Over the Moon Apple

The media are in a swoon over Frank Gehry's Disney Hall

The media are just aces at gloom. These days, there's always a bomb going off somewhere, a new virus swirling around. To consume the news is to be pelted with reminders that the world is scary, and that people are selfish and mean. Life's a slog, and we're all on the eve of destruction.

But now and then a story comes along that changes everything, lights up our media days, and fills our nights with song. Like someone who's fallen in love, or has just gotten a new prescription, journalists start acting all goofy and get a wild spring in their step. In violation of all the norms of journalistic behavior, they even make the case for optimism.

The latest example, just winding down and worth noting before it's gone, is Disney Hall. Unless you're hopelessly focused on the dark side, you're aware of this story. It's been hard to miss. When news people are on a high, they make noise about it.

Two weeks ago, the Walt Disney Concert Hall officially opened in Los Angeles. It cost $274 million and took more than 15 years to build. Along the way, there were huge fights about architect Frank Gehry's dreamy, phantasmic design, and moments when it seemed the place would never be built at all.

It was built and now it's open, and the stories and live broadcasts and photo spreads and reviews and think pieces and scene pieces and you-name-it have been pouring out of the news trade's little workshop in such profusion that it's been hard to keep up. As giddy media moments go—and there aren't many of them any more—this one has everything going for it.

First, there's a human story with the mytho-poetic arc news people adore: brave, lonely hero perseveres against the odds and winds up king, or in this case, mega-celebrity. Once upon a time, Frank Gehry was a cult architect known for private houses and chain-link fencing. Some powerful L.A. types thought him a dicey choice for this commission, and they tried to scotch his plans. But the man who gave us the Bilbao Guggenheim was no pushover, and he had support where it counted—inside the Disney family, which was writing the checks. In one slice of the story nicely told by the Los Angeles Times last month, it turns out that Disney heiress Diane Disney Miller stuck by Gehry because he reminded her of her father, Walt. People scoffed at Disneyland, too, Miller told the Times. "They called it Walt Disney's Folly."

And so it came to pass, the great man prevailed. And screen queen Catherine Zeta-Jones was there at one of the opening concerts, in "a burst of tangerine and rhinestones," as the Times reported. And she pronounced Gehry's handiwork "very sensual."

After one of the concerts, Gehry said, "It was so beautiful, I cried. I couldn't believe it."

Do American fairy tales get better than this?

Second, you've got the classic, century-old saga of Los Angeles trying to find an identity, or at least to make itself a peer of New York. In furtherance of which mission the Times treated the Disney Hall story as the Eighth Wonder, covering it from every minute angle imaginable to the editorial brain, with many, many thousands of words, and headlines that ran the gamut from "Disney Hall Hailed as L.A. Cultural Jewel" on page one to "Poet Wallace Stevens Found 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird'; Now Downtown Residents and Workers Cast Their Gaze on Disney Hall" deep inside the paper. The proud-as-punch Times also ran a roundup of praise from architecture critics around the country, headlined "Critics From All Points Weigh In—Gehry's Work Earns Raves." Shades of Sally Field at the Oscars: They like us, they really like us!

Architectural criticism is a bit of a media backwater, and that's a shame, given how these buildings define our landscapes and lives. But it's a specialty full of talented people, and the reviews have been fabulously entertaining—breathless and deep, brainy and purple in their efforts to explain the genius of this building. What's nice is, this is purple with a purpose. The building, which I saw last spring just before it was completed, isn't just gorgeous, it's mysteriously gorgeous. And it's a mystery you want solved. We're not there yet, but the adjectival orgy has been anything but dull.

"Its silvery cascades," wrote Time's Richard Lacayo, "are one of the most beautiful sights anywhere in the U.S. If you have seen the Grand Canyon, another sun-drenched, curvy thing of hypnotic power, you have some idea of what Disney Hall is like." To Martin Filler, writing in House & Garden, it "seems to whirl upward and outward with immense centripetal energy." Newsweek's Cathleen McGuigan wrote of "its sexy curves and glamorous skin" and "its roller-coaster swoops."

For baroque exuberance verging into meaninglessness, the prize went, as always, to Herbert Muschamp of The New York Times:


Imagine a moon apple: a hollow sphere of lunar light. Somebody hands you a knife and says, "Cut!" How many shapes can you make? Peel a ribbon. Carve out squares of curving surfaces, concave and convex. Change the dimensions. Turn some slices inside out. Tweak. Stretch. When you're done, compose the pieces into a flowering cabbage. Then into a cabbage rose. Rearrange. Magnify. Reproduce the contours with large panels of stainless steel etched to a soft matte finish. Jump in and soar.

An absurd passage, perhaps. But good moods are always a little absurd. In a world as deadly serious as this, do we have a right to feel this way? Nah. But let's do.