Perfectly Orchestrated

The Building Team for L.A.'s Walt Disney Concert Hall executes another masterpiece by the pre-eminent designer of curvaceous buildings.
August 11, 2010

Mention of architect Frank Gehry brings to mind his characteristically curving structures — notably the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain; the Experience Music Project in Seattle; and the Ray & Maria Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.

So it was obvious that the Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, would present its Building Team with unusual design and construction challenges. The outstanding manner in which team members collaborated to produce this stunning addition to downtown Los Angeles garnered the project a Grand Award in BD&C's Building Team of the Year competition.

The most essential contribution to project coordination was a requirement that the general contractor and major subcontractors have the capability to use CATIA, the 3-D software program used by Gehry's office. The 20 largest subcontractors — including those with contracts involving concrete, steel, mechanical/electrical, curtain wall, and drywall — had such capability. CATIA (Computer-graphic Aided Three-Dimensional Applied Application) was developed by French software manufacturer Dassault Systems.

Achieving competence in CATIA was a formidable requirement, says Jim Yowan, project director with the job's general contractor, Minneapolis-based M.A. Mortenson Co. The firm not only had to invest $20,000 in computer hardware and pay a licensing fee to IBM, but it was necessary to hire two CATIA experts to manage the software.

Mortenson established an FTP site on which electronic information was deposited, reviewed, and updated. It also added a time dimension to the CATIA software to create a 4-D model that Yowan says was extremely helpful in communicating the building's design as well as construction schedule.


Visitors enter the Disney Concert Hall by climbing a flight of steps or through doors at the sidewalk level.


Taking a Euro approach

In another departure from standard project management practice, Mortenson supplied major subcontractors with the estimated quantities of materials they would need for their portion of the work. The company also assumed any cost penalties resulting from overestimating or underestimating. This unusual step was "a risk we couldn't afford not to take," says Yowan. "If we had a bunch of subs with the wrong quantities and bad estimates, it would come back to haunt us."

Yowan notes that this approach was essentially an application of the quantity surveying procedure commonly used in Europe, whereby the project designer or owner provides the contractor with material quantities that enable the GC to solicit bids.

Gehry collaborated with Japanese acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota to perfect the concert hall's acoustics and accommodate its 6,125-pipe organ. The sail-like curves of the hall's ceiling and the flow of interior walls improve acoustics by scattering the sound and producing more reflections.

Fabricating and installing these ceiling panels was not a trivial task. The ceiling is composed of strips of vertical-grain Douglas fir laminated to a board substrate. Its basket weave pattern narrows, widens, and varies in plane. The ceiling was erected in 80 panels that varied in size from 10x40 feet to 20x30 feet.

No panel was released from the shop until adjacent panels had also been fabricated, making it possible to confirm that adjoining panels would fit together properly. This procedure resulted in literally assembling the entire ceiling in advance of shipment, even though no more than six panels were in the shop at one time.

Someone from Gehry's office checked every panel before shipment and again after installation. About 95% of panel-related defects were resolved in the shop, says Yowan. "The quality of the work was fabulous," he says.

The performing hall ceiling system originally was planned to be stick built, working from a scaffold. "We believe we achieved a better quality project by building it in a controlled environment, and working from the factory floor," Yowan says. It also saved $2 million.


The concert hall’s ceiling was meticulously designed to provide superior acoustics and accommodate a 6,125-pipe organ.


Yowan says the Disney Center is "probably the most complicated steel structure built recently in the U.S. With that came a challenge at every step — from detailing through erection."

Achieving proper tolerances between framing and enclosure elements was critical to successful execution of the construction. The general contractor, steel contractor, exterior skin contractor, and architect collaborated to establish tolerances that would satisfy their respective requirements.

One goal was to put the metal panel or glass surface in exactly the right place as indicated by the CATIA model. This, in turn, required a precise connection between the steel structure and the glass or metal panel system. Getting the steel delivered and erected in the right place was crucial to the success of the project, Yowan says.

Steel erection was facilitated by the use of an innovative concept by which x, y, and z coordinates were established on paper. These were then transferred to the fabricated steel and marked with a stick-on reflective target. Before each day's steel erection, theoretical coordinates for each target would be entered into a surveying instrument known as a geodometer. As steel was erected, the geodometer would be fixed on desired coordinates. When the instrument read the target, the steel would be determined to be in the correct spot, and it would be secured.

The stainless steel exterior panels, which are less than 1/8-inch thick and do not serve as an air or moisture barrier, were supplied by Italian fabricator Permasteelisa Cladding Technologies. Unlike the exposed-fastener-applied stainless steel panels on Gehry's Experience Music Project exterior in Seattle, Disney's panels are not mechanically attached; rather, they are secured with an aluminum extrusion on the back of each panel that attaches to a secondary framing system. They can be removed using a suction cup.

The building's asymmetrical interior spaces have the trademark Gehry quality of inviting a deeper exploration to find out what visual surprises lie just ahead. Although the Disney Center's exterior exudes sleekness, internal spaces, such as areas around stairways, boldly reveal the massive framing that supports the exterior skin. Interior finishes include red oak flooring and 133,000 sf of exposed vertical-grain Douglas fir paneling.

The 293,000-sf building, with sweeping curves of stainless steel that distinguish it from neighboring structures, opened last October. Plans for the 2,273-seat Disney Concert Hall were launched in 1987, when Lillian Disney donated $50 million as a tribute to her late husband. Corporations, foundations, and individuals provided additional funding.

Construction Costs

Sitework and landscaping $2,000,000
Foundation and structure 69,000,000
Enclosure 47,000.000
Architectural finishes 49,000,000
Equipment and vertical transport 8,500,000
Mechanical/electrical/plumbing 34,500,000
Total $210,000,000