Smog clears to reveal a monument to broken dream
Wednesday 31 May 1995
Paris has the Eiffel Tower; Edinburgh, its castle; Sydney, its Opera House. But what can LA claim as its metropolitan signature? Palm-lined avenues, perhaps? Too much of a cliche, and, anyway, all but one variety of palm is imported.
The Pacific shores? Not really. The beaches are straight strips of sand leading down to a grubby ocean, and are only interesting because of the odd assortment of humanity that struts up and down them. The general cityscape? No; most of LA's sprawl is about as elegant as a paper plate and scarcely befits a vibrant and diverse place in which a foreign language is spoken in half its homes.
In truth, though, there are some fine buildings, there's no acknowledged landmark beyond nine white letters on a scrubby mountainside. And even then, the Hollywood sign, first erected as a promotional gambit in the 1920s by a real estate developer, is pretty feeble. It's just a word on a hill. It doesn't spell any of those qualities that America's second largest city would really like to see writ large - culture, global stature, civilisation.
So when Lillian Disney, the widow of Walt, came up with a gift of $50m (pounds 31m) to build "something grand" to ensure that her husband was immortalised by something more substantial than a mouse, the city's elite was cock- a-hoop. Here was a chance to create the international monument that LA so lacked - and to score a point against its nemesis, New York - by building a world-class concert hall, a new home for the LA Philharmonic.
The requirements of the 90-something Mrs Disney (her exact age is a secret) were broad: she wanted a hall for the masses, with perfect acoustics and lovely gardens. Land was made available on the corner of First and Grand, on the edge of the tight stalagmite-like cluster of skyscrapers, grubby stores and tatty civic buildings which form downtown LA.
After a lengthy competition, the renowned architect Frank Gehry was given the contract. For once, the city which once turned its nose up at Mies van der Rohe as architect for its County Museum of Art, the city which pioneered the giant rooftop doughnut, seemed to have got something right.
It didn't last. The Disney family gift, now worth around $75m, was made eight years ago. The project has since been so delayed by political in- fighting, redesigns and - above all - cost overruns that LA County officials considered scrapping the whole idea. The bill has risen to $289m, a figure so daunting that the county authorities have declined to authorise the hall's completion (at the moment, only the car park is built) without guarantees that enough private money will be raised to pay for it - some $100m.
You'd think that this would be relatively easy in a town where you are not considered truly rich unless you have nine figures to your name. But LA's wealthy are not a particularly philanthropic lot, particularly when asked to contribute to a building which is already named after someone else. At the last count, a mere $2m had been raised.
Matters have not been helped by public grumbling about the design, a curving structure which looks like a series of sails. Although it has won acclaim from the architectural cognoscenti, Angelenos writing to the Los Angeles Times have been uncomplimentary, describing it as a "six-car collision on the Golden State freeway" and "the creation of the Mad Hatter".
It remains to be seen whether LA can muster enough communal will-power to finish the job. Many Angelenos feel it needs to return to the pioneering spirit of its past. But the place has had a rough year or two, disrupted by natural disasters and racial tensions. Its sense of community is threadbare. At the moment, Disney Hall seems as remote as the make-believe world created by Disney. The city which churns out images for the rest of the world will probably continue to lack an emblem of its own.
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