It was Goethe who called architecture frozen music, but it's L.A.'s Frank Gehry who has come closest to making that happen in this era.
He's become famous as the "starchitect" of the new century, a man whose shimmering, metal-clad, organically shaped buildings have put obscure cities on the cultural map over the past 15 years.
But the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is the building that started it all nearly 20 years ago. The gleaming structure that now anchors a newly revitalized corridor in the heart of downtown Los Angeles swoops and swings like a giant symphonic gesture. It won't officially open until October, but as the orchestra played its last concert in the old hall this past week, the spotlight is on the building that almost didn't happen, many times over.
"There were reasons," says music director Esa-Pekka Salonen. "The L.A. riots, anti-elitist feelings - and it was wrongly thought that building a classical music hall is very elitist," he says. "This hall belongs to everyone, by its very existence," Mr. Salonen adds.
Mr. Gehry himself gives a rueful laugh at the long-distant moment when he first accepted the Disney commission.
"I was a young man with black hair," he says, running a hand through his rumpled, now entirely gray mane. In the end, even with skyrocketing costs, Gehry's vision prevailed.
The stainless-steel-clad masterwork, which builders are rushing to ready for its first rehearsal with the orchestra on June 30, is already bringing to Los Angeles what has been dubbed the "Bilbao effect," after the little-known Spanish city that became a superstar once Gehry's titanium-clad art museum put it on the international tourism circuit.
"This hall is already transforming L.A.," says the executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Deborah Borda, calling it the icon L.A. has needed.
Though hardly as obscure as Bilbao, L.A. is often derided as a cultural backwater by outsiders who see it as home only to the movies and Malibu Beach bums.
The rambling, loosely connected metropolis known as Los Angeles has needed something like Disney Hall for a long time, says Thomas Crow, director of the Getty Research Institute.
"It is a city that is pretty hungry for [focus]," Mr. Crow adds. "It has needed some kind of visual magnet, because it hasn't had anything like what the more vertical cities have possessed."
"It's a big exclamation point about what downtown is already doing," says Mayor James Hahn, pointing to the new cathedral as well as the newly spruced up City Hall, a $14 million pedestrian walkway, and some $1.4 billion committed since 1999 to reviving the downtown.
Even more important, says Mr. Hahn, L.A. has a leading role in helping redefine the role of architecture in the 21st century. "It's exciting to see architecture getting its place in the sun as an art form," he says.
Gehry is one of a handful of prominent architects, such as Rem Koolhaas and Richard Meier, who have helped architecture become the dominant cultural icon of today's urban landscapes, Crow says.
Of course, using buildings as the linchpin of urban renewal has been going on for centuries. "Think of the transformation of Paris back in the 19th century," he says. "The Paris Opera building played the same function as the Disney Hall of today."
But with the power of mass media, today's buildings have taken on an iconic status that allows people to appreciate them long before they ever encounter them in person, if they ever do. "You couldn't have this notion of 'starchitecture' before now with anything like the vividness and immediacy that you do," Crow says.
While great architects like Frank Lloyd Wright were stars in their own day, now it's the pure visual artistry of the buildings themselves that shines. There isn't a city on the planet whose leaders don't yearn for the kind of visual power that a single iconic structure can bestow, he adds.
The Canadian-born Gehry, who lives in L.A., is diffident about the acclaim, recalling that in the initial competition, he wasn't even considered a serious contender.
"They told me, 'We want your name because you're local,' " says Gehry as he strolls the warm, wooden stage inside the new hall. "But you won't get the job."
Apparently, the Disney family knew a thing or two about the local unknown - and it didn't help his case.
"They told me, 'The Disney family will never put its name on a chain-link metal building." Eventually, says the diminutive architect, with the sliest of smiles, in a blind competition, matriarch Lillian Disney chose Gehry's design over the more well-known international competitors.
After being chosen, Gehry says the design process was more personal and practical. Lillian Disney was also involved at the onset. "Through intermediaries, she sent me little thatched buildings with brick paths and ponds," Gehry says. "She would ask me, 'Can't you do something like this, at least for the Founder's Building?' "
Gehry says finally, Walt's widow stepped out after "she realized she really didn't understand [the building], but her daughters did, and she put them in charge."
However, Gehry says he honors Lillian's love of nature throughout the entire building.
He points to the custom red and green flowery carpeting and seating upholstery (an original textile design that Gehry dubbed "Lillian") and the public gardens that surround the building.
"We're building a fountain of the Delft tile she collected," he adds with an affectionate laugh.
This sort of warmth and human scale are the qualities both the Disney family and Philharmonic wanted to bring out in the final design. Gehry's now-famous quote that he wants the new hall to be the "living room of Los Angeles" has produced what many observers call a consummately democratic cultural venue.
"It's grand without being grandiose," says Paul Holdengräber, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Institute for Art and Cultures.
The interior hall itself, done almost entirely in beautiful wood surfaces, is built in the round to such a degree that for once, there truly might not be a bad seat in the house.
"The living-room idea works in terms of comfortableness," he says, pointing to other details such as the vast underground parking garage, which instead of emptying into the street opens up into the main foyer of the new hall.
"These are the places where I imagine Frank's dream might come true," he says, "where we have the possibility of meeting many people face to face."
This sense of a great city with a vast meeting place at its heart is important, adds Mr. Holdengräber. "Los Angeles has failed as a place for public spaces," he says, but civic connectedness is something L.A. needs to be a truly great city.
Money, rather than urban design, may be the biggest stumbling block to fulfilling Gehry's dream of attracting the masses to the heart of the nation's second-biggest city. Tickets for the symphony can run into triple digits, with few cheap seats available.
"I have ways of getting in," says Holdengräber, "but for the common person who wants to go to a concert, this 'living room' is not exactly easily available."
Nonetheless, he adds, Los Angeles may have needed this icon. And the orchestra will finally have what it deserves, as well. "The Los Angeles Philharmonic is one of the world's great orchestras," says composer John Williams. "It has needed a hall, and now it has one."
Salonen, for one, appears giddy with the prospect of playing in the new space.
"It's such a sensitive acoustical space," says the conductor, "the audience will have to learn to cough quietly. And," he adds with a twinkle, "if someone's cellphone goes off here, I can turn around and see exactly whose it is."