As Los Angeles prepares to welcome yet another big-time architectural gem to Grand Avenue, an uncanny series of events replays itself just as it did twelve years ago, when the Disney Concert Hall was unveiled. Eli Broad’s museum by New York-based architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro opened this fall. Like the formal exuberance of Gehry’s building, the Broad’s deep and distorted pattern of perforations will surely be replicated in imagery that advertises, tantalizes, and provides a backdrop for partying elites, but it will likely fail to communicate a more compelling backstory. Thankfully, Facing the Music: Documenting Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Redevelopment of Downtown Los Angeles is a timely and welcome unraveling of the cursory attitude with which Los Angeles’ built manifestations are often approached.
In 2003, downtown was not sexy. Gentrification was a far-off dream of “inner city” political boosters, but hopes were high for repopulation thanks to a recent relaxation of zoning ordinances that would allow for residential conversions of office buildings. Richard Florida’s book Cities and the Creative Class (Routledge, 2004) was still one year out, and development-friendly Antonio Villaraigosa had not yet become the city’s first modern Latino mayor. Southern California’s real estate market had another four years of bloating before the bubble would pop (locally and across the nation), and Southern California Institute of Architecture was adjusting to its recent move into the Santa Fe Freight Depot building in the arts district—a barren stretch of town where mostly artists lived in cheap lofts.
Artist, filmmaker, and photographer Allan Sekula was at work documenting the construction of the Disney Concert Hall, which would open in late October that year. This work, which he produced collaboratively with four other artists—James Baker, Karin Apollonia Muller, Anthony Hernandez, and Billy Woodberry—would ultimately comprise the group installation titled Facing the Music.
A product of working class Los Angeles, and passionate about the political condition of working men and women, Sekula was unflinchingly resistant to, as he said, the “uncritical celebration of the new downtown.” Facing the Music questioned the late-capitalist idea that inner city cores could be improved by building large-scale entertainment and sports venues, retail corridors, and eye-catching buildings that would generate sales revenue and jobs (all mostly low wage). In the early 2000s Los Angeles was hot to follow such national trends with Gehry’s Concert Hall, L.A. Live, Staples Center, and the ambitious yet repeatedly stalled-out Grand Avenue master plan project.
Instead of privileging the spectacle of the Gehry building, Sekula and his collaborators subverted it by stepping into its inner world: its steel, bolts, safety measures, loose wires, and drywall. Simultaneously, Sekula’s camera turned away from the building toward the margins of the site, where the effects of redevelopment shifted or challenged populations and cultures already inhabiting Grand Avenue and beyond: the homeless, the workers, the ghosts of Bunker Hill. By deliberately ignoring the explicit imagery and formalism of Gehry’s architecture, Facing the Music uncovered the latent legibility of the building. The installation was shown, intentionally and provocatively, within the belly of Disney Hall, at the REDCAT gallery in 2005.
The new book is true to the 2005 exhibition, unfurling a further line of connection with additional content that Sekula compiled until his death in 2013. Included are Leonard Nadel’s images of Bunker Hill from the early 20th century (Nadel was a photographer for the Los Angeles Housing Authority from 1949–1952). These images offer glimpses of intimate domestic interiors captioned with notes Nadel took while speaking to residents, like: “substandard, $40 a month,” and “infested, illegal kitchen.” Louis Adamic’s 1930 article from Outlook & Independent magazine provides the quintessential blueprint for a critical analysis of Los Angeles’ cadre of entrepreneurs (Otis, Huntington, Whitley), who, he states, “have small use for poor people.” Those same mini-moguls’ financial lineage would eventually make way for the Music Center and Grand Avenue (by bulldozing Bunker Hill).
Facing the Music is nuanced and paradoxical, not smug or polemical. The work explores the intersectional account of Disney Concert Hall and those who constructed the building, those displaced by it, and those who benefitted most from its development. Sekula and his collaborators’ appreciation for the sweaty orchestration of the building’s construction is celebratory in portraits of the crew’s scribbled hardhats or the careful manner in which tool belts are hung at the end of a shift. The way Sekula presents the miserable faces of Disney Hall’s opening night attendants, in his video Gala, is not so sincere.
Sekula’s leaping connections between, for example, the orange and blue of the Getty’s corporate logo to the color of stolen water nourishing the citrus of the San Fernando Valley may be hyperbolic or even ambivalent, but they expand the investigation and interpretation of both building and site. In a transcript of his lecture “Los Angeles: Graveyard of Documentary,” included in Facing the Music, Sekula writes that “photographs once changed the world, while now they merely initiate and replicate the fashionable surface mutations of a spectacle culture immune to deeper transformation.”
In 2015, as in 2005, spirited investigations that ignore the designer “money shot” are as rare as ever. In a downtown that is increasingly consumed by architectural pomp, Sekula’s means of reading and representing architecture provide a necessary alternative approach.