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Gehry Responds to Concert Hall Heat

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Fixing Controversial Designs
The 2003 shiny stainless steel covering of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

The 2003 shiny stainless steel covering of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images ©2003 Getty Images

Background:

The 2003 opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, CA was filled with pomp and circumstance. Celebrities, including the venue's architect Frank Gehry, strutted the red carpet with gleeful expressions and smug smiles. The project had taken more than 15 years to complete, from when Lillian Disney first donated $50 million to honor her visionary husband, Walt Disney. Funding for the multi-acre campus came from various sources, including state, local, and private donors.

Gehry's original plans for the concert hall complex did not include the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT). Instead, that theater's design was fit in during construction of the the performing arts campus, which centered on the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Gehry was using CATIA software to design the complicated structures. The Computer-Aided Three-dimensional Interactive Application allowed the architect and his staff to create a complex design quickly, which made possible the adding of another theater. Constructing the complicated design was accomplished by workers using lasers to guide the placement of the steel infrastructure and the stainless steel skin.

Most of the performing arts complex was constructed with a brushed stainless steel, but a highly polished covering was used for the exterior walls of the REDCAT and the Founders Room (a venue used for private events such as weddings).

Controversy:

Soon after completion of the complex, many people noticed concentrated heat spots, especially as the sun's rays intensified beyond the October opening day. Unconfirmed reports of bystanders roasting hot dogs in the reflected heat quickly became legendary. Blinding glare affected drivers passing the building. Nearby residential buildings noted an increased use (and cost) for air conditioning. Los Angeles County contracted with environmental experts to study the problems and complaints seemingly caused by the new building. Using computer models and sensor equipment, officials determined that specific highly-polished panels of stainless steel on certain curved areas of the complex were the source of the controversial glare and heat. Architect Gehry took the heat but denied that the offending construction materials were part of his specifications.

Solution:

Certain panels had to be dulled to become less reflective, but how could that be done? First workers applied a film coating, then they experimented with a fabric layer. Critics questioned the durability of these two solutions. Finally, the stakeholders agreed on a two-step sanding process —vibrational sanding to dull large areas and then orbital sanding to provide a more acceptable aesthetic look visually. The 2005 fix reportedly cost as much as $90,000.

Conclusion:

"Buildings clearly have an impact on the surrounding environment; they can shift the microclimate substantially. As more and more reflective surfaces are used, the hazard mounts. Buildings with concave surfaces are especially dangerous. Such buildings must be simulated or tested in advance to avoid significant overheating in surrounding buildings and even in outdoor public spaces, where intense heat and fire can result."—Elizabeth Valmont, University of Southern California, 2005

Learn More:

  • The book Iron: Erecting the Walt Disney Concert Hall by Gil Garcetti, 2002
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  • The book Symphony: Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry, 2003
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Sources: CalArts Connection, REDCAT; Symphony in Steel: Ironworkers and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, National Building Museum; "Microclimatic Impact: Glare Around the Walt Disney Concert Hall" by Elizabeth Valmont, University of Southern California, 2005 Society of Building Science Educators (SBSE) Award (PDF online) [websites accessed January 17, 2013]

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