The downtown area of Los Angeles used to be a dangerous, no-go area after dark but a recent gala anniversary concert there featuring the cellist YoYo Ma and installations by the video artist Netia Jones drew a starry crowd.
Downtown Los Angeles has spent the last decade on an upward trajectory, thanks, in part, to a music venue. But then, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which celebrates its 10th birthday this month under the management of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is no ordinary venue. Frank Gehry’s shining, cubist masterpiece seems to erupt from the street, its angular, fractured walls curving into the air like sails billowing in the wind. Visually striking and with an auditorium revered for the quality of its sound, the hall has had “a catalytic effect” on the artistic and cultural life of Los Angeles, according to Eli Broad, the billionaire art collector and philanthropist.
Since the hall opened in October 2003 the downtown district has undergone a transformation and is no longer viewed as the poor, urban relation to fancier areas, such as Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. Young people have moved in and some of the best restaurants in the city have opened there; new galleries have also come downtown while The Broad, which will house Broad’s vast collection of nearly 2,000 contemporary art works, is being built next door to the Disney hall on Grand Avenue. Like the Disney hall, The Broad will make a bold visual statement: designed by Diller Scofido + Renfro – the architecture firm behind New York’s High Line linear park – it will be covered in a vast, external “veil”.
Broad, the founder chairman of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, which is opposite Disney hall, was among the donors who helped revive the music venue when the project ran into funding problems in the 1990s. “I always believed that Los Angeles needed a vibrant centre,” he says. The Disney hall “recognises Los Angeles as a cultural capital”.
Designed by Gehry, a Canadian who moved to Los Angeles more than 60 years ago, the building initially met with a muted public reaction. “When it was first shown the public weren’t ready for it,” says Broad. “It was the shock of the new. But now everyone loves the building.”
The Disney hall was designed long before the opening of Gehry’s groundbreaking – and aesthetically similar – Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. But after the first $50m donation from Lillian Disney, Walt Disney’s widow, in 1987, the project stalled for almost a decade. When it eventually finished, the LA Times hailed it as “the most significant work ever created by a Los Angeles architect in his native city”.
Los Angeles had until that point been better known for its Hollywood output than its classical music or galleries and had always laboured in the cultural shadow of New York. The downtown district was “a bit of a wasteland – it had no focal point,” says Deborah Borda, the chief executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “But when the Disney hall was built it was one of the single most striking architectural images that exist in the world.” It was designed to be more democratic than other venues, she says. “There are no box seats,” she says. The nearby Los Angeles Music Centre “sits up like an acropolis above the rest of the city” but the Disney hall is “right on the sidewalk. Frank always said he wanted it to be the living room of the city.”
The building coincided with the opening of the nearby Colburn Conservatory of Music for gifted young musicians. With MOCA and now The Broad in close proximity, downtown Los Angeles has an arts district to rival any in the world, says Broad.
It also has a music venue that musicians want to play in. “For the first time the orchestra can hear itself,” says Borda. The presence of Gustavo Dudamel has maintained that appeal: the Venezuelan maestro – “the rock star of classical music”, according to Ms Borda – has been the musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 2009.
There was applause and acclaim for YoYo Ma and Dudamel at this week’s concert. But the biggest cheers were for Gehry, the Los Angeles transplant whose building changed a city.