Facing the Music - Allan Sekula

Travis Diehl on Facing the Music: Documenting Walt Disney Concert Hall and The Redevelopment of Downtown Los Angeles, a project by Allan Sekula.

Allan Sekula, Prayer for the Americans 4, 2003/2005 © The Estate of Allan Sekula. Courtesy of East of Borneo.

Allan Sekula, Prayer for the Americans 4, 2003/2005 © The Estate of Allan Sekula. Courtesy of East of Borneo.

Those immune to the power of metaphor sometimes scoff at the idea that Mr. Gehry’s architecture is democratic. Herbert Muschamp, The New York Times

If the soaring street-level lobby of the Walt Disney Concert Hall is, as its architect and longtime Santa Monica resident Frank Gehry somewhat solipsistically claims, the living room of the city, then its rooftop gardens are the patio. Here on the public plaza, dwarfed by the building’s characteristic steel sails, two teenage couples dressed in prom formalwear run back and forth as a woman tracks them with a camcorder. Nearby, a small camera crew angles a foil reflector at another woman posing near the outer wall in her Sunday best. A girl in lipstick and pearls splashes water in the cobalt-blue, blossom-shaped fountain donated by Gehry to the memory of Lillian Disney, the Hall’s first patron. A photographer clicks his shutter. On this cool, Spring afternoon in Los Angeles, photographers and models flock to a building described by the senior architecture critic of the Los Angeles Times as so sculptural that no bad photo of it exists.

Of course, photos are notoriously mercenary. Through a similar set of photographs of this rooftop, made during its planting, artist Karen Apollonia Müller tells the story of an elderly Culver City woman named Daisy, who every day for years opened her mail in the shade of her pink puffball tree – until the builders of the Disney Hall came knocking. ‘She needed money to replace a tire on her truck and to repair her roof’, Müller writes, ‘so she could not resist the agreement that allowed the landscape architect to have her tree uprooted and hauled away’. Her beloved tree became the largest of the handful shading the travertine plaza of the Disney Hall’s Blue Ribbon Courtyard – and the only transplant, ironically, not to survive. The price Daisy received was a fraction of the market value of her mature Dombeya wallichii. For Müller, the process of transplanting full-grown trees offers a metaphor for the violence perpetrated by this building on the city. 

Karin Apollonia Müller, Fountain, 2002. Courtesy of East of Borneo.

Karin Apollonia Müller, Fountain, 2002. Courtesy of East of Borneo.

Müller’s project is one of four solicited by Allan Sekula in the early 2000s as part of what became the April 2005 exhibition Facing the Music: Documenting Walt Disney Concert Hall and The Redevelopment of Downtown Los Angeles. The catalogue, recently printed after much delay, and with contributions by Louis Adamic, James Baker, Edward Dimendberg, Laura Diamond Dixit, Anthony Hernandez, Karin Apollonia Müller, Leonard Nadel and Billy Woodberry, is more properly a monograph on the Disney Hall itself, including a comprehensive foreword, and a previously unpublished essay by Sekula – the only one by the artist to focus on Los Angeles. The Concert Hall is indeed a perfectly photogenic building, yet the artists commissioned by Sekula, ‘slyly evade this trap’.  Filmmaker Billy Woodberry videotapes the slow process of constructing the inside-out steelwork that necessarily, if ingloriously, supports the iconic skin. Anthony Hernandez depicts the Belmont High School project (now the Edward R. Roybal Learning Center) and the Los Angeles River in photographs that, according to Sekula, share ‘an uncanny kinship with uncelebrated structures, and with a pictorial modernism free from baroque aspirations’. Hernandez’s photos pair the semi-built school with the unfinished, bare studs under the concert hall’s facade, which appears as an unremarkable box on top of a massive parking deck. Hallways and conduits display a morphology similar to sewers and drains: pipes for culture or for waste, both structurally obscured.

When Sekula first began organising Facing the Music, Belmont was a ‘folly’ – half built, partially demolished, since ‘no one thought to test the subsoil for methane bubbles or earthquake faults’.  Of course, for many of the city’s critics, nearly any building near 1st and Grand would be a folly after the original sin: scraping a shabby but thriving working-class neighbourhood from the face of Bunker Hill, beginning in 1955, in order to plunk down a proper modern downtown. A short walk from the Disney Hall are the Los Angeles Cathedral, an architecturally striking arts high school, the monolithic Water and Power building, an opera house, MOCA, the Broad, the California Plaza mall and towers, the Bank of America tower, the Bonaventure Hotel, LAPD headquarters, City Hall and several courthouses. Sekula compares the result to scrunching New York’s landmarks – from PS1 to Lincoln Center to the Tombs – into a few adjacent blocks. Disney Hall seemingly anchors a forced Manhattanism; downtown is one of the few places in Los Angeles built on a grid, a system stubbornly maintained, despite the topographical inconvenience of Bunker Hill, via irregularities such as tunnels, tiered roads and severe ramps.

If Grand Avenue is the spiritual/cultural axis (the Cathedral on one end, the Grand Central Library on the other), 1st Street between City Hall and Belmont is the municipal/political axis. The Disney Hall is there at the crossroads, an expressive monument capping what Sekula tirelessly reminds us is still the parking deck for jurors. His video Gala, represented in the catalogue by several spreads of tiny stills, centres not on the Disney Hall’s opening celebration itself, but on the stream of well-heeled guests waiting for their cars afterwards, and the young, pony-tailed valets bringing them – a scene filmed, pointedly, from the clogged intersection of 1st and Grand. Diagrams of parking lots and plans for curb-parking zones appear towards the end of the volume, including on the endpages. The various texts hint at the privileging (and, ironically, the almost piratical tolling) of cars in downtown’s development. They provide – in good Sekulian style – a subtle, unacknowledged skew line to the artists’ main arguments. While the essays and photographs explode the significance of one dominant set of Disney Hall’s codes, another adjacent set unfolds in layout. Not least of these is the constellation of water between the Department of Water and Power building, the sail-like Disney Hall and the other terminus of the exhibition’s scope, the Los Angeles River, which empties into San Pedro bay, near where Sekula grew up and site of the second-largest container port in the United States.

Photograph by James Baker. Courtesy of East of Borneo

Photograph by James Baker. Courtesy of East of Borneo

LA’s downtown is home to a handful of conspicuous jails and courthouses – a municipal and legal infrastructure a stone’s throw from the concentrated culture of Grand Avenue. The catalogue’s first essay, a text accompanying the 2005 show, is Sekula at his most densely vitriolic. The piece begins with the strange motif of prisoners perhaps glimpsing the unfinished slab of the concert hall from the windows of the Sherrif’s bus on their way to the municipal courthouse – ‘some making the journey for the third and last time’.  Darkly, this first paragraph ends not where Sekula left it, but with a long addendum by the editor, who (rightly) finds it necessary to unpack the author’s reference to California’s overly punitive ‘three strikes’ rule, by which some repeat offenders receive automatic life sentences. The area is also home – in part because of the jail – to one of the largest transient populations in the country. Against this unsavory backdrop, it may seem easy to deflate boosterist rhetoric as high-flown as that surrounding Gehry’s building. Yet such discursions have less to do with the Concert Hall itself than with the ‘forgetting’ that it, and much of the Bunker Hill development, seem to encourage.

The grim but loving aim of Sekula’s project is to counter such shiny civic abstractions – all the more necessary given that the particularly Angelino brand of urbanist fantasy is nothing new. The Facing the Music catalogue includes a facsimile of a 1930 article by one of Sekula’s favorite writers, Louis Adamic: ‘Los Angeles! There She Blows’, first published in Outlook and Independent, a liberal New York weekly. Adamic traces the Los Angeles boom, which began in the 1890s and more or less continues today, starting with the infamous story of the Owens Valley, the LA aqueduct and how the ‘go-getters’ of the day swindled the ‘folks’ into approving an unnecessary water bond (the basis of Roman Polanski’s film Chinatown). In fact, this early conspiracy of landowners was not to provide for an immediate shortage, but rather looked ahead a generation or more to when Los Angeles’ population would crest six million. No one could stop them. ‘The crooks have taken money from the fools’, writes Adamic, paraphrasing an area newspaper. ‘What difference does it make? The money stays in Los Angeles. It is helping to build the city.’ And so it goes. For the next century the city grew not according to the needs of its working class, but instead was steered into the future by unscrupulous boosters, out for their own gain. It is the Wild West, after all; Adamic notes that Los Angeles was settled by folks so rough they got kicked out of San Francisco.

Gehry has often, somewhat naïvely, compared his building to a ship: the orchestra’s stage to a floating platform, the facade to steel sails. Throughout the catalogue, though Sekula never quite makes it explicit, one detects the sweet smack of irony as he extends the social metaphor of the ship – as if not only the Gehry project but the whole city were commanded by plutocrats, lording it over regular folks, taking the city wherever they pleased. Gala, one of Sekula’s least sympathetic portrayals of the ruling class, becomes a rare glimpse of the captains of entertainment and industry – the Hollywood elite – stranded in the city’s eastern backwater. The New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp likened the building to the ‘silver screen’, and to the reflectors used on film and photo sets, and Gehry made no secret of the fact that he would have preferred a westside site for his reluctantly populist building.

Anthony Hernandez, Los Angeles # 3, 1971. Courtesy of East of Borneo.

Anthony Hernandez, Los Angeles # 3, 1971. Courtesy of East of Borneo.

Facing the Music was staged in the gallery at REDCAT (the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) located inside the Disney Concert Hall. CalArts (where Sekula taught until his death, and where I was briefly his student) was founded by Walt Disney as a suburban institute in Valencia, and REDCAT, with its basement theater, gallery and coffee shop, became its urban outpost in 2003. The catalogue is published by East of Borneo, an online arts journal based at CalArts and edited by Thomas Lawson, the art school dean. The resulting invective is thus a complicated but unusually well-positioned dance: a critique from within, and one that, to the credit of Sekula and his collaborators, spares no one – least of all Gehry, at whom only a few critics have aimed such articulately harsh words. Like the mature trees transplanted to simulate historical depth in an instant downtown, the idea of Gehry’s genius – or that of any architect – should not be read as natural, this catalogue asserts. Such treatment is double-edged. In the Disney Hall gift shop, above a pile of copies of the gushing Gehry monograph Symphony is a display of Facing the Music. Nearby is a shelf of souvenir models of the building, marked Made in China – another irony too slight for even a footnote in a complex, Melvillian tale of globalisation, corruption and ingrown dreams.

Sekula passed away in 2014. His final project, the Facing the Music catalogue, takes on the urgency of a mandate to those who would use their art for politics – those who would confront the city on the basis of its metaphors. Even though it was released a decade after Sekula’s exhibition, Facing the Music is a timely book. Disney Hall’s new starchitecture neighbour, the museum designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro for the personal collection of Eli and Edythe Broad, opens in September 2015. Just a few months ago, the County Supervisors approved Gehry Partners’ plan to redevelop ‘Parcel Q’ on Grand Avenue, directly east of the Disney Hall. Gehry means to compliment his ‘symphony’ with a combination of mixed-use retail and residential buildings, anchored by a signature high-rise hotel and an office tower. Dimendberg notes in his introduction to Facing the Music that downtown is undergoing rapid gentrification, especially along the historic Broadway Corridor, where flophouses and warehouses alike have been converted into ‘artist’ lofts – billed as New York living in LA. The completed Edward R. Roybal Learning Center is now the second most expensive public school in the country, its $377m budget exceeded only by the folly of the  $578m Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools campus in Mid-Wilshire. Grand Park, another subject of Müller’s lens, reopened in 2013 as a twelve-acre greenspace connecting the Music Center to City Hall.

The trees on the Blue Ribbon plaza now seem healthy enough. Daisy’s pink puffball tree has been replaced by a new specimen. A young man photographs a model as she squats against a knotted trunk, under a canopy of dried orange blooms. It’s breezy on the roof, even a bit chilly, as the sun slides behind the Promenade Condominums on Hope Street. But the buffed-steel building still lends golden light to a garden dotted with edible plants. And if the sun goes down today, leaving the Disney Concert Hall in the shade, at least tomorrow one can expect a return to relentless good weather and a matinee concert of rustling leaves and chirruping songbirds. And yet, wafting over Sekula’s book, left open on the gray table, is the unmistakable note of ripe trash.

Allan Sekula, Prayer for the Americans 3 (Disney Stockholders), 1997/2005 © The Estate of Allan Sekula. Courtesy of East of Borneo.

Allan Sekula, Prayer for the Americans 3 (Disney Stockholders), 1997/2005 © The Estate of Allan Sekula. Courtesy of East of Borneo.