Dimming Disney Hall
A worker from Custom Metal Fabricators sands a portion of Walt Disney Concert Hall last Wednesday. A study released last year showed sunlight reflecting off the building's exterior caused temperatures to reach 138 degrees Fahrenheit. Photo by Gary Leonard.

Those who venture into the main auditorium of the Walt Disney Concert Hall regularly enjoy the soaring evening symphonies performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. However, the hall's current best show, which will run for up to two more months, is taking place during the daylight hours, outside the venue. The sound is anything but sweet.

In fact, the sound is akin to a low-pitched dentist's drill. It is being made by a small cadre of workers who last week began literally scraping away the gleam of architect Frank Gehry's $274 million venue. For the workers doing the scraping, the daily dangling act is about as much fun as a trip to the dentist's office, too.

"It gets extremely hot up there," said Mike Douglas, the superintendent of Custom Metal Fabricators, motioning to a man attached to a harness on the building's exterior. "Extremely hot."

On Monday, March 14, Douglas' team of three workers began scuffing panels on the hall's sweep of stainless steel at the corner of Hope and First streets. One hangs from a boom, attached by a harness like a mountain climber. The others bend over or use ladders. In total, they will have to buff 833 panels.

They are working to lessen Disney's luster. In an unexpected turn after the hall opened in October 2003, neighbors and passersby started complaining about a glare coming off the highly polished exterior. A study commissioned last year by the county revealed that the venue acted like a massive reflector, magnifying rays of sunlight to reach temperatures as high as 138 degrees Fahrenheit in nearby spots.

Residents of the Promenade condominiums, the venue's neighbor to the west, complained the glare from Disney Hall's 200,000-square-foot exterior was actually turning up the heat in their units. Some said temperatures rose 15 degrees over the summer. The Promenade's owners' association complained loudly.

Tough Job

As a temporary solution, officials from the Music Center, which manages the concert hall, installed gray, nylon shams on the exterior of the venue's Founders Room, where much of the gleam was coming from. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a $90,000 plan to alter about 4,200 square feet of the Founders Room and 1,800 square feet of the also-reflective ribbon-like marquee above the entrance to the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater at Hope and Second streets. (CalArts is paying for the marquee fix.)

Even though his company is only working on 2% of the building's surface, Douglas says it's a tough job. The city of Orange-based company usually works on reflective material before it is attached to a building. Because taking the stainless steel off the oddly shaped structure wasn't an option, Douglas said the job puts his workers in rather precarious positions.

Most of the polished plates are about the size of a large television screen, and Douglas said it takes about 20 minutes to finish one. It's a two-step process. First, they use industrial sanders equipped with rectangular 220-grit sandpaper to dull the polished panels. Next comes an orbital sander to create a swirling pattern to make it fit with the others. When the process is complete, the once-gleaming rectangles are muddy, dimmer than before.

Howard Sherman, vice president of operations for the Music Center, said Gehry understood what needed to be done. "Frank Gehry has been involved with this from the beginning," he said. Sherman also said Gehry has signed off on the look of the new, buffed exterior.

Kristen Schmidt, a spokeswoman for the Music Center, said Music Center staff took about 10 sample sheets to Gehry's office to make sure the sanding process would work. "They needed to find the right treatment to match the panels," she said.

The whole process should be complete in six to eight weeks. Sherman said he expects a noticeable difference between the shiny and dull exteriors. And if not? "I have to believe the county tested this thoroughly," he said. "I hope it's going to solve the problem."

Contact Chris Coates at chris@downtownnews.com.

page 1, 3/21/2005

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