the panels are overlapped

the same way birds feathers work or the scales on a fish.

This allows any water to shed off the building

without any worry about a water intrusion

into this interior of the space.

Now, one of the challenges that happened

when this building was first designed

is there were two types of finishes on these panels.

The matte finish that you see next to me

and also highly reflective chrome finish panels.

The chrome finish panels actually were reflecting too much

on nearby residences,

which meant that those panels had to be sanded down

so they would no longer cause damage

to the buildings nearby.

Accessible from the Blue Ribbon Garden

is a public walk that takes you up and around

the facade of the Disney Concert Hall,

which provides view of all over downtown Los Angeles.

[light jazzy music]

So behind me, you can see BP Hall

which is a special performance and lecture space

in the corner of Disney Concert Hall.

Now, one of the great things

about this space is you can really see

the use of the Douglas fir that is used

throughout the building,

oriented and attached the same way

in which the exterior cladding of the building is.

So, you can really see here the attention to detail

that the architects paid

through every level of the design

to make sure that the whole building is cohesive.

And you can also see it in other parts of the buildings

including the founder's wall

where the donor panels are shingled and overlapped

in the same way we see on the exterior of the building.

Another thing you'll notice if you take a closer look

is that some of the panels are solid Douglas fir

while others actually have small perforations.

That's what allows this space to work acoustically

when a lecture or performance is happening.

The amazing things about the skylights in this building

is they serve a dual function.

During the day,

they bring an abundant natural light into the space,

but at night, the lights of the building

make the entire building a beacon for the entire city.

[light jazz music]

So, we are right outside of the auditorium.

Now, the auditorium seats 2,265 people,

and the acoustics were designed specifically

for Philharmonic music.

Now, the acoustic design would not have been achievable

without experts and Frank Gehry enlisted

world renowned acoustical designer Yasuhisa Toyota

from Japan to design the auditorium.

Now, the way the space is designed

from any seat in the auditorium

you will get pitch perfect sound from the stage.

So there's no such thing as a bad seat in this auditorium.

The inside of the auditorium,

in addition to being acoustically perfect,

is also incredibly beautiful.

The interior paneling is curved to help the sound

reach every spot of the auditorium

and also utilizes the same Douglas fir that we see

outside in the lobby and in other spaces.

Now, one of the most eye-catching pieces

of the auditorium is the organ.

The organ features over 6,000 pipes,

and is often referred to as french fries.

So, if you find yourself hungry

when you're in Walt Disney Concert Hall, now you know why.

The ceiling in the auditorium

is beautifully raked and ribbed

which helps the acoustics and the sound

travel throughout the space.

Now, the interior layout of the space

is also unique to Walt Disney Concert Hall

and the way in which the seating is designed

both to allow optimal viewing as well as optimal sound.

The upholstery that you'll find on the interior seats

is the same patterning that was created

for the custom carpet that we're standing on right now.

[light jazzy music]