Commentary: How Frank Gehry’s new Colburn Concert Hall could transform the arts in Los Angeles

In 2016, Colburn — the community music school, conservatory, academy and dance school — bought a sad outdoor parking lot at the corner of 2nd and Olive streets downtown for $33 million. It was on a steep, pedestrian-unfriendly hill that led to Colburn’s Grand Avenue campus, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and the Broad. There was little foot traffic and the area was deserted at night.

But the school had always wanted the kind of medium-sized concert hall that it and the city lacked. Now, after many ups and downs, Colburn announces plans to build a Frank Gehry-designed concert hall, performance square and dance studios on the site. It will not only serve an institution that caters to the music and dance education of students from infancy to seniority, but will also appeal to a wide audience and provide a place for civic gathering.

The venue will be held behind The Grand – the spectacular multi-purpose complex across from Disney Hall, also designed by Gehry and slated to open in May. Its potential is to become the linchpin to finally transform Grand Avenue into a thriving arts district of international significance.

The buildings have dramatically changed in appearance from the scintillating renderings Gehry and Partners published in The Times in 2020 in hopes of boosting philanthropic support. Fundraising stalled during this first summer of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the future looked too uncertain economically.

But a supportive gift from Carol Colburn Grigor, daughter of school founder Richard D. Colburn, saved the concert hall. Further contributions from Terri and Jerry Kohl, for whom the hall will be named after him, will help fund the hall’s endowment, enabling its widespread use as a community venue and helping to keep ticket prices low. Eva and Marc Stern are the other major donors. Individual sums are not announced, but the total budget for the full project and its initial endowment is estimated at $350 million, of which $270 million has been raised.

Despite this, the concert hall’s budget, which was to be around $300 million, had to be halved. Instead of a concert/opera hall and a cabaret as originally planned, there will be a single 1,000-seat concert hall in the round. In an effort to cut costs, Gehry replaced the dazzling glass front with a less visible exterior, which will be either stainless steel or, if affordable, a dewy shade of titanium.

Rendering of the Colburn School campus expansion. East view of Olive Street towards the new urban esplanade to be created at the entrance to the concert hall.

(Gehry Partners)

For Gehry, however, the original design is ancient history. Standing next to the model of the room in his studio, the 93-year-old architect enthuses that his new ideas for the room are not compromises but improvements. He has proudly embraced cost cutting as a symbol for making a wide variety of music, for which he has an undying passion.

He wants to go back to the basics of what a concert hall should be to meet the needs of music, society and the city. This, he notes, became one of the main missions of his late career, as evidenced by the Judith and Thomas L. Beckmen YOLA Center in Inglewood and the transformative cultural center he designed for the Los Angeles. River at South Gate.

The interior of the Colburn hall will be plain plywood and, on the contrary, all the more amazing because of it. An elegant hanging balcony with two rows of seats will become the crowning glory of the room. The Gehry-esque white cloud stop will create a dramatic ceiling. Above them will be catwalks for events and performances, making the ceiling a uniquely active part of the room.

Yasuhisa Toyota will be the acoustician, as he has been for all of Gehry’s concert halls, starting with Disney. The slightly oval shape, with the audience surrounding the stage, represents Gehry and Toyota’s latest thinking on indoor concert spaces. The architect and the acoustician are both addicted to the concept of modular rooms in the round, with this bit of suspended balcony that they launched five years ago with the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin.

This modest little room turned out to be one of the most magical spaces to listen to music of all kinds. At each seat, one has the impression of being in direct contact with the performer. The sound has an immediacy and presence like no other space I’ve come across. With imaginative concerts almost every night in Berlin, the Boulez Saal has brought new vitality to the cultural life of a cultural capital already so vital that it didn’t even know it needed it.

Colburn President and CEO Sel Kardan told me that the Boulez Saal is really a model for what the new venue could become, but on a grander scale. Not only will the Colburn Hall be a third larger than the Boulez Saal and with a high ventilated ceiling giving the acoustic volume needed to handle a full orchestra, but it will also be equipped for theatrical as well as purely musical performances.

Gehry designed a full-size orchestra pit that can accommodate up to 70 musicians when in use, making it the ideal size for Baroque opera, Mozart, 20th century chamber opera and experimental work which fascinates young composers today. Round dancing becomes an intriguing possibility. The Los Angeles Opera, Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra are eager occupants.

But Kardan is equally keen to make the hall accessible at low cost to community ensembles working across a wide range of genres and cultures, as well as, of course, making the space a place for students to imagine. “It’s a music school,” exclaims Gehry. “You don’t need fancy materials.” Students need to feel free.

Interior of a 1,000-seat concert hall located at the western end of the project site.

Model of the concert hall in the Colburn School expansion. Interior of a 1,000-seat concert hall located at the western end of the project site.

(Gehry Partners)

Like the Boulez Saal, the venue will be active almost every night, bringing new life to the neighborhood, especially in summer. This crowd energy is also essential to Gehry’s goal of culturally and physically connecting the venue and its adjoining dance building to the street. A new subway station is under construction one block east of the buildings. The 2nd Street hill will be graded, creating a landscaped pedestrian path. The halls will be accessible by lift or stairs.

What pedestrians will first encounter will be the three-story dance building that Gehry designed all in glass, with a large studio on the ground floor visible to passers-by, bringing the art to the street. The concert hall will open into a large proposed plaza (which the town hall has yet to give final approval for), with a panoramic video wall and suspended surround sound system capable of streaming performances, free of charge, inside. from the room up to 800 people outside. The hall’s balconies provide musicians with spaces to further break down the barriers of indoor and outdoor performance.

Gehry insists that I take a trip downtown with him to get a sense of the scale. Standing in the parking lot where the room will be built, he looks up approvingly at Grand (which he says turned out better than expected) and gestures at the corner of Grand and 2nd. The difference between a livable arts district and the corporate towers to the south or the government buildings to the northwest is stark.

He may be over 90 and has already revolutionized Grand Avenue, but Gehry acts like he’s just getting started. As we walk towards Disney, Gehry shows how the new Colburn complex will become the hub of Grand Avenue. Inside his already iconic concert hall, he describes his ideas for transforming the BP Hall, where pre-concert talks are given, into a small chamber music hall, complete with a hanging balcony. He wants to turn the little-used amphitheater in the garden into a closed jazz club, but he wonders where to put a bar. Gehry spends a while wandering around and finds a spot. He has ideas for Disney’s dark lobby and cafe, which he didn’t design but wanted.

Grand Park is next. City buildings must go, he says. They have asbestos and are in poor condition. His vision ? Tear them down, build a tower on what will be the last empty lot on 1st Street for the courts and city administration so you can expand the park and put affordable housing there.

Years ago, he proposed lowering the Music Center to street level, but no one listened. Do it now, he says, and everything connects. What you get is an arts district in its own right, with museums and theaters of all sizes (with a total of some 12,000 seats), housing and, thanks to the Grand, shops, restaurants, a hotel and three stations metro nearby. He pleads for the Grand to include a market. Between the 1st Street subway station and the Colburn, he suggests a strip with donut shops, cafes, and falafel stands that could be a hangout for music and dance students. He wants life everywhere.

Ultimately, Gehry sees the Colburn project as the impetus for a utopian vision of DTLA. The point is, the arts are not allowed to thrive at the expense of society, and I ask Gehry if LA can be the kind of city that can invest in a unique, inclusive arts district – not instead but in addition to investing whatever it takes to overcome homelessness and other critical issues. He has no answer, just a vision. The challenge and the fundamental promise of the new Colburn complex is for us to make it the springboard towards the creation of this vision. Think what that might look like in the summer of 2028, when the world turns its attention to the Los Angeles Olympics.

A few years ago, $33 million seemed like a lot of money for a sad parking lot. “It wasn’t cheap,” Kardan says. In the best of all possible worlds, this ranks as a historic affair.

About Margaret L. Portillo

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