Gehry Responds to Disney Reflection - Not His Fault

01
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Fixing Controversial Designs

The Brushed Stainless Steel Covering of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California
The Brushed Stainless Steel Covering of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Was it the design, construction materials, or miscommunication that created an uproar after the Walt Disney Concert Hall opened? Here we have a case study of how architecture projects sometimes end up.

In October 2003 the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale moved across the street from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to their shiny new winter performance place. The 2003 grand opening of the Disney Concert Hall was filled with pomp and circumstance lavish for even Southern California. Celebrities, including the venue's architect Frank Gehry, strutted the red carpet with gleeful expressions and smug smiles. The project had taken more than 15 years to complete, but now it was built in all Gehry-swooping-curvy modernist splendor.

The smiles belied the rocky journey to opening night. In 1987 Lillian Disney donated $50 million toward a music venue that would honor her visionary husband, Walt Disney. Funding for the multi-acre campus on county-owned property came from various sources, including state, local, and private donors. A six-level, county-funded underground parking garage was begun in 1992, with the concert hall to be built above it. By 1995, with looming cost overruns, construction of the concert hall stalled until more private funds could be raised. During this "on-hold" time, however, architects don't sleep. Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain opened in 1997, and, with that stupendous success, everything changed in Los Angeles.

Originally, Frank Gehry had designed the Disney Concert Hall with a facade of stone, because "at night stone would glow," he told interviewer Barbara Isenberg. "Disney Hall would look beautiful at night in stone. It would have just been great. It would have been friendly. Metal at night goes dark. I begged them. No, after they saw Bilbao, they had to have metal."

The opening night celebrations were short-lived when neighbors started to complain about reflected heat and glaring light emanating from the hall's metal skin. This is the story of how the best laid plans of an architect can go awry, but also how controversial designs can be fixed.

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Change of Plans

The REDCAT Theater Built With Stone But With a Stainless Steel Canopy
The REDCAT Theater Built With Stone But With a Stainless Steel Canopy. Photo by David Livingston / WireImage / Getty Images

After a four-year pause, construction resumed in 1999. Gehry's original plans for the concert hall complex did not include the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT). Instead, that theater's design was fit in during construction of the the performing arts campus, which centered on the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Another area that received special attention once construction began was the Founders' Room, a small venue used to host special donors and rent out for private events like weddings.

Gehry was using CATIA software to design the campus of complicated structures. The Computer-Aided Three-dimensional Interactive Application allowed the architect and his staff to create a complex design quickly, which made possible the adding of another theater.

BIM software was not widely used in the 1990s, so estimates by contractors were all over the map. Constructing the complicated design was accomplished by workers using lasers to guide the placement of the steel infrastructure and the stainless steel skin. Most of the performing arts complex was constructed with a brushed stainless steel, but a highly polished covering was used for the exterior canopy of the REDCAT and the Founders Room. Gehry claims this was not as he designed them.

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"Not My Fault"

Disney Concert Hall, Unbrushed Stainless Steel Panels, July 2003
Disney Concert Hall, Unbrushed Stainless Steel Panels, July 2003. Photo by Frazer Harrison / Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images (cropped)

Heavy metal music is loud. Shiny, polished-metal buildings are highly reflective. It seems obvious.

Soon after completion of the Walt Disney Concert Hall complex, many people noticed concentrated heat spots, especially as the sun's rays intensified beyond the October opening day. Unconfirmed reports of bystanders roasting hot dogs in the reflected heat quickly became legendary. Blinding glare affected drivers passing the building. Nearby residential buildings noted an increased use (and cost) for air conditioning. Los Angeles County contracted with environmental experts to study the problems and the complaints seemingly caused by the new building. Using computer models and sensor equipment, officials determined that specific highly-polished panels of stainless steel on certain curved areas of the complex were the source of the controversial glare and heat.

Architect Gehry took the heat but denied that the offending construction materials were part of his specifications. "The reflection wasn't my fault," Gehry told author Barbara Isenberg. "I told them that would happen. I was taking the heat for all that. It made the list of the ten worst engineering disasters in the decade. I saw it on television, the History Channel. I was number ten."

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The Solution

Disney Concert Hall, Unbrushed Stainless Steel Panels, October 2003
Disney Concert Hall, Unbrushed Stainless Steel Panels, October 2003. Photo by Ted Soqui / Corbis Entertainment / Getty Images (cropped)

It's basic physics. The angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection. If the surface is smooth, the angle of specular reflection is the angle of incidence. If the surface is roughened, the angle of reflection is diffused—less intense by going in many directioons.

The shiny, polished stainless steel panels had to be dulled to become less reflective, but how could that be done? First workers applied a film coating, then they experimented with a fabric layer. Critics questioned the durability of these two solutions. Finally, the stakeholders agreed on a two-step sanding process—vibrational sanding to dull large areas and then orbital sanding to provide a more acceptable aesthetic look visually. The 2005 fix reportedly cost as much as $90,000.

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Lessons Learned?

Over 6000 Stainless Steel Panels at Disney Concert Hall Reflect the Southern California Sun
Over 6000 Stainless Steel Panels at Disney Concert Hall Reflect the Southern California Sun. Photo by David McNew / Getty Images News / Getty Images

For using CATIA software—pushing forward the process of designing and constructing architecture—the Disney Concert Hall has been called one of the ten buildings that changed America. It took years, however, for people to disassociate Gehry's project with something akin to a disastrous, nightmarish architecture venture. The building has been studied and lessons have been learned.

"Buildings clearly have an impact on the surrounding environment; they can shift the microclimate substantially. As more and more reflective surfaces are used, the hazard mounts. Buildings with concave surfaces are especially dangerous. Such buildings must be simulated or tested in advance to avoid significant overheating in surrounding buildings and even in outdoor public spaces, where intense heat and fire can result."—Elizabeth Valmont, University of Southern California, 2005

Learn More:

  • Symphony: Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall edited by Garrett White and Gloria Gerace, 2009
    Buy on Amazon
  • Tour of Frank Gehry & Other L.A. Architecture by Laura Massino Smith, Schiffer Publishing, 2007
    Buy on Amazon

Sources: CalArts Connection, REDCAT; Symphony in Steel: Ironworkers and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, National Building Museum at www.nbm.org/exhibitions-collections/exhibitions/symphony-in-steel.html; "Microclimatic Impact: Glare Around the Walt Disney Concert Hall" by Elizabeth Valmont, University of Southern California, 2005 Society of Building Science Educators (SBSE) Award (PDF online) [websites accessed January 17, 2013]; Conversations with Frank Gehry by Barbara Isenberg, Knopf, 2009, pp. 239-240.