Sunday, August 1, 2010

Architects on Film

Hollywood has portrayed them as tortured, egomaniacal, adulterers, visionaries fighting against the establishment and primarily men -- in movie terms, it's just another day at the drafting board.

The following are a few of my favorite architects on film:

The Fountainhead (Warner Brothers, 1949)

Gary Cooper is superb as the maverick architect Howard Roark who rails against the New York architectural establishment unwilling to compromise his ideals.  Based on writer Ayn Rand's best selling 1943 novel, both the film and book are rumored to have shades of Frank Lloyd Wright -- true or not, the film's designers took their design cues from the famed architect's thirties and forties work as well as those from the International Style. (Warner Brothers asked Wright to design the film but his $250,000 fee was too steep so the duties went to set designer Edward Carrere).

While the design and architectural critics trashed Carrere's sets, his modernist designs for the Enright House (reflective floors, indoor terraces, unsupported staircases) were a futuristic look at things to come a decade later. And while many film critics cited the film as pure camp (even Roark's jack hammer became a phallic symbol in the presence of his suitor Dominique played by Patricia O'Neal), it's a great look at ego, genius and the power of the press.

Strangers When We Meet (Columbia Pictures, 1960)
Kirk Douglas as architect Larry Coe has a different problem of conscience when he meets and falls in love with his next door neighbor played by Kim Novak while juggling a plum architectural commission. The melodrama was one of the first to tackle adultery in the Kinsey Report era and very Mad Men.
Central to the movie is the Bel Air mountaintop/oceanfront view of the home that Coe is building for a novelist (played by Walter Matthau). The real life home was rumored to be the future love nest for Novak and director Richard Quine which only added to the on and off set soap opera.

Towering Inferno (Twentieth Century Fox, 1974):
This time it's Paul Newman as an architect of conscience who builds the world's tallest building in San Francisco which succumbs to fire in the definitive disaster flick of the seventies. He also has one of the best film lines about the building of these mammoth spectacles in sky -- "Maybe they just oughta leave it the way it is. Kind of a shrine to all the bull**** in the world."

Indecent Proposal  (Columbia, 1993)

Woody Harrelson as an architect who is struggling financially to save his beachfront dream home property and his answer is a million dollar role in the hay with a billionaire character played by Robert Redford with his wife Demi Moore. (Only at the movies). Despite his talent, he is overqualified for work at a firm and teaches at a local university, advocating students not to sell out.

The Belly of an Architect (Tangram Films, 1987)

This art-house flick went straight to DVD but interesting in its coverage of food (from director Peter Greenway who brought us The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover), sex, death and of course architecture. Belly follows Brian Dennehy as he travels to Rome with his young wife to curate an exhibit of an 18th century architect who is obsessed with (and of course he thinks his wife is poisoning him).

Other films to check out are Jeff Bridges as a plane crash survivor/architect in Fearless, Albert Finney in Two for the Road, Richard Gere in Intersection, Sam Waterston in Hannah and Her Sisters and Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever. And with the exception of Finney, all are pretty tortured personally.

 One of my favorite books on the subject is author Mark Lamster's Architecture and Film (Princeton Architectural Press, 2000). The book examines the way architects are treated on screen through a wide array of contributor's features from an even wider range of disciplines. You can purchase the book on Amazon.

I also love Donald Albrecht's Designing Dreams: Modern Architecture in the Movies (Hennessey and Ingalls, 2000) which literally became my bible for book research. He covers the modernist designs of films from the twenties and thirties and has some wonderful material on Metropolis, The Fountainhead along with Art Deco and the Bauhaus movements.

I did a piece for Architectural Digest and Turner Classic Movies several years ago on the subject. You can read it here. Enjoy!

Photo Credits: Twentieth Century Fox, IMDB, Warner Brothers, Columbia Pictures, Peter Greenway.