Gehry Partners unveils an understated Colburn School addition in Downtown Los Angeles

A Gathering Of Gehrys

Gehry Partners unveils an understated Colburn School addition in Downtown Los Angeles

At a conference held yesterday, March 16, at the Colburn School, a renowned private school for music and dance education from beginning lessons to conservatory level training, Frank Gehry unveiled his design for a new addition to the institution’s campus in the Bunker Hill district of Downtown Los Angeles that was first announced in 2018.

The 100,000-square-foot addition, named the Colburn Center, will occupy a site diagonal from the current campus, at a former parking lot across from The Grand, a mixed-use project of Gehry’s on its way to completion, which itself is across from his iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall. When the addition is completed, the three Gehry-designed buildings will form an east-west axis countering that of Grand Avenue, which includes Arata Isozaki’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Broad Museum.

“It is everyone’s dream to design a cultural center,” said Gehry yesterday. “New York has one, so we should have one too.”

The Colburn Center will include much-need dance facilities, equipment storage, creative spaces, a roof garden, and a 1,000-seat concert hall that will surely be treated as the crown jewel of the campus. The stage of Terri and Jerry Kohl Hall, identical in size and shape to that of his Disney Concert Hall, will be able to accommodate up to 104 musicians within a number of mechanically operated configurations. Surrounded by steeply-raked seats on all sides and an orchestra pit with a capacity of up to 70 additional musicians, a sense of intimacy will complement that of whimsy thanks to a performance catwalk and an acoustic ceiling adorned with a cloud-like design, apparently inspired by a painting from the surrealist artist René Magritte. In addition, the floor-to-ceiling glass wall along the eastern edge of the dance studios “will make dance visible every day as people walk by this building that dances,” said Silas Farley, dean of Colburn School’s Trudl Zipper Dance Institute.

rendering of a low-slung Colburn School addition from the street
View from Hill Street and 2nd Street intersection (Courtesy Gehry Partners)

Much like the recently-completed YOLA Center in nearby Inglewood, few traces of Gehry’s signature design moves are visible on the center’s glassy exterior save for a flash of pink titanium panels cladding the upper structure that recalls his color palette of choice during the 1980s.

When asked further about the adornment, however, the architect downplayed its importance in the final design. “If it turned out to be an unnecessary expense,” Gehry explained, “I wouldn’t be opposed to replacing it with a cheaper alternative when the time comes.” A similar deference to budget guided the majority of the design choices of the center, of which $270 million of the estimated $350 million budget has already been raised.

Beyond the immediate needs of the Colburn School, the addition will also resolve the steep topography of the site, which is currently the last undeveloped parcel of Bunker Hill. While the short walk from the nearest subway station and the main attractions of Grand Avenue has long been a short yet arduous uphill climb, the public amenities surrounding the Colburn Center will provide a more direct and verdant route of access. An outdoor elevator and serpentine staircase, for instance, will together connect a new garden on the southern corner of the site with a public plaza above the Second Street Tunnel that Gehry hopes will double as an open-air performance venue free-of-charge to passersby.

The Colburn School purchased the land for the Colburn Center in June 2016 and is expected to break ground on the landmark project in 2023 with an estimated completion date in 2025.