The distinctive curves of the Walt Disney Concert Hall have been likened to a ship at full sail, a flower and a "Symphony in Steel," the title of a book on the structure. Whatever the description, the unique hall has quickly become a symbol of Los Angeles. The project began in 1987 with a $50 million donation from Lillian Disney, the widow of the animation pioneer, and was completed 16 years later at a price of $274 million. The curvilinear design provides one of the best acoustical venues in the world.

Developer: Walt Disney Concert Hall Inc., Los Angeles
Architect: Gehry Partners LLP, Los Angeles
Contractor: M.A. Mortenson Co., Minneapolis
Engineer: John A. Martin Associates, Los Angeles

Trailer Martin, so nick-named because he followed in his father's footsteps in the family engineering business, originally wanted to be a nuclear physicist.

That is until he went off to Brown University in the mid-1960s and discovered, as he puts it, that "my personality didn't fit physics."

Switching majors for his sophomore year, he earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering at Brown then returned to California to earn his master's degree at Calstate Long Beach in 1970 while working at his father's engineering firm.

A year later, the Sylmar earthquake, which killed 65 people in and around the San Fernando Valley on Feb. 9, 1971, helped Martin to find his engineering niche.

"Sylmar made a big impression on me," Martin said. "It really marked the beginning of modern seismic engineering. We've gone from using slide rules to sophisticated computer modeling that enables us to test all sorts of conditions a building might be subjected to."

Today, John A. Martin & Associates, which the now 61-year-old Martin took over after his father's death, is one of the nation's largest privately owned structural engineering and design firms, with a staff of more than 110 people in L.A. and more 400 nationwide, with affiliate offices in every state.

Locally, Martin and his team have become the go-to guys when a tricky construction project needs to be particularly earthquake resistant. In addition to the Disney Concert Hall, Martin also was structural engineer of record for Staples Arena and the soon-to-open Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

"I worry sometimes," said Martin, noting the number of buildings in the county that are likely to fail when the Big One finally hits the L.A. basin. "Buildings are lot like bridges a lot of dangerous bridges out there, but no one cares until one falls into a river."

Ironically, insuring the structural integrity of Disney Hall in the event of a major quake was a relatively straight-forward job, employing standard x-shaped "brace frames" to keep the structure rigid. More challenging was making sure architect Frank Gehry's fanciful, eclectic design actually worked as a structurally sound and acoustically capable building for entertaining hundreds of people at an event.

Martin and his engineers worked more closely with the architectural team than with almost any other project he's been involved with in order to realize Gehry's dream.

"It's just angles, slopes and curves all over the place," said Martin. "It had so much going on, it was quite an effort."

Principal, Gehry Partners LLP
Notable Projects: Euro Disneyland; Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao; Grand Avenue Project
Concert Hall: "It's a voyeur's paradise. Not only can you hear everything in it, you can see everybody and watch other people," Gehry said when the hall was first opened.
L.A.: "When we talk about L.A. having a downtown, it's a stretch, because L.A. is so spread out as a city," Gehry said in a newspaper interview. "Our downtown probably is a linear one Wilshire Boulevard or Sunset Boulevard."
Architecture: I "believe in its potential to make a difference, to enlighten and to enrich the human experience, to penetrate the barriers of misunderstanding and provide a beautiful context for life's drama," Gehry said during his Pritzker Prize acceptance speech.

President, John A. Martin & Associates
Notable Projects: Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, Staples Arena.
Concert Hall: "This was such an unusual building that we had to work with the county very closely because it often wasn't straightforward what needed to be inspected. It could have been a mess, but the county inspectors were great about it."
Dream Project: "A super high-rise building, 100 stories or more. I've never worked on anything that tall."
L.A.: "We are extremely vulnerable. We have lot of older buildings in L.A. that are going to kill people. And it's not just the oldest buildings a lot of 1920s buildings have held up beautifully in quakes. It's some of our 50s and 60s buildings I worry about."
Structural Engineering: "Our role to make sure the building performs the way it's supposed to under normal and unusual conditions. You can't just follow the codes blindly, you have to understand each individual building and how it works on the site."

President & Tonal Director, Rosales Pipe Organ Services Inc.
Notable Projects: Shepherd School of Music. Rice University; Claremont United Church of Christ; St. James Cathedral, Seattle.
Concert Hall: "(Gehry) said to me: 'I bet you thought you were designing this organ. No, I'm designing the organ. But you get to tell me what works.' For many months, it was a tug-of-war. We went through more than 40 designs. Then out of the blue, he came up with what we have now. It's completely new and fresh but also meets the needs of the instrument musically."
Organ Design: "He (Gehry) turned the organ inside out. He wanted to see the mechanisms and the steel structure. Then he curved the pipes. They have a very gentle arc that makes them pleasing to the eye, sort of like a bouquet of flowers. Detractors call them French fries, and we're used to that term."

Former President, Walt Disney Concert Hall Inc. (defunct)
Notable Projects: Los Angeles County Music Center, Bonaventure Hotel, downtown Bank of America building.
Concert Hall: "It was a challenge to try to build the world's greatest concert hall. I'm a problem solver, and this project had as many as one could imagine."
Local Favorites: Capitol Records tower, Hollywood, and Arco Plaza, the original high-rise downtown.
L.A.: "Los Angeles needs buildings that have distinctive and unique architecture, but also perform functionally. We have a number of esoteric buildings that don't work at all. There is a delicate balance of design versus function. Disney Hall is one of the few that has that combination."

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