By Ricky O’Bannon
robannon@bsomusic.org

Where some look at Walt Disney Concert Hall — home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic — and see a towering modern masterpiece by Frank Gehry, Léon Krier sees a crashed space ship with sharp elbows that pushes its neighbors away.

Beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder, but for Krier the problem with the modernist design of the buildings many American symphonies call home is that can create what he calls a “desolated space” by being incongruous with their city surroundings.

This incongruity, he argued, goes beyond aesthetics. It has a psychological impact on city residents. Rather than seeing a concert hall like a favorite café that is tucked naturally into its surrounding neighborhood, a “space ship” creates a break in the surrounding fabric, which can cause residents to avoid crossing the streets that border it.

“In architecture we suffer from the idea of modernism where you think you must do something that has never been done in the city,” he said.

Krier spoke at the inaugural conference of the Future Symphony Institute held at the University of Baltimore. (Read BSO principal trumpet Andrew Balio's comments from the conference here.)

Krier is a proponent of the neo-traditional or new classicism school of architecture, and he praised more traditional hall designs like those of Severance Hall in Cleveland and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam as halls that worked in their surroundings.

Krier has an ally in Roger Scruton who he shared a panel discussion with at the conference. Scruton is an English philosopher that specializes in aesthetics.

“The flight of people from the center of the cities is part of the flight from the idea of the city, and the symphony orchestra is the center of the city,” Scruton said. “The city itself is losing that centrifugal force that brings them in. It's architecture more than anything else that is responsible for this.”

Scruton added that modern design often does not allow for buildings that mesh naturally at the edges. To solve that, he said, it requires both the hall and its surroundings must meet sensibly.

“It has to be a proper citizen so to speak,” Scruton said. “It has to be placed among other sensible buildings so it is part of the city and not just on a piece of wasteland where nobody wants to be found at night.”

Just what constitutes “proper citizenship” for concert halls is not a widely agreed upon fact in the architecture world. Reflecting on the 10-year anniversary of Disney Hall, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne argued that Gehry’s design “wanted to protect the idea of the concert hall as refuge” but at the same time be a proper citizen by embodying “the essential informality” of the city in which it is placed in hopes of demystifying and democratizing classical music.

The modern design, Hawthorne said, expands to fill holes in the surrounding area’s urban fabric.

“The exuberance of the design, the way it seems eager to expand outward like a bunch of balloons in a child's fist, is in direct contrast to Moneo's cathedral and Isozaki's museum, both of which turn inward,” he wrote.

While both modern and classical designs are up for debate, all architects hope to create spaces that invite the flow of people in a city.

Krier advocates for decentralized and multiple city centers. Rather than a single urban nucleus, Krier said a city should have several clusters of activity centered upon civic centerpieces like the orchestra hall that are people-sized and walkable.

This, he said, allows a concert hall to be part of the natural flow of a city landscape where citizens want to be regularly rather than an alien destination point where people travel to sparingly.

To achieve that, he said, city planners and architects must adopt his view that what has been tried isn’t working as it could.

“I think in a way you have to be able to say ‘it's a mistake.’ Great. It's a mistake that can be fixed,” Krier said. “Things can change.”