Dispute over Disney Hall's 'Collar and Bow' finally tied up
Perhaps the least glorious chapter in the creation of Walt Disney Concert Hall has finally ended in a confidential settlement of the 2-year-old lawsuit over “Collar and Bow,” the gigantic sculpture that architect Frank Gehry envisioned extending a lighthearted greeting from the concert hall’s doorstep — until it literally began to fall apart during fabrication.
Gehry started the ball rolling for the 65-foot-high depiction of formalwear seemingly tossed casually aside on the sidewalk at 1st Street and Grand Avenue, after learning in 1993 that his friends Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen had been considering festooning some landscape or other with a vastly oversized bow tie. The married couple are famed for their giant, playful, site-specific sculptures.
Six years ago, the artists signed a $2.2-million contract with the Music Center, Disney Hall’s landlord. “Collar and Bow” was to be delivered by August 2004. But the initial fabrication company, Carlson & Co. of San Fernando, had trouble keeping the collar’s aluminum skin attached to its steel-and-composite bones, according to court papers; the cost ballooned to $3.8 million, the timetable for delivery was pushed back to August 2006, and new fabricators were hired.
The second deadline passed, and it all ended in contention in February 2007, when the Music Center, L.A.’s hub of the performing arts, took the unusual step of suing the Pop Art eminences it had commissioned. The suit accused Oldenburg and Van Bruggen — who by then was fighting the metastatic breast cancer that took her life in January of this year at age 66 — of negligence, breach of contract and unjust enrichment; it added an allegation of fraud against Carlson & Co., which had worked with the Dutch-born Van Bruggen and Swedish native Oldenburg on past projects. The Music Center also made claims against Englekirk & Sabol, the project’s consulting engineers, and Westerly Marine, an Orange County custom boat builder that had been brought in to help solve the problems with the collar.
The total damages to the Music Center came to more than $6 million in payments to the artists and other expenses, its attorney, David Lira, said in an interview last year. Cross-complaints among the defendants ensued.
All claims were dismissed this month, according to the final entries in a Los Angeles Superior Court case file that’s five volumes thick. A document dated Jan. 30 said the “parties have agreed to a settlement ... the terms of which are confidential.” It added only that the settlement “is not an admission of any fault, wrongdoing and/or liability” by any of the parties.
A spokeswoman for the Music Center said Tuesday that its president, Stephen Rountree, would not comment because he is prohibited from discussing the settlement.
But Oldenburg, reached at his New York City home, said he felt vindicated.
“We were not at all penalized in any way, and did not have to pay any money,” he said. “It wasn’t really our fault that all these things happened. It was very logical that we not be held responsible.”
Excerpts from a deposition Rountree gave in the case last August show that he became concerned that “delamination,” the separation of the collar’s skin from its main structure, could have more widespread safety implications. Thomas Sabol of the project’s engineering firm had called him with concerns “about what he called ‘fatigue,’ meaning that, under stress conditions of an earthquake or wind, he was worried ... that there might be a failure” of the whole sculpture.
Sabol, Rountree said, “was also worried that they didn’t know whether this problem was limited just to this one patch of the collar, or might appear later in other locations.” Another concern of Sabol’s, Rountree said, was that the new fabricator, MICE Creative Inc., lacked the “particular expertise” to deal with the problem.
Sabol lobbied for the Music Center to bring Jeff Bennett, who had been Carlson’s project manager for the sculpture, back onto the team. But, Rountree continued, “Coosje was not at all happy with Jeff Bennett’s performance ... and felt that it was a mistake to get Bennett involved.... And she was angry at [Sabol’s firm] for what she saw as kind of switching their views on her.”
Van Bruggen and Oldenburg instead urged hiring another engineering company, Buro Happold. Rountree said he agreed that “it would be helpful for a third party to come in ... because everybody else seemed to be pointing fingers at each other.” But, with Disney Hall well-confirmed as an aesthetic success, sans sculpture, the Music Center decided not to sink any more money into a solution.
The clincher, Rountree said, came in a conversation with engineer Sabol, when “he used ... the ‘safety’ word.... To tell me that the sculpture might be unsafe, that it might fail, that it might fall down, that it might hurt somebody if it was erected -- that was a killer for me.”
Oldenburg, 80, said he’s glad Van Bruggen lived long enough to know that the case was being settled, with no blame accruing to them or their design. “She was aware ... that we would be exonerated, and that mattered a great deal to her. She felt she had done her very best, and didn’t deserve to be persecuted for it.”
Oldenburg said he had been to Disney Hall since the project died, and gets a twinge when he sees the celebrated building without the sculpture he feels would have been not overkill, but a grace note. “It was intended to harmonize and play with the forms of the building. I think it would have done that and intensified the forms. It wouldn’t have been a stranger to the building. We’ll never know.”
Under the settlement, “Collar and Bow,” or the 65% of it that was finished, will be destroyed, Oldenburg said. It had lain forlorn and exposed to the elements in the yard of a big warehouse in Irvine.
“It had to be [at Disney Hall] or nowhere else. We select the site, and the sculpture belongs only there. Coosje felt, and I do too, if the site is taken away from us, the sculpture ceases to exist.”
Next month, Oldenburg said, he will travel to a sculpture park near Oslo and oversee the installation of “Tumbling Tacks,” the last of his huge pieces with Van Bruggen. He said he would continue as an artist, but not on a monumental scale.
“I feel it’s something I did with Coosje, and this may be the last one. We had a way of working together on the large-scale projects that was very satisfying.”
-- Mike Boehm
Photos: "Collar and Bow" as envisioned in a composite rendering. Credit: Coosje van Bruggen and Claes Oldenburg Digital Composites by Mathieu Pung
The "Bow" portion of the sculpture sits unattached last year in the yard of an Irvine warehouse. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times
Claes Oldenburg, left, and Coosje van Bruggen with Frank Gehry at Disney Hall in 2004. Credit: Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles Times