Earlier this year, the world-renowned Colburn School located in Los Angeles, California took a bold step into the future. Undeterred by the pandemic, Colburn has officially begun its quest to expand its campus with a $350 million campaign for a new performing arts facility whose design embodies the same pioneering spirit as the students, instructors, and professional artists who will perform there. The Colburn Center, designed by Frank Gehry, has already been coined the “hall for all” for not only its mission to provide a home for L.A.’s young performing artists and performing arts organizations and ensembles.
Welcoming over 2,000 students from across Los Angeles and around the world each year, the Colburn School has been committed to providing the best possible performing arts education for over 70 years. The campus’ early history is part of the revival of the downtown’s cultural corridor, but as the district evolved so did the Colburn School. Its largest performance space, the 430-seat Herbert Zipper Concert Hall, constructed in 1998, did not always have the capabilities to host the larger orchestras and accommodate productions that incorporated students from both the Conservatory of Music and the Trudl Zipper Dance Institute. Thus began a capital campaign to build a new performance venue to support the school’s growing orchestra and dance performances, and to serve as a cultural and civic hub in the heart of downtown.
“The Colburn Center is a physical manifestation of the school’s founding principle of ‘access to excellence,’ allowing Colburn to continue and expand our educational and performance activities in a design which breaks down barriers between audience and performer and reveals the educational process.” -- Sel Kardan, Colburn President
Frank Gehry’s plans for the new complex includes a 1,000-seat concert hall, an outdoor terrace lobby, a rooftop garden for small concerts and events, and five professional-sized dance studios, the largest of which is also a 100-seat flexible studio theatre. The dance studios are enveloped in glass to provide a literal window into the beauty and rigor of dance training and performance art. Incorporating the element of natural light into an otherwise dark rehearsal space helps give the dance studios their own identity while harmonizing with the larger project. “These glass 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. “With our training studios and a new performance space in the round, we will be able to explore the synthesis of music and dance and be a global gathering place for the investigation of dance and music, architecture, and design.”
The Terri and Jerry Kohl Hall is the personification of Frank Gehry’s bespoke craftsmanship. It utilizes a vineyard style in-the-round design to create connection and intimacy between the performers and the audience, removing the elevated stage front and putting front-row seats on the same floor level with the performers. Sitting behind the orchestra will make you feel like you are actually on stage. While some classical dance programs would be challenged by this traditionally music-centric configuration, the leadership of the Trudl Zipper Dance Institute share Gehry’s boundless “why not” approach and are already envisioning how to transpose traditional pieces for the 360-degree performance space. Opera and jazz will also be at home in the hall, which is equipped with a series of platform lifts to create tiered orchestra seating and an orchestra pit that can accommodate 70 musicians in a more traditional performance mode.
Visiting Kohl Hall will truly be a one-of-kind performance experience from the world-class Poltrona Frau seating to the Magritte-inspired acoustic clouds that float like a pastoral sky above the audience. The signature acoustic ceiling consists of twenty asymmetrical concrete cloud panels with contoured pipe structures threaded below and throughout them. The pipes are used along with other lighting positions at the clouds and balcony fronts for the theatrical lighting plot, which consists of 250 fixtures that are all used to light the arena-like stage for both music and dance performances. Floating balconies are positioned around the stage and pulled back from the walls to reinforce the sense of being near the clouds. And behind the performance platform is a section of rear audience seating that can also serve as choral risers for select productions.
And even though filled with iconic design features, the venue’s core architectural makeup is
centered around the fundamental needs of Colburn’s students, which is to explore and train in music and dance, and ultimately connect with an audience through performance. Costly finishes and features were avoided to allow focus on function and facilitation within an ideal learning environment. “The main thing is that the engineering doesn’t overwhelm the human feeling,” said Gehry at the design unveiling earlier this year. The goal of a good concert hall, he added “is to make a connection between the audience and the performers, just like in theater.”
The Colburn Center reunites Gehry with his collaborator Yasuhisa Toyota of Nagata Acoustics, the acoustician behind Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Elbphilharmonie. The project team also includes Michael Ferguson, founding principal of TheatreDNA, who formerly consulted on Gehry’s The Museum event center for Facebook’s MPK21 campus, and on New World Center in Miami Beach. Colburn’s expansion on Grand Avenue will be the latest addition to the bourgeoning cultural corridor of Downtown Los Angeles, standing alongside Diller Scofidio + Renfro's Broad Museum, Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall, Isozaki's Museum of Contemporary Art, and just a few blocks away from Moneo's Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
The project is expected to begin construction in 2023, and completion is slated for 2025. When the Colburn Center opens, it will mark the largest concentration of Frank Gehry’s work in the world, joining the Walt Disney Concert Hall and The Grand LA, all located in a three-block zone. It’s only fitting that this milestone would be achieved in the city he calls home and for one of his greatest passions—the arts. “The Colburn School is an incredibly important asset to the cultural district of Downtown Los Angeles,” said Gehry. “Their new hall is a major blessing for the music world of this city, and I am honored to be a part of it. I hope that we have helped create a setting to nurture and grow the next generations of talent.”