Frozen Music: Frank Gehry and the Walt Disney Concert Hall
Photographs by Gil Garcetti
Gregg Museum of Art & Design, N.C. State campus
Through Dec. 17
Downtown L.A. had to wait a long time for the realization of the Disney Concert Hall, home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Master Chorale. The tour de force design was by local "starchitect" Frank Gehry, winner of the coveted Pritzker Architecture Prize and most famous, so far, for his design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.
Begun in 1987 with generous funding from Walt Disney's widow and heir Lillian Bounds, the project was delayed through a complicated web of events well into the mid-1990s. Some of the pitfalls included dismal subsequent fundraising, a depressed real estate market, construction estimate cost overruns, numerous redesigns and a turbulent city bureaucracy. The lengthy stall left Gehry's design to languish for several years until resurrected in 1996 by a newly energized economy and some prodding by local arts philanthropist Eli Broad (not coincidentally another Gehry client).
After the highly anticipated project's groundbreaking in 1999, photographer Gil Garcetti began his work. Garcetti, an L.A. district attorney who had the infamous fortune to hold that position during the O.J. Simpson trial, has also worked extensively as an urban photographer capturing the street life in and around downtown L.A. It was while passing by the hall's construction site that he became captivated by one of the project's most demanding tasks: erecting the building's complex structural steel framework. The sweeping forms of Gehry's energetic design compounded the difficulty, as the steel members had to contort and deform to support the building's billowing, sail-like exterior forms.
Garcetti's photos capture the building's daring architectural character in skeletal form and the sculptural vision that exemplifies Gehry's recent work. In particular a grouping of five large vertical photos at the back of the exhibition space dramatically capture the finished building's bold, sweeping forms and undulating surfaces that have become Gehry's trademark. (Garcetti returned after the building's completion to shoot a series of these panoramic photos.) Yet this show's great strength and real interest is the personal focus it places on some of the unsung heroes of the enterprise: building trade subcontractors who must synchronize their efforts to realize such a complicated building.
Fully two-thirds of the photos in the exhibition feature the ironworkers—as they are still known—as they assemble the building's structural steel columns and beams. Garcetti procured an arrangement with the ironworkers' union that allowed him up-close and extremely hands-on access to the construction site, which imparts true immediacy to his images. The show also has a vaguely voyeuristic feel—as if someone hadn't watched the construction gate one afternoon and a few passersby wandered in to have a look around.
When looking at photographs of the Disney Hall's construction, it is difficult for anything else to compete in your mind's eye with the architecture itself. Garcetti does deserve credit for presenting an unconventional take on architectural photography, a genre that has historically been much more interested in finished product rather than procedure. In this regard, Gehry is the perfect subject as he is a very process-oriented designer. One of the problems, however, is that Gehry's virtuosity tends to create architectural forms so implicitly hostile and overwhelming to any neighboring context that his finished buildings subsume everything in their wake. While Garcetti's photographs let us marvel at the creation of such dynamic sculptural form, it is only with extraordinary empathy that one can look beyond the structural gymnastics to gain a sense of the workers who actually built the thing.
Gil Garcetti will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 6, at the Gregg Museum. Visit gad.ncsu.edu for more information.