Upon the unveiling of the Frank Gehry-led renovation of the Philadelphia Museum of Art this past May, the project was widely considered a rare act of subtlety in the architect’s outsized body of often curvilinear work. Though it had been described as a “quiet intervention” by the New York Times and an understated appeal to “clarity, light, and space” by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the architect had nonetheless managed to instill his signature ebullience throughout the $233 million overhaul (perhaps most apparently through the inclusion of a gravity-defying staircase in the Williams Forum).
These remarks were made, however, while another project of Gehry Partners was nearing completion on the opposite side of the country that would reach far greater heights of subtlety. With a relatively minuscule construction cost of $14.5 million (including the architect’s charitable donation of his services), Gehry traded flash for precision in his design for the Judith and Thomas L. Beckmen YOLA Center, the permanent home for the LA Phil’s Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles in the Civic Center of Inglewood. Equipped with a music library, a family lounge, a technology-enabled classroom, and the 4,450-square-foot Edgerton Foundation Performance Hall at its center, the YOLA Center is now complete and primarily functions as a central community space for an institution in search of one for over 14 years.
As a matter of construction time and budgetary restraints, the project adapted the structure of a Security Pacific Bank building designed in a vaguely modernist style in 1965 by the local firm Austin, Field & Fry. Though it hardly diverges from the original boxy silhouette, the new YOLA Center carves out plenty of moments to delight, from its bright and airy interiors to its detailed application of plywood, a trademark warm and budget-conscious cladding material from the architect’s earlier career. Gehry Partners worked with Nagata Acoustics, the same local acoustical consulting company that had worked on the Walt Disney Concert Hall, to determine the optimal method for readapting the building’s central space into a concert hall. By excavating the ground floor and raising the ceiling with the addition of a skylight, the new total height comes to 45 feet.
The result is a performance space flooded with natural light from above and only lightly obscured by overhead lighting, acoustical equipment, and exposed structural elements. With the aid of movable walls that extend from the new floor to the roof, the 272-seat space can be divided into two rooms for smaller programs, while a surrounding second-floor balcony can either be used as an additional standing room for audiences or an observation deck for music educators.
Even fewer traces of the architect’s hand can be discerned from the building’s exterior which, save for the visible skylight penetrating its former roof, is an almost entirely faithful renovation of the original structure. The mid-century brick pattern flanks either side of the modest street-facing facade, where passersby can get a glimpse of the interior through large panes of glass between the original building’s evenly-spaced exterior columns. Altogether, the completion of the YOLA Center revitalizes a long-dead pocket of the Inglewood Civic Center through a commitment to music education for the more than 500 students across L.A. County that it will serve annually.
Though the LA Phil canceled the opening community celebration on August 15 out of an abundance of caution amid an ongoing COVID scare, classes at the YOLA Center will begin in September as previously planned.