Culture Cuts Through in LA


New Yorkers have a joke:  what’s the difference between yoghurt and Los Angeles?  Yoghurt has a culture. Boom Boom.

The commonly held belief that LA’s culture can only be found in a forensic laboratory’s petrie dish is being disproved with massive financial injections and a renewed sense of civic pride.  The second most popular American destination after New York City, Los Angeles has some emblematic public buildings to add to its portfolio of tourist attractions that go beyond the normal fare of stars’ homes and the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Over the past twenty years, Los Angeles has created five major projects designed by ‘starchitects’ Richard Meier, Tom Maine, Frank Gehry and Renzo Piano that signals the rise of a cultural cut-through.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall is Frank Gehry’s stylized symphony of stainless steel that’s literally the hottest building in town.   On a clear day, the building’s reflection on adjacent sidewalks can reach 60 degrees Celsius and have even caused a rubbish bin to spontaneously combust. The glare so dazzled nearby apartment dwellers (and not in a good way) that some panels had to be buffed to a matte finish.

The project began in 1987 when Walt Disney’s widow Lillian gifted $50m for a concert hall as a tribute to her husband. The design pre-dated Gehry’s groundbreaking work for the Guggenheim in Bilbao but was delayed due to financial constraints. Opening in 2003, it took four years to complete the intricate computer design and four years of precision construction.

I join one of the daily free tours and discover a classic performance space with a twist. The interior walls of Douglas fir timber contour to fit inside the hall’s shoe box design. With no flat surfaces, the main concert hall curves around the 2,265 seats and there’s not a bad seat in the house.   Walt would have liked that.   Above the yellow Alaskan cedar stage the organ pipes resemble giant French fries.   Designed by Gehry and made in Germany, Manuel Gonzales tuned the 6,134 pipes working silently in the dead of night.

In making her donation Lillian Disney asked Gehry for two things:  perfect acoustics and a garden for the public.   Both have been magnificently delivered and the elevated garden, open from 7am until 11 pm, includes a blue and white Delftware fountain shaped like a rose, Lilian’s favourite bloom, and a forest of trees planted in sand boxes.

Carved out of the public parking garage next door is REDCAT, the Roy and Edna Disney Cal Arts Theatre, an alternative exhibition and performance space established with a $50m grant from the Disney Corporation.   A creative laboratory, the theatre’s adjustable wall panels allow the room to be ‘tuned’ for different types of performances.   Mainly used for multi-media and experimental work, their electronic music festival attracts LA’s hip, young crowd, while exhibitions feature early to mid-career artists like Barry McGee’s installation of recycled remains which is a commentary on consumer society.

One of the city’s major philanthropists and business leaders, Eli Broad has amassed a trophy collection of 2,000  postwar and contemporary works by more than 150 artists but where to show them? Located within the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is the Renzo Piano-designed Broad Contemporary Art Museum. The pale travertine marble building is slashed with Renzo red steel beams and staircases that appear to float on its boxy structure.

Opened over a decade ago, the 22,000 square metre exhibition space is now home to Jeff Koons’ stainless steel balloon dog,  gleaming cracked red egg and a stainless steel bust of Louis XIV. All the usual suspects are there: Andy Warhol’s multiple images of a newly widowed Jacqueline Kennedy and a moody 1963 Elvis;  Jasper Johns’ American flag and Damien Hirst’s fanciful butterfly installation from The Collector series. The late Jean-Michel Basquiat’s graphic expressionistic paintings, which went from public walls to collectable canvases, capture the energy of a city in the thrall of contemporary art.

Los Angeles may be famous for, like, being so now but one building spearheaded changing perceptions. From the curvaceous upper terrace of The Getty Center in Brentwood, Los Angeles evaporates into a maritime mist and a low cream wall lassoes the stylish, drought-resistant garden created by Robert Irwin.

“I never imagined that 12 million people would see my work,” said Irwin referring to the 1.3 million who visit the spectacular Richard Meier-designed Getty Center each year. The 300-hectare site is part museum, foundation, conservation and research institute and library but its most popular exhibit is Vincent van Gogh’s “Irises” that was arm-wrestled from Alan Bond’s grasp for a rumoured $50m. Beauvais tapestries from the Emperor of China series, rococo 18th-century furniture, Vincennes and Sevres porcelain collections, great portraits from the masters Thomas Gainsborough and Peter Lely all reflect time frozen in perfection.

John Paul Getty, oil man, philanthropist and collector extraordinaire lived an eventful 84 years in the strobe-lit world of wealth and privilege. He died in 1976 but his prodigious collections, together with an annual endowment of $6billion, enabled Los Angeles and Richard Meier to create a lasting legacy to capitalism and one man’s aesthetic.

Four pavilions display an intimate private collection from antiquities through to Renaissance sculptures, artworks and rare 12th century religious books while open spaces provide a respite from museum fatigue. ...

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