Sunday, March 16, 2014

Downtown gala

Sculpture at the Gala
We attended a gala for a local arts organization this weekend.

It presents innovative, often experimental performing arts and music in a beautifully designed black-box performance space located in the amazing Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry. This building is quite rightly one of the crown jewels of Los Angeles' cultural scene.

Along with the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, the Mark Taper Forum, and MOCA, the museum of contemporary art, and other cultural facilities clustered together in downtown Los Angeles, the Concert Hall is part of the Grand Avenue Project. A massive development conceived by LA's movers and shakers, the project aims to transform this part of downtown into a vital, pedestrian-friendly site, with parks, housing and activities.

Walt Disney Concert Hall from upper Grand Avenue
To see the hall on the street is something, its curved and silvery shapes break through the rectangular urban landscape and proclaim - "something interesting is going on in here!"

But when you attend an event here, you don't see that at all. When you drive to Disney Hall - as most event guests do - you exit the freeway at 4th Street and glide through curving ramps of concrete and the foundations of skyscrapers, watching anxiously for the directional sign leading to a turn-off lane. This lane puts you in the bowels of Grand Street beneath the Music Center. It's a dark tunnel, punctuated by garage-like openings, dotted here and there with orange and white A-frame barricades and traffic cones.

Lower Grand Avenue beneath the Music Center
To get to Disney Hall, you follow a small sign that beckons you into what looks like a dark dead end; then you turn into a parking garage.

You park and look for the way out. On an evening with a Philharmonic performance, you might see scores of suited gentlemen and dressed-up ladies, high heels click-clacking on the concrete ramps, walking through the rows of parked cars to a central escalator. Concert-goers rise up into the main hall lobby; guests to the small venue follow signs back into the parking garage, and enter the theatre from there.

At the end of whatever transformative experience one has in these beautiful temples of art and music, one leaves the same way, through the echoing parking garage and the dark tunnel. Last night, I never saw the exterior of Mr. Gehry's celebrated building, though I was standing inside it. This architectural marvel, for all I saw of it, could have been a concrete bunker.

Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City
In Mexico City, the Palacio de Bellas Artes welcomes visitors into its echoing hall from a plaza that serves as a gathering place for everything from protests to street performers. A park nearby is busy with families, strolling and playing even late at night.

How wretched and shameful is it that in Los Angeles, the pathway for our city's arts patron is so ugly and disconnected from life? How can the arts ever hope to connect with people if they have to sneak in through the loading dock for access?

Whether you are an affluent season ticket holder from the Westside and Beverly Hills, a student purchasing discount tickets, or a new audience member responding to outreach efforts, if you drive in, this shabby tunnel will be your welcome to the place.

Disney Hall on upper Grand Avenue
Streetside, it isn't much better. The broad empty avenues and outscaled concrete plazas render the cultural palaces nearly unapproachable by foot.

Last night as our car emerged onto 4th Street from the tunnel, our headlights flashed across the huddled figures of homeless people, sleeping beneath the concrete overhang. Here's one way, I guess, that the arts complex serves this population - providing shelter from the cold night.

What planner, what traffic engineer conceived such monstrosity? Did they really intend to create such a glaring symbol of the void between the city's creative establishment and its citizens? To confront guests with the city's harsh reality, after their interlude in fantasy?

The desserts were wonderful, though!


Anonymous said...

Love your comments. This is not an approachable city, is it?

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

This is often how I feel when attending some fabulous event, no matter the city. However, the way you have described it here, it is a true loss that those who attend this building blessed with amazing modern architecture don't get to see it from the outside on the night of the event.