Frankie goes to Hollywood

Los Angeles is derided as the capital of shallow, but city bosses are hoping Frank Gehry's new Disney Concert Hall will reveal a deeper side. John Arlidge takes LA's first ever cultural tour

In the blissed-out California sunshine, the glistening steel curves of Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles sweep you up off the pavement with the promise of style, music and a good time. Today, Gehry himself is caught in the metal slipstream of America's favourite new building.

In the blissed-out California sunshine, the glistening steel curves of Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles sweep you up off the pavement with the promise of style, music and a good time. Today, Gehry himself is caught in the metal slipstream of America's favourite new building.

The architect is standing on the limestone steps, waving his arms and talking 19 to the dozen. "When I designed this concert hall people hated it, but now it's finished they like it as much as the Guggenheim in Bilbao," he gushes. "When I walk down the street in Bilbao ladies hug me. I wonder whether that will happen in LA."

Gehry is describing "the Gehry effect". His Bilbao Guggenheim kick-started a Spanish cultural revolution, attracting millions of tourists every year to the Basque port city. Now, Gehry hopes his latest shiny, happy building will do the same for LA, his adopted home. Los Angeles may be known as the home of movies and TV, but when it comes to culture, the city is still seen as being stuck in the Dark Ages. As a friend of Carrie Bradshaw's put it recently in the final series of the New York-based HBO series Sex And The City: "I hate LA. No art, no architecture, no depth. Frozen yoghurt is not culture."

Well, LA has had enough of the Mickey Mouse jibes. The city is using Gehry's architectural icon as the centrepiece of a cultural show which it hopes will rival New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Centre and MoMa, the Museum of Modern Art. It has put together its first cultural tour that does not revolve around movies or the fake charm of celebrity.

"LA High Culture" combines the best old world hotels, the finest modern architecture, multi-billion dollar art galleries and museums, haute couture and haute cuisine. But can the home of fake breasts and the life coach win the coast-to-coast culture clash? I take the tour to find out.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall is my first stop. The bendy building is the undoubted star of downtown LA's architecture show, and Gehry is here to explain why. "It is uplifting, emotional, positive. It catches the curve," he says. But there is another reason to be here. Just down the street from Gehry's cultural cathedral is a real one, described as the world's finest new religious building.

The Spanish architect José Rafel Moneo's new Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is thrillingly modern. Built to replace its predecessor, St Vibiana's, which was badly damaged in the last California earthquake, its ochre-tinted concrete walls and statue of the Virgin Mary with its African, European and Asian features cheerfully dispense with formalism. Inside, I sit in the giant bishop's chair - it's allowed - touch the bronze statue of Jesus on the Cross - it's encouraged - and admire the way the light filters through the alabaster louvres that act as modern stained glass windows.

In a city where the only people who walk are hookers or British, it is a short stroll from this modern masterpiece to the opening brunch party for the Museum of Contemporary Art's new show - "Minimal Future? Art as Object 1958-1968". The first large-scale historical exhibition to examine the emergence of minimal art is going for maximum impact. A 500-strong crowd turns up to admire 150 key works by American artists before heading outside to the terrace of the California Plaza to enjoy a Prickly Pear Margarita. It's high art and high enjoyment.

After cocktails and canapés, it's time to go up - way up to the $1bn Richard Meier Getty Centre in the Brentwood hills. Unlike the playful, accessible Disney Concert Hall, the Getty is museum as event. It's worth the $5 parking fee alone to admire Meier's rough-hewn marble buildings and wander around the swirly cactus gardens enjoying views of a city that stretches to the horizon and beyond. Here, high above the smog zone, the air is clear and the skies clear blue. You feel like you are in an ad for healthy California.

The Getty is the biggest and richest art gallery in America, and its best exhibits can be hard to find for a first-time visitor. Luckily, I have a bespoke tour guide with me. Anne Block shows me the Louis XIV furniture and decorative arts, including the chair on which Marie Antoinette used to sit to have her hair cut; the 19th-century photographs of Paris by French photographer Eugene Atget; Francis Harwood's "slave sculptures"; Rembrandt's 1661 wood and canvas work; Van Gogh's Irises. It's not the Hermitage, but it's a striking combination of modern architecture and old masters.

After the Getty, Anne and I head off to the Hudson district of Pasadena. This is the Hampstead of greater LA, an old-money neighbourhood which boasts some of America's best 1950s "arts and crafts" homes. Many of them are now on the Historic Register, the American equivalent of Britain's listed buildings scheme. Its leafy lanes conceal the Norton Simon Museum, which boasts a private collection to rival New York's Frick.

Norton Simon, who made one of America's biggest private fortunes out of tinned tomatoes, spent billions buying works by Raphael, Cézanne, Rembrandt, Lautrec, Degas, Manet and Monet. Viewing high European art in another modern Gehry-designed building feels very "new LA".

So far, so posh. But these days cultural tourists want more than buildings, painting and sculpture. What about music? What about haute couture? What about haute cuisine? Everybody knows Rodeo Drive is for tourists - including Mike Tyson, whom I spot shopping in Gucci when I do the tourist thing. What is less well-known is that the suburb of Melrose contains some couture gems that you cannot find anywhere else in America - or Europe.

Anne takes me to the only bespoke Miu Miu shop in the world to sell the entire Prada diffusion line for men and women. There's also Costume National and LA's über-boutique Fred Seagal.

After a small dose of high-end retail therapy we have enough time for a Martini at the Four Seasons, one of the few big LA hotels that manages to cast off fake gentility and capture real old-world charm, before heading off to L'Orangerie for dinner.

Middle America may still be calling French fries "Freedom fries", but in this restaurant, built in the style of a chateau, France rules. We sit down to a duo of scrambled eggs in their shells topped with Petrossian sevruga caviar, followed by roasted squab with quince, wild mushrooms, roasted chestnuts and a millefeuille of celery root.

After our soufflé and Valencay cheese with ash it's time to head for the St Regis, the official hotel for the Disney Concert Hall. Parked outside is a $400,000 Mercedes Benz Maybach: very expensive, but very understated. The limo is here to take us back to where the High Culture tour began - Downtown's Disney.

It is still light when Anne and I take our seats on the Pucci-print-style seats and admire the auditorium whose acoustics are so perfect you could hear a tear drop. The explosive exterior and swooping Douglas Fir-lined interior create a visual analogue for the movement of sound waves. And unlike any other concert hall, the Disney has windows at the top. Tonight, the sun shimmers down on to the stage as the music rises up. Under the baton of Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, Mozart has never sounded - or looked - better.

Anne and I head out after the concert to see the setting sun turn the silver steel panels of the Concert Hall a rich, burnt bronze. Its rays flow over the theatrical curves like flames. The building looks like a giant musical instrument, a pied piper for the new, cultural LA which is drawing tourists in from Hollywood, Venice Beach and Neverland.

As we admire this fanfare for the cultural man, Anne reminds me that Angelenos once had to leave the city to get their fix of high art. "Remember Richard Gere hiring a private jet to take Julia Roberts to the opera in San Franciso in the movie Pretty Woman? Well, guess who's having a party here next weekend?" "Richard Gere and Julia Roberts?" I suggest. She nods. Frank Gehry has gone to Hollywood and now Hollywood is going to Frankie. "It's so new LA," smiles Anne. "You gotta love it!"

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), which flies twice daily from London Heathrow to Los Angeles, with fares from £334. The other airlines on this route are Air New Zealand, American, United and Virgin Atlantic. Fares over Easter are high, but for the second half of April they are available for as little as £300 return through discount agents for midweek travel.

The LA bus and metro rail service is cheap and excellent. From the airport, take the free shuttle bus to the metro station.

STAYING THERE

The St Regis Hotel (001 310 277 6111; www.stregis.com) in Century City is the official hotel for the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Hotel and concert packages, including concert tickets, accommodation, breakfast, dinner and spa treatments cost from $1,020 (£550) for two. The Four Seasons (001 310 273 2222; www.fourseasons.com/losangeles) is in Beverly Hills. Doubles from $390 (£210).

EATING OUT

L'Orangerie is at 903 North La Cienega Blvd (001 310 652 9770; www.LOrangerie.com).

TOURS

Anne Block's "Take My Mother* Please (*or any other VIP)" Custom Designed Tours (001 323 737 2200; www.takemymotherplease.com) cost from $300 (£160).

For architectural tours of downtown Los Angeles see Red Line Tours (001 323 402 1074; www.redlinetours.com).

MUSEUMS

J Paul Getty Museum (001 310 440 7300; www.getty.edu).

Los Angeles County Museum of Art (001 323 857 6000; www.lacma.org).

Norton Simon Museum (001 626 449 6840; www.nortonsimon.org).

Museum of Contemporary Art: (001 213 626 6222; www.moca.org).

MORE INFO

LA INC, The Convention and Visitors Bureau (020-7318 9555; www.visitLAnow.com).

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