a curmudgeon’s appreciation of the walt disney concert hall, with dog

 

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paris’ cathedral de notre dame. the leaning tower of pisa. new yawk’s empire state building. shanghai’s jin mao tower. the roman coliseum. java’s borobudur buddhist temple complex. beijing’s 2008 bird’s nest olympic stadium. what’s your favorite man made architectural achievement? and how do you choose? how can you compare ancient temples to modern skyscrapers? places of worship to places of commerce? antiquity to modernity?

simple answer: you can’t. yet… people do. they always want to know: “what’s your favorite?” your favorite restaurant, city, country, beach, food, mountain range, camp site… building. the list goes on. me? i don’t like favorites. i like to appreciate each thing or place for what it is. just like “comparison is the death of creativity”, i think, too, comparison of excellence or pleasure is a fool’s artifice and activity. it’s not real, nor does it matter. although, of course, it does make for good conversation.

still, i love the walt disney concert hall. right here in good ol’ wildfiring, earthquaking, mudsliding, and rioting LA. why? why single it out from all the other great buildings in the world? well, maybe it’s because i saw it grow out of the earth, from a giant hole in the ground on first and grand, into the most dazzling and inspiring piece of architecture within a five minute drive from my own front door. yeah, i think that’s it. it’s personal. the disney concert hall is my personal favorite. and that’s what people really mean when they say “it’s my favorite. it’s the best. how can you even mention your favorite in the same breath with mine, asshole?” no, what they really mean to say is “it brings me pleasure. it appeals to my sense of beauty, size, imagination, engineering, religiosity, scope, detail, style, my sense of ‘je ne sais quoix’?” 

but wait a minute. something’s amiss here. before i go on about my passion and appreciation for the walt disney concert hall, let me just say straight out, i absolutely hate and despise the “disneyfication” of the planet. or for that matter, the mcdonald’s, coca cola, pizza hut, kentucky fried, or microsoftization of the planet. i simply don’t like branding and monopoly. i don’t like corporate conglomerates eating up and replacing mom and pop stores and one of a kind businesses. i don’t like homogenized cookie cutter neighborhoods spreading out like pernicious suburban blights across our modern american landscape, all with the same office depots, radio shacks, and other convenient uni-stores, avariciously designed  to proliferate and spread our corporate american culture. and – i don’t like greedy corporate stock holders peddling the image of a happy-go-lucky cartoon mouse and his perfect snow white-little mermaid cousins and brethren, all for the bottom line of longer lines in anaheim and greater sales and profits in disney lands and disney stores all around the globe. 
nevertheless, why don’t you come along with me? let’s start on the northeast corner of first and hope. right across the street from the back end of the music center’s dorothy chandler pavilion, where mr. gehry has put a granite stairway that seems to offer 24 hour access to the concert hall’s tranquil rear gardens and urban park designed by melinda taylor and lawrence reed moline. let’s go just a short while after one of the concerts have let out, say a mcoy tyner or barbara cook concert, as clay and i like to do, when you get the full effect of the moody and tactile night lighting design.  

  

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this is obviously the day-time view, but you can imagine the dark desert los angeles sky, with its smattering of stars twinkling amongst the skyscrapers, as we climb the steps at the lower right. this is an offbeat approach because the steel façade is not quite as elegant as it is around the front side at the southern, grand avenue entrance. you can see sort of a steel “pot belly” stove to the center left of the stairway, behind which can be seen the actual “guts” of the structure. but we won’t see that until later, because we’re proceeding straight ahead from the top of the stairway into the gardens. 

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let’s walk straight ahead here, past the pot belly steel stove on the left, along the verdant and shadowed, white concrete path. towards the garden’s signature centerpiece, “a rose for lilly”, a hand-sculpted fountain in the form of a giant rose, designed by mr. gehry in honor of lillian disney, whose favorite flower was the rose, as a gift from her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. the fountain was inspired by mrs. disney’s extensive delft china collection, the outstretched rose petals covered in an intricate mosaic, composed of some 8,000 broken pieces of blue and white royal delft china, specially imported from holland for this project. 

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honestly, clay and i are not big fans of the delft rose fountain. clay thinks it’s kind of chintzy, and i agree, sort of pretty in a naive way, but soulless, much like many of the disney cartoons and products of uncle walt and his progeny. but there are several benches, just to the west of the fountain, where i like to sit and meditate under the stars amongst the six international species of flowering trees, each with a differently coordinated blooming schedule: the hong kong orchid tree’s fuchsia flowers revealing their delicate selves in fall, madagascar’s snowball tree’s pink flowers in winter, mexico’s naked coral tree’s red petals in spring, china’s pistache yellow, orange and red leaves in fall, brazil’s tipu tree ocher flowers in late spring and summer, and latin america’s pink trumpet tree, naturally bearing her pink trumpet flowers in early spring. clay likes to nestle into the shrubbery of the hundred different expensive and exotic species, in between the benches and the rose fountain, and i’m amazed at how calm he appears, off leash, as he soaks up the ambience and no doubt meditates in dogese. 

after say, half an hour of nighttime communion with the sky above and the garden below, clay and i proceed to the south westerly corner of the garden’s exterior and make a hard left turn, where we can choose between the easterly view out onto city hall from the top of the south grand avenue stairways, or the much more inviting maze of concrete and steel architecture that mr. gehry has fashioned into two fanciful mini amphitheatres. we prefer to wait to get up a little higher in the outdoor stairwells for our city views, so i usually entertain clay with a monologue or soliloquy or two, which he patiently endures before he is rewarded with the steep, swirling ascending staircases which he so enjoys.  

“to be or not to be, that is the question, my dear canine soul mate. whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to be touring the exterior aesthetic intricacies of mr. gehry’s convoluted masterpiece by night, for free, or whether ‘twould be worth the exorbitant and emasculating eighty five buckeroos to soak up the inspiring sounds of the LA philharmonic, perchance within the inner chamber of los angeles musical sanctity and pretension?” 

clay barks politely, either when i’m done or he’s bored, and we proceed upward, onto the steep triangular section of steps in the southeast corner of the building’s exterior. the steps don’t lead anywhere, except to a spectacular view of downtown LA, looking east over pristinely white-lit city hall, along the long corridor that will soon become the trendy grand avenue project, an intended champs elysee of the west, and beyond, into the bowels of the city’s old factory district, now still an odd mix of quickly gentrifying lofts and still dangerous squatters’ quarters along san julian and main streets. clay likes the sight of this juxtaposition between the extreme poverty and wealth of the city, and he knows he’s one lucky and sophisticated dog to be given such an opportunity.  

we gingerly descend the steps and proceed northerly amidst a narrow corridor of steel which now completely obscures the easterly view, but which gives us both this unique feeling of making our way along the inside of a gorgeous sardine can. clay likes the maze-like feel of the tour at this point, where the building’s walls tower and swirl around us, and i particularly like the ability mr. gehry has given us to actually touch the steel with our paws, so to speak. the steel, which looks so sleek and shiny from a distance, is here much more granular and unpolished on the inside of the construction. making our way alone through the maze here, with its dark and abandoned curves, gives us the feeling of being thieves in the night. we like it. 

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now we’re climbing higher up another curving stairway, along the east side of the building. what with not being able to see any of the city beyond, and with not another human being or guard in sight, we get a distinct feeling of… trespassing. we like that too. its’ dark and mysterious, and definitely not on the city tour. intrepid clay scampers up the stairway, far ahead of me, still happily off leash, like he’s in his own personal urban park, as i take my time, huffing and puffing my way up to the high point of the building’s stairways. i take a breather as clay comes back to get me: “what’s taking you so long, old man? let’s boogie.” i smile, take a deep breath, and proceed, now along the distinctly northerly part of the exterior tour.

it’s my favorite part, because as the narrow stairways descend, gehry leads us into the center and bowels of the great concert hall. here you can simultaneously look down into the rich redwood interior lobby through the exterior glass windows at the back of “pot belly stove”, and up into the decidedly unfinished nuts and bolts of the structure, inches away from its massively welded girders and support structure. if clay could speak, i know he’d be joining me and asking: “how the hell did they do this, man?” i mean, not only are the curving and swirling surfaces of the building giving us a completely different and spectacular view every few steps, but it’s so viscerally and amazingly thrilling to see how the building was so mightily forged and constructed. a building paul bunyan or zeus, himself, would undoubtedly embrace. 

it’s a shame, but our tour is almost over for the night. a little like coming down after orgasmic sex (not with each other), clay and i descend the post bowel, northern stairway, around the back of the stout and giggly “pot belly stove”, until we arrive back, full square, at the top of the northeast corner stairway at first and hope. clay’s ready to do the whole thing again, but me, i’m apparently good only for one two hour tour a night. so with much dog regret, we descend the hope stairway, down to first street, back to our car, back to… reality. 

i hope you’ve enjoyed the tour with us. you’ll have to come back for the interior tour another time, when you can afford to fork up the eighty five bucks for a concert of your choice, and i can accompany you, dogless, of course. but hey, you got the complete exterior “disney” tour. the gehry version, that is, as opposed to the always-crowded orlando or anaheim ones. i do have to admit, as curmudgeonly as i may be, it does seem that the great and grand children of the rumored anti-semite king of animation and moguldom, have indeed done something beautiful and awe-inspiring in their “uncle” walt’s name. or perhaps it was mr. broad, mr. gehry, and the corporate and fundraising city board members and powerbrokers who did it for them. but as i said at the outset, my dog and i are two grateful “customers” — although we don’t pay one red cent for our tour — or our appreciation. and although uncle walt may not like it that way, we both agree, that’s exactly the way it should be. 

so — a begrudging but genuine thanks, uncle walt. and “ruff, ruff”!!!