Frank Gherys Concert Hall in downtown LA is often seen fleetingly in films & on the small screen, more as a location marker than anything else, in much the same way as the Sydney Opera House or the Golden Gate Bridge. However in the 2009 release The Soloist, the characteristic forms become an important element in the story of one mans collapse into mental illness and the power of friendship in recovery.
Nathaniel Ayers, played by Jamie Foxx was once a promising Juliard student with a bright future but when Steve Lopez, an LA Times journalist (played by Robert Downey Jnr), comes across him playing a two stringed violin next to the Beethoven statue in Pershing Square, he is barely coherent and clearly living on the streets. His accomplished playing however sparks the journalists’ interest and the film follows as he uncovers Nathaniels story.
Much is made of the locations in this film – the grimy, rubbish strewn skid row with its unnerving activity and noise is contrasted against the gleaming titanium of the Disney Hall. The camera rises from the dim underpass where Nathaniel plays to a ribbon of traffic, to street level, to forecourt, and on to performance space. But this is not just art direction. This is a true story and the lost opportunities this building represents for Nathaniel is made all the sharper by knowing this.
In Lopez’s memoir, on which the film is based, he frequently describes the Disney Concert Hall, mostly as he attempts to strengthen Nathaniels connection with something which clearly gives him relief from his demons. He describes their tour of the building as like ‘sneaking around in the folds of a lily’ and Nathaniel says it is an ‘iron butterfly’.
Many Architects are attracted to the profession by the tangible nature of the work. A building is a physical demonstration of an individuals skill, knowledge and creativity and they leave a lasting legacy. That legacy is not just for designers. There is an enduring relationship between architect and inhabitants long after practical completion. Users of a building are reminded everyday of how important they were, or not, in the process. There is also the wider influence. Buildings can represent goals, hold memories, embody corporate greed or as in this case, symbolise a lost opportunity. This film chronicles these surprising connections we have with buildings.
For Nathaniel, if not for some off-kilter brain chemistry, Gherys shapes might express the freedom expressed in the music he plays but instead they mirror his fractured mind and altered perspective.
While the building is identifiably a Ghery – it’s sculptural form and polished cladding make it a definite a blood relative of Bilbaos’ Guggenheim Museum – it is also well suited to its use as a performance space. The shining leaves seem like a still of the music created at it’s heart. Onomatopoeia in built form – it looks like it sounds.