Paul Walker will probably be most often remembered for his association with the Fast & Furious series. His popularity grew with the franchise, as did the sophistication of each production. Over the years the cars became more high tech, stunts became more elaborate and the plot more extreme but it is the very first release, 2001’s The Fast and The Furious though, that is, for me, the most memorable. You guessed it – because it featured a fabulous house.
David Fowler’s 1963 commission for the Davis family in Beverly Hills featured in the film as headquarters for the police investigating a spate of high speed truck robberies. The building, named Ridgetop, featured a distinctive round plan, custom furniture, scalloped eaves and concrete blocks sporting an elliptical motif which appeared throughout the house on metal entry gates, glazing and partitions. Photographed by Julius Shulman and featured in Architectural Digest soon after its completion, the house was the height of 60’s sophistication and a beautiful example of Californian Mid Century Modern design. Sadly it was demolished to make way for a new housing development in the mid 2000’s.
Long missing from this discussion is a post about John Lautner’s most recognisable building – the groundbreaking, distinctive and iconic structure, The Chemosphere. Now an LA architectural landmark, the building has taken five decades to earn its status and has achieved it largely as a result of the film industry’s fascination with its futurist aesthetic. The house can be spotted in countless features on both the big and small screens and is referenced in many more - including Charlies Angels and the Iron Man series.
Perhaps the best use of the house is 1984’s Body Double starring Melanie Griffith. Certainly not looking its modernist best in the film (the house is completely refitted with gawdy 80’s décor), it is interestingly cast as an appealing residence for someone suffering from claustrophobia, a trait used to a murderer’s advantage as the plot develops. Perched on an extreme slope with 270 degree views overlooking the city of LA, the whole scenario would not quite have worked had the occupant been suffering from vertigo.
Built speculatively by Skylab Architecture in association with local developers – a method of showcasing a fledgling practice’s work without the need for a sympathetic Client (which was possible in the boom times of the early 2000’s) – the Hoke Family purchased the house not long after completion and were approached by the film production team after the house featured in an architectural publication. The decision to proceed is possibly something they have come to regret considering the fanatical nature of Twilight fans.
Whether you are a fan of the series or have reservations about telling teenagers that love is like the feeling of wanting to devour someone (surely teenage girls have enough unhealthy food associations?) this building is a standout.
The house is bright and spacious with large panel windows opening to the trees, much like the house described in the original book. A perfect choice for the modern vampire coven wanting a change from the traditional foreboding castle. However the book actually casts the house as a predominantly white, turn of the (last) century mansion with a converted rear façade of glass looking out onto the forest. In fact, the Hoke House uses a mix of timber cladding, glass and cast concrete - a much warmer palette better suited for film yet retaining the concept of a unconventional contemporary space for this group of ‘vegetarian’ vampires. We are meant to like the family and approve of the choices they have made (they fill their lives with music, art & good design rather than succumb to their less sophisticated desires) and the use of natural materials throughout the house emphasizes the Cullen’s connection with nature and gives them another layer of humanity, something the described pure white interior scheme would have struggled to do.
Digital enhancement aged the newly planted landscape design in order to fit the required lush forest location as well as deleting any indication of neighboring buildings to create more isolation. The characteristic cast insitu columns supporting the house are not visible in the film however they are an important compositional element of the design. Not only striking at ground level but they also allow the rooms above to cantilever into the adjacent tree canopy giving the effect of intimacy with the forest and providing privacy for the occupants.
To say this film is about a dispute between neighbours would be to undersell it completely. When one of the houses in question is Le Corbusier's Casa Curutchet and the two parties represent polar ends of the social spectrum – a pretentious, supercilious businessman and his crude, slightly menacing neighbour, this Argentinian film takes the premise to a whole other level.
Interestingly the house plays itself - a famous building that designers make pilgrimage to see - but has it occupied by a successful furniture designer Leonardo (the businessman, played by Rafael Spregelburd) and his family, who on the surface only just tolerate the interest but privately quite enjoy the notoriety. Until, of course, the dispute with the neighbouring Victor (Daniel Aráoz) escalates and the constant scrutiny becomes oppressive. As the story develops however, more is revealed of each character and we come to question who is in the wrong and wonder at how two people can miscommunicate so effectively.
We get to see a good deal of the house, particularly the entrance ramps and first storey terrace, which provides an excellent study of the three dimensionality, the framing of external spaces and the interlocking volumes, for which the house is renown. Even if you are unfamiliar with the building, the house is clearly the work of a design pioneer and this authentic genius underscores Lenardos deficiencies as the film progresses - his unfounded arrogance, his ineffectuality and eventually his cowardice is contrasted against Victor's up front familiarity, and in the end, reliability.
The house, located in La Planta Buenos Aires, actually accommodates the Buenos Aires professional association of architects, the Colegio de Arquitectos and is open to the public for tours.
Translated as My Brothers Wife, the title of this film seemingly gives away most of the plot. But don't be fooled, this is not some melodramatic soap opera with obligatory love triangle. The film plays on pre-conceived notions and stereotypes to keep the audience guessing throughout - misled by their own misconceptions about family, relationships and human behaviour and it makes for an interesting journey. The use of the beautiful Schmitz house in the film is no exception. Modern buildings in film are routinely cast as homes to cold, controlling individuals and Peruvian Director Ricardo de Montreuil uses this fact to great effect, making us believe that the occupants will fit the mould.
The house, designed by Filipe Assadi & Francisca Pulido, located outside of Santiago, Chile is cast as the home of two of the central characters, husband and wife Ignacio and Zoe. We already know there is domestic trouble afoot so when we are introduced to their home with its cool interconnected boxes of off-form concrete and curtain glass, we guess that sociopathic behaviour will follow.
But nothing ensues. Ignacio is distant and particular but not unkind and certainly not unlikeable. Zoe is sulky and self obsessed but really does try to engage with her husband. For a while it seems that infertility is the source of the disconnection, then adultery but neither quite fits. Even more confounding - they enjoy their house, where they entertain friends and family. The pool in particular is highlighted, its inside/outside connection (a glass floor panel lifts to permit entry to the pool from indoors). It is elegant and warm and the simple plan arrangement with sophisticated detailing seems to suit their respective personalities well. The intrigue created by this paradox is captivating.
A surprising revelation and a terrible secret eventually explains the source of each of the brothers torment and the house, as in reality, is without fault.
Thanks to Felipe Assadi for permission to use images. See their portfolio here
Swiss born Le Corbusier became a French institution following his immigration in 1930, and the Villa Savoye on the outskirts of Paris, stands as a testament to his pioneering architectural thinking. The first modernist building to be given historical listing in France (and interestingly the first while the original architect was still alive), the house is a beautiful example of the International style, of which the French are understandably proud custodians. All the more effective then that when the house appeared in the 1979 release French Postcards, it was filled with American kitch.
French Postcards has the house owned by a language school director who teaches her exchange students about French culture and encourages them to forget their coarse American perspective however she herself holds a secret love of all Americana. The more we get to know her, the more obvious her hypocrisy becomes and the glimpse into her private world and its' décor is the most revealing. Her public façade is of a polished Parisian intellectual - composed and self-possessed and yet we know she dances around in Levis when she thinks no one is around. The same applies to her house. From a distance it is a sleek, elegant lesson in restraint – a white unadorned box sitting on slim supports. The interior however is all cowhide and shagpile. There is a bit of a twist for modern audiences though - the furniture chosen to fitout the house is intended to be cheezy and represent the tastes of a past generation (one of her students comments that the style reminds him of his parents house) but the scheme includes some classic American mid century design pieces –
Harry Bertoia’s wire backed diamond chairs, Milo Baughman’s curved ply office furniture and a Herman Miller coat stand. Well before Mid Century Modern had a name, the Director calls it “Eisenhower style”.
Adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s heartbreaking novel of the same name, Never Let Me Go is an agonising account of our world, had society chosen a particular ethical path, if human engineering technologies had become available in the 1960’s. James Stirlings student accommodation hall at the University of St Andrews in Fife, plays a tiny role in the film but it is a crucial one, not only in providing specific historical context but also commentary about human diminishment.
Haunting is a word overused by film reviewers but so applicable here that I am forced to use it. Technically science fiction, the story is presented as a historical account so it is impossible to distance yourself by hiding behind a remote fictional plot. Instead it feels distressingly real. Institutionalised since birth, the characters (who were cloned to provide society with a supply of transplant organs) do not rage against the system, at least, not in the way you expect them to. This resignation is particularly disturbing. Assisted with the conversion of the novel to screenplay by Alex Garland (whose work carries recurring themes of society gone wrong and studies of human behavior in isolated groups) Ishiguro ensured the film didn't stray too far from his original vision, so those who enjoyed the book will not be disappointed.
Built in the late 60's, the building is a clear member of the Brutalist approach - prefabricated concrete and expressed repetitive forms with blocks of mass, giving the building an imposing presence. With so many examples of failed attempts at low cost housing in this style (where deteriorating materials, security issues and blank canvasses for graffiti artists have inhibited the growth of positive communities), it is no wonder that the association with urban decay has made brutalist buildings an easy target for film makers. Exaggerated perspectives and vacant spaces in these buildings can make for menacing, life denying backdrops.
Never Let Me Go's treatment of Andrew Melville Hall is no excepton. It is cast as the hospital where donors recover following organ harvesting. Without site context and the careful omission of any of the communal areas, the building looks bleak and miserable. Tightly cropped views of the repetitive window elements evokes a battery typology which speaks of mass production and the generic, faceless human stock housed in the facility.
We do not get to see the way the building sits so comfortably in the site that it looks to have grown from the local geography and we do not get to experience the impressive vistas of the surrounding landscape framed by the buildings' strategically placed openings. It is a shame because the building is a rare example of the successful application of this philosphy. The expressed patterning of windows and forms were not intended to disempower but to unify, expressing the many equal individuals that make the whole. While this ideology may not have worked well for social housing, it is quite appropriate for student accommodation.
Gaudi's famous apartment building, Casa Mila is at it's whimsical best in this film which explores identity, chance and choice. Director Michelangelo Antonioni is renown for his use of architectural landscapes and structural composition so it is no surprise that such a cinematic building would feature in one of his films.
The Passenger stars Jack Nicholson, portraying a grisled worldweary journalist, David Locke, who is sick of himself and of his situation. After chancing upon an opportunity to assume the identity of another hotel guest (whom he discovers dead) he makes a split decision to walk away from his life. Too easy? Quite. Filling in his new identity, Locke goes about keeping the dead mans appointments and duly discovers that he has become an arms dealer.
The schedule takes him to Barcelona and he finds himself wandering around the Casa Mila (also known as La Pedrera, “The Quarry”), in pursuit of an attractive young woman (played by Maria Schneider) whom he hopes can assist him. This extraordinary building with it’s organic limestone facade and gothic detailing provides an eerie background to the scenes which follow where Locke begins to grapple with the implications of what he has done. Filmed before its major facelift in the early 1990’s, the building wears 60 years of grimy city fallout. It’s dark menacing complexion, at once ancient and alien, creates a surreal presence and serves as an ominous warning - this is not only unfamiliar territory but very dangerous ground.
A long sequence is captured on the undulating roof of the building where the two navigate to a spot where they can sit and chat. The building’s unusual proportions means that while they are up on the roof we inadvertently witness a domestic argument on a balcony below. This odd, unnerving interjection, which bears no relevance to the rest of the story, is typical of Antonioni’s direction. Famously layered with unanswered questions, his films have in common a rhetorical quality – asking viewers to reflect on the subject matter long after they have left the cinema.
Casa Mila’s uniqueness underlines the films concepts of individuality and character. This is identity theft before the cyber age, and it is interesting to think about what that meant in 1975. In some ways stealing someone else life at that time was easier to pull off (a matter of replacing a photograph in a passport) but in many ways also much harder, with less opportunity to manipulate evidence and a society that is more reliant on personal connections and face to face meetings than we are used to today. So which is more reliable? Are we now too dependent on technology to record who we are? 30 years later The Passenger is still posing questions to ponder.
Wes Anderson looked to his home state of Texas when casting the critical location for his first feature film Bottle Rocket, written with friend Owen Wilson. They needed a house which not only reeked of privilege and good breeding but could also cater for the numerous internal and external shots which were scripted to occur at the house. Enter the Gillin Residence, the last house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and completed before his death and also his largest in the Usonian style.
Owen and Luke Wilson both star in this cute film about a group of friends, each with various issues preventing them from being functioning members of society. Owen Wilsons character, Dignan, is an enthusiastic man-child with dreams of becoming a crack thief. He enlists his friend Anthony, a recently released mental health patient, to be his accomplice and together they set up camp at their mutual friends house to talk strategy. Their friend Bob, is another non event – he is funded by absent parents and is tormented by his older brother who also still lives at home. Maturity is not thick on the ground here people.
The Gillin Residence was cast as the house shared by the brothers and it is here that the three celebrate their marginal success at pulling off a heist (a ludicrous event at a bookshop which is laugh-out-loud funny). They go on to plan the next robbery while sitting around the Wright-designed furniture using hard copy plans, stop watches and scale rules - all in the Rat Pack tradition, with the exception of a juvenile argument about who gets to hold the handgun. Wrights presence is everywhere - the textured bricks, the detailed soffits and the copper finishes - and all evoke imagery of 1960's cool, befitting Dignan's vision of himself as Dean Martin in the original Oceans 11.
An entrepreneur who made his fortune in the early years of the lucrative oil industry, John Gillin began to invest in art in the 1950’s. So when it came to commissioning his largest piece, he turned to the profession's leading light. Gillin was a commanding fellow by all accounts and testament to this Wright, famously conceited and protective of his work, allowed him to be heavily involved in the process and even design some elements himself.
When casting locations for the third installment in the Transformers series, Michael Bay turned to Milwaulkee's beautiful Art Museum on the shore of Lake Michigan, to provide some aesthetic relief from the grisly mechanics of the Autobots. Santiago Calatravas first building in the United States steals the show with its' vaulted cathedral-like entrance hall and dramatic sail roof. The wings on the roof form an operable brise soleil which elegantly opens and closes throughout the day, giving Optimus Prime a lesson in grace.
It is surprising that Calatravas particular brand of magic is not seen more frequently in feature films. His characteristic sculptural volumes and expressed skeletons create a striking spectacle that has infinite cinematic potential, but apart from the odd sighting in advertisements, Calatravas buildings remain largely unrecorded by fictional film. Possibly it has to do with timing and the locations of his work - the combination of easy logistics and industry incentives hadn't quite come together until the Transformer franchise took up the challenge with it's enviable production budget. The Spielberg series has a history of using ambitious locations having filmed in Jordan, Egypt, and China in the previous chapters so a building close to home was not too much of a stretch.
The film is essentially another installment in the campaign between the Autobots and the Decepticons and again has Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) paired with an outrageously beautiful girlfriend (this time Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), whom he supposedly met when she was working at the Whitehouse. She now works for billionare Dylan Gould, played by Patrick Dempsey whose auto museum is housed in the Art Gallery. Sam describes the building as ‘the starship enterprise’ and Dylan responds that it leaks. One guess who turns out to be a bad egg. The star lineup in this movie includes Buzz Aldrion (yes) and Hollywood heavyweights John Malkovich and Frances McDormand, who compete to get the best lines. McDormand wins with “We cannot entrust national security to teenagers. Unless I missed a policy paper. Are we doing that now? No? Good.” Somewhat undermining the whole premise of the movie.
Given the prevalence of transport facilities in Calatrava's portfolio, an auto display is quite a believable use and probably a good suggestion for curators of the museum. It's also no wonder that most of Calatrava's celluloid credits have been in car advertisements. Transit centres, bus stations and bridges all provide plenty of mesmerizing opportunities to film beautiful cars gliding by a graceful background. His sculptural forms also evoke a sense of movement and the flashing by of repetitive structural elements reinforce notions of speed and momentum. If Victor Gruen can have a phrase to describe the effect his designs have on consumers then perhaps there should be one to describe Calatravas influence on auto sales. Just a thought.
Commissioned by the Stahl family as part of the Case Study house scheme (a program sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine throughout the 1950 & 1960’s, which was intended to bring modern design to the middle classes), this house has been used in countless film and television productions, in part as a result of an iconic photograph taken of the house in 1960 by Julius Shulman.
The photograph has become an intrinsic part of mid century American identity. It speaks of post war possibilities, of industry and of reinvention. It captured for the first time the fresh lifestyle aspirations of a new generation. The site (thought to be unbuildable before Pierre Koenig came up with his radical structural scheme) is also partly responsible for the house’s popularity. Suspended over the city lights of Los Angeles, the dramatic setting is just made for film.
2000’s release Nurse Betty is one of the many films to feature the Stahl House but it is particularly interesting because it plays on the house’s real iconic status in modern culture. Renee Zellweger plays Betty, a waitress from Kansas City who becomes delusional after witnessing the horrific murder of her husband. A hospital soap opera fan, she becomes confused between her own life and that of her favourite characters and comes to believe she is the ex fiancée of the cardiologist in the TV series. Bettys understanding of the world outside of Kansas is informed by TV and movies so when she finally tracks down her ‘cardiologist’ and finds him living at the Stahl House, it all fits in to place - this is how wealthy people live in LA. This connection is confirmed by the recreation of Shulmans famous image, a task which earned Shulman further admiration from cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier who found the myriad of glass reflections somewhat of a challenge.
With a resurgence in popularity of mid century design the house is more sought after than ever. Following a few decades of domestic life it has now moved into retirement but true to its generation, it is not planning on slowing down.
The Stahl House offers occasional tours. See www.stahlhouse.com
Berlin has a lot of fun pretending to be other cities in movies. Its varied architectural portfolio can stand in for most European cities. Recent development has also brought rapid change to the city and reinvention on an enormous scale. Berlin is now in the possession of a large cache of contemporary work and it was this end of the built spectrum that Aeon Flux directors were attracted to when looking to cast locations for the film.
Originally envisaged with Brazils capital in mind, the production team turned to two of Berlins newest architectural assets - The Baumschulenweg Crematorium and the Tierheim Animal Shelter – in order to echo the ethereal quality Niemeyer achieved at Brasilia. The film is not a dirty apocalyptic vision of the future, nor is it cold and sterile. There is beauty, abundance and health but there is also an uneasiness. The absence of hustle and bustle, the lack of clutter and disorder here creates an unnerving disquiet. This sense of artificial calm is reinforced by both buildings who have in common a characteristic simplicity.
The Treptow Crematorium Hall of Condolence by Axel Schultes and Charlotte Frank, is an unadorned space with the proportions of a memorial but the intimacy of a gravesite. Its measured hospitality is suited to a place of reflection – acoustic treatments encourage quiet contemplation and the paired back detailing allows the clever use of light and shadow to feature – but this restraint looks underhanded and slightly sinister in Aeon Flux’s world. The Tierheim Animal Shelter by Dietrich Bangert also commands simplicity but for other reasons altogether. A facility with such a high traffic load needs functional spaces with hardwearing surfaces and robust assembly. The skill is in conjuring such practicalities into spaces that are heartening and life affirming for both people and animals alike. Bangert uses a circular plan, splayed walls and sculptural forms to create visual interest and frame external spaces.
You may have noticed that science fiction movies feature prominently in any list of films starring architecture. You would think that of all genres, sci-fi would be the one to avoid connections with things so grounded in reality that they actually exist. Granted, advances in CGI technology will probably mean that we will see fewer real buildings used in film but it is an interesting observation anyway. I think it should be taken as a compliment. Architects might complain about the way they and their work are portrayed in film (it is always the disfunctional family who live in a modern home and architects are usually the sensitive bystander in movies, rarely the hero) but at this shows that contemporary design is seen as having a future.
It took Alan Cummings and Jennifer Jason-Leigh 6 weeks to cast this LA location for their pet project, The Anniversary Party, which they wrote, stared in and directed together. The entire film is set at the house so it was an important element to get right. The production team eventually chose the Schaarman House by Richard Neutra. A classic mid century Californian party house in LA.
With its linear pool, feature walls of stone and timber and stepped platforms staging the transition between inside and out, the house provided enough variation to keep the film visually interesting.
Neutras skill in inviting light into an interior was also used to great advantage. The perceptible change in light as the day progresses records the passage of time and provides pace to the dramatic events unfolding at the party.
The film documents a party organized to celebrate the sixth anniversary of two pretentious spoilt Los Angeleans – a writer and an actress. It emerges, of course, that things are not what they seem and that the couples relationship is laced with secrets, jealousy and resentment. The other parts were written mostly for the directors friends including Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Kline and Jennifer Beal. Jason-Leigh managed to convince old friend Phoebe Cates (Klines’ characters wife as well as in real life) to come out of retirement to play the part of Sophia Gold. The fact that she gets the best lines probably made the task of convincing her much easier – “Well you weren't fine when you went all Sylvia Plath on me last summer in Connecticut!”
The set decoration used on the film is quite interesting and reflects the way minimal houses are generally lived in – as apposed to being staged for a photo shoot. Familiar objects, personal photographs and items with texture and colour can make a space comfortable and cosy. Jason-Leigh used personal items including old photographs of herself with Phoebe Cates to add authenticity to the set
Casting for the title role in this teen thriller came via helicopter. Having had little success in traditional methods of location selection, the production team took to the air in search of a suitably edgy, unconventional house in which two recently orphaned children (played by Leelee Sobieski and Trevor Morgan) would be uncomfortably accommodated with their new guardians.
The building needed to be glamorous and fashionable to initially seem like good fortune but as more is revealed about the children’s dire situation the house needed to take on a more sinister quality. The answer came when Belzberg Architects's Mataja Residence was spotted perched atop a craggy mountain overlooking Mullholand Canyon. A sharply contemporary design, it’s angular roofs and jagged plan (which in reality allow it to cap the ridge with a language similar to that of the rocky natural terrain) could provide a menacing element for film while the salubrious car accommodations fitted well with the recurring car and driving motif throughout the story.
The house is not particularly glassy - it’s most prominent feature is the integration of the natural rock boulders, which give internal spaces character and a sense of grounding. The use of formed concrete also provides a strong connection with the site and a palette of materials compliant with fire standards which limited the use of combustible materials.
If the interior seems a bit disappointing in the film, it’s because only exterior shots were filmed on location, the rest was filmed on a purpose built soundstage at Sony pictures, to a design slightly heavy handed with metaphors – overhead walkways and vertical strip windows conger up a prison vernacular, but then perhaps this obviousness is warranted given the target teen audience.
Thankyou to Belzberg Architects for permission to use photos.
Toronto is another chameleon city which often stands in for other locations, however in the 2009 release Chloe, Toronto stars as itself. Director Atom Egoyan's obvious affection for his home city is evident and some of Torontos unique architectural assets are on show, including the Royal Ontario Museum by Daniel Libeskind and Frank Ghery's Art Gallery of Ontario, but the real star is the house used to portray the home of central characters Catherine and David Stewart (Julianne Moore and Liam Neeson) which they share with their increasingly distant son.
Drew Mandel's Ravine House provides the setting for some major events in the film (including the active participation in the climax - an incident with a window which will have architects reaching to confirm glazing certificates). If you have watched the film you might not recognise the house from the outside. That is because the owners requested that the production team hold something back to ensure the backdrop remained ficticious (and that they weren't forevermore living in a film set). Exterior shots were of an alternative house by Stephen Teeple.
The plot tells the story of a prostitute (Chloe, played by Amanda Seyfried) in need of a genuine connection with a woman. She needs a mentor, she needs a mother - but she only knows one way to have relationships. She meets Julianne Moore's character whose secret anxieties and self doubt lead her to question her perfect life and suspect her husband of infidelity. The story is the train wreck that follows.
The use of the house in this film avoids the usual stereotypes associated with modern houses in film. It is not cold or uncomfortable. It is thoughtful and well considered which suits Julianne Moore's character well - her attention to detail and her high standards - but somehow you suspect that if you opened a cupboard, the contents would be all jumbled. Much is made of the hard surfaces and layers of glass but it is also glamorous and tranquil, as though under different conditions the house would provide an elegant sanctuary. The fault is with the inhabitants, not the house.
While the film is a mainstream remake of French film Nathalie by Anne Fontaine, it is not a sanitized version and those who were attracted by the R rating will not be disappointed. The encounter between the two women is largely unnecessary though - the chemistry between them is enough to indicate that their relationship has escalated - but it's certainly a good way to get the punters in.
Thanks to Drew Mandel for permission to use photographs.
No discussion about architecture and film is complete without mention of Ridley Scotts 1982 release Blade Runner. Unlike many futuristic films of the time, where characters are surrounded by a sanitised world of white and chrome, Scott depicts a grimy, overpopulated city with palpable desperation and a combative mentality.
This man made hell is stacked against the common man. Literally. The claustrophobic streets are overshadowed by hulking towers inhabited by those with money. The look of the film is quite architectural (the oppressive built density is present throughout the film) and one we have grown quite accustomed to - the film spawned a whole generation of computer games graphics - but it is the use of one very special house which brings it all together.
Frank Lloyd Wrights Ennis House in Los Feliz has a list of TV and film credits to rival any of those on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (as well as its own imdb listing) but it is the appearance in Blade Runner which is the most commanding.
The Buildings’ distinctive architectural language forms the foundation for much of the production design. A mould of the Mayan inspired patterns on the textile blocks was taken by the production team and used throughout the set design so although few scenes were actually filmed at the house, its character is ever-present. In this context, the Mayan symbolism speaks of ancient decay and a civilization past its prime.
Harrison Ford stars as Deckard - a policemen who has made a career of ‘retiring’ rouge androids who try to escape their fate as menial labour ‘off world’ and return to earth to pass as ordinary citizens. So advanced is the technology in their creation that the only way to determine their origin is to test their ability to empathise (a quality the androids are not designed to possess), particularly their sympathy towards animals (is that what makes us human?). As well as the insect-like machine used to carry out this test, the film also features technology such as jet propelled hover cars, a bionic snake and (my personal favourite) a glass dome hairdryer, 30 seconds under which gives instant 80’s hair. Genius.
Made well before the vampire series of the same name, this film features a star cast (including Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman and a young Reese Witherspoon) and a famous art deco house designed and built by legendary MGM Art Director Cedric Gibbons.
Gibbons is credited with introducing ‘moderne’ styling to cinema in the 1930’s. The son of an architect, Gibbons had an eye for design and recognised early that the clean stylised lines, contrasting light and shade and the striking geometric details of what is today known as art deco, would translate well to the back and white medium of the day. It was a stroke of genius - the glimpse into a monied, carefree world provided the kind of escapism audiences were looking for during the depression and arguably made MGM the most successful studio during this dark period.
When Gibbons turned his skills to designing a house for himself and new wife, Mexican silent film star Delores Del Rio, he proved that his talent applied as easily to three dimensional space as it did to a soundstage. Thanks in part to his thorough knowledge of the modern movement and the thinking behind it. With the help of architect Douglas Honnold who also worked at MGM, he applied devices of volume interconnection and directed perspective - both techniques fairly new to the architectural approach at the time. What is not surprising however, is the theatrical use of lighting throughout the house. Recessed fittings wash walls with indirect light, highlighting the play of solid against void and exaggerating patterned mouldings with shadow. Staging of the circulation spaces also gives away the house’s cinematic roots. The wide central stair against a wall of linear windows provides the perfect opportunity to make a theatrical entrance and its’ extra long transitional landing offers a position to pause dramatically mid decent (see below). This was no doubt used to full effect at the many lavish parties the couple held at the house throughout the 1930’s which were regularly frequented by Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Errol Flynn and Clarke Gable. If walls could talk then this house would have a best selling autobiography.
It is this suggestion of a colourful history that fits so well with the Twilight story. It is cast as the home of two Hollywood veterans, played by Susan Sarandon and Gene Hackman. Teemed with a plethora of movie memorabilia from their youth, the house’s tarnished glamour (filmed before a major facelift in the early 2000’s) underlines a previous heyday for the pair and we discover as the film progresses that they have been managing the fallout from that time ever since. Enlarged self portraits of Sarandons character decorate the living spaces and indicate a level of self conscious ageing and the sheer number of mirror finishes displays an unusual level of narcissism.
With it’s cinematic gestures and grand statements, this is a house built for dramatics, as Gibbons possibly discovered. Gibbons and Del Rio divorced in 1941, the same year that she began an affair with Orson Welles.
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.
Criticised for looking too perfect, this skillfully crafted film proves that you don’t have to be a gritty indie film to grapple with strong content. And besides, Tom Ford doesn’t do ugly. The fashion king turned film director cast Lautners Schaffer Residence as the backdrop for his first feature film and it’s not hard to see why. With bleak static shots contrasted against warm cosy flashbacks, the house shows a range which rivals Colin Firths academy award nominated performance.
The plot follows the final day of English professor George Falconer, who has chosen to end his life following the death of his long time partner Jim. He spends the day organising his affairs and as he does is both painfully reminded about life before his tragic loss and the beauty which still remains. The present day is filmed in cold hues, throwing morgue light over his daily activities. Camera angles are chosen wisely - he seems surrounded by hard edges and glass, colourless and unforgiving. An environment no comfort for the desolate. This is contrasted against warm, almost sepia, scenes depicting his previous life with Jim. These nostalgic shots showcase Lautners use of timber and texture which he used to round out the building’s palette of materials.
Ford says it was important that the house was modern as George admired the fresh thinking of America but also warm given his British background and his inevitable traditional point of reference for what constitutes a home, and this is precisely what Lautner was skilled in. His ability to build in a modern way but with the warmth of familiar materials made him very appealing at a time when his contemporaries were being criticised for their cold industrial aesthetic.
The original Christopher Isherwood book of the same name follows much the same story, albeit without the planned suicide so is somewhat more optimistic. Ford points out that George is of independent means which conveniently explains away how he is able to fund this caliber of house while on a university salary and his partner Jim having been an architect gives this some authenticity however it also ignores the description of Isherwood’s ‘low damp dark living room’ and garage covered with a ‘vast humped growth of ivy’. The Schaffer Residence is light filled with a floating roof and filled with modern conveniences.
The building’s unconventiality though, does align with the book. Georges neighbours houses are described as ‘facing the street frontally, wide-openly in apt contrast to the sideways privacy of Georges lair’. A reference perhaps to his ‘alternate’ lifestyle. The house also easily permits the portrayal of a funny part of the book where George watches the goings on in the street from the comfort and privacy of his toilet seat.
The Schaffer House was also used in 2005 Release Happy Endings. Interestingly, also as the house of a gay architect.
The house is currently for sale. Checkout the listing onhttp://www.architectureforsale.com/property-details.php?property_ID=11 but I warn you, this site is addictive
Thanks to Crosby Doe for permission to use images.
No self respecting X-Gener would fail to recognize this house as that of Cameron Frye, best friend of Ferris Bueller and reluctant participant in his memorable Day Off. Built for Ben and Frances Rose, textile designers whose thriving business provided iconic prints to architectural showrooms & design publications throughout the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, the house is a firm disciple of the modernist style – an elegant steel frame with modular panels of glass and solid creating a barely present built envelope.
The commissioned architect James Speyer, a former student of Mies Van der Roh, must have been delighted to be blessed with a Client so informed about contemporary design that they were readily prepared to embrace the lifestyle it imposed. He took the opportunity to thoroughly explore ideas of structural refinement and planning simplicity. couple continued to be patrons of the arts and in 1974 when it came time to build accommodation for their impressive auto collection, they built a pavilion which not only displayed the cars but was also suitable as an exhibition space where they could host events to showcase local artists. To ensure the pavilion matched the architectural language of the house, they engaged Speyers protégée, David Haid to design and oversee the work. The result was a garage pavilion with high end specifications – slick modernist construction detailing, exhibition quality lighting and a dramatic backdrop, care of an impressive cantilever over the ravine.
It is this pavilion which features prominently in the 1986 film starring Matthew Broderick and Alan Ruck as best friends Ferris and Cameron. Presented as the garage of Camerons family home, the quality of the space is intended to comment on his family’s values (in particular his father’s values, as owner of the 1961 Ferrari 250GT California housed in the garage). He so values material possessions that he provides lavish accommodation for his car and yet leaves his son largely to his own devices. Ferris says “a man with priorities so far out of whack doesn’t deserve such a fine automobile”.
Although we don’t see much of the house itself Ferris describes it as like a museum and complains about not being allowed to touch anything. This is a classic use of modern architecture in film. Intended to get to the essence of a building using pared back clean lines, the modernist approach actually works in counter point. On film the simplification looks stark and uninviting and suggests the inhabitants have no attachment to things or memories and no sense of nostalgia - we immediately suspect them of being heartless and disengaged. We feel no pity when Camerons fathers’ beloved Ferrari is sent crashing through the glass wall and into the ravine.
Adalberto Liberta could hardly have known that his most enduring legacy would not turn out to be one of his grand civic structures but a small house greatly modified by an eccentric client. Thanks largely to Jean-Luc Godard’s choice to feature the house in his 1963 release, Contempt, starring Brigette Bardot, the house continues to generate interest and holds a place not only in architectural history but popular culture as well.
It is famously ambiguous – it can neither be attributed to any one architectural movement nor particular design philosophy but its strange originality set it apart. Oddly composed of a single clunky mass, it has a rail-less wedge shaped stair leading to a vast edgeless platform terrace across the entire roof of the building. It is a building certifiers nightmare. Dangerous and absurd, the building is said to represent it’s owners taste for the subversive and surreal. Is it a stair or is it a roof? It seemingly leads nowhere and yet the view from the top is everything. Malaparte regularly used shocking imagery, horror and revulsion in his writing in order to engage his readers and sell his particular message (a message which ranged every political spectrum throughout the course of his career) so the house is seen very much as an expression of it’s owners personality.
The film is an important one in the development of modern cinema and its metaphors and double meanings continue to be studied by film students the world over. Built in 1935, the house was already 20 years old when it was cast in the film as the home of vulgar american film producer Jeremy Prokosch (played by Jack Palance). The peeling paint and rusted bars provided just the right menacing quality while the dramatic site with its white rocks and cobalt sea suited Godards intense colour palette.
Bardot stars as Camille, the undervalued trophy wife of an emerging screenwriter, who’s resentment over her husbands ‘use’ of her grows like rot and she spends the entire duration of the film in a bitter sulk. Her husband on the other hand (played by Michel Piccoli) spends the film demanding to know why she doesn’t love him anymore (yes, they both need a good slap). Based on Alberto Moravia’s infuriating novel of the same name, the story follows the same blow by blow post mortem of a fatal marriage. At once engaging and agonising it is no coincidence that it all ends with a car crash.
Director Tom Tykwer’s feature film about the corporate banking world features a host of beautiful buildings across the world and style spectrums from neoclassic civic structures to high tech high rises and famously includes a shootout in New York’s Guggenheim Museum (filmed in an exact replica of the interior spiral space built in an old automotive warehouse outside of Berlin), but it is two contemporary buildings who’s screen presence outshine the others. Europe’s automotive theme park, Autostat (Car city) and the Phaeno Science Centre both in Wolfsburg, Germany are imperative to the plot but neither play themselves and this is used to full advantage by the production team.
Built following the success of Hanover’s car expo in 2000, the Autostat is an automotive fan’s nirvana (and their partners nightmare) located adjacent to the Volkswagon factory in Wolfsburg. With pavilions from most of the major European manufacturers, you can test drive 4WD models on a specially constructed track, the kids can drive the scale model cars, you can view every VW model on the market and see famous cars in the auto museum. You can even pick up your pre-ordered custom built Volkswagon from the impressive car storage towers with an odometer reading of zero, should such a thing be important to you.
The owners of the park hold themselves to the same standard in commissioning buildings as their clientele do in purchasing cars - the buildings are quality, fit for purpose, cutting edge design and using the latest technologies. Producers of the International chose the main entry pavilion called the ‘Groupforum’ as headquaters for the corrupt international bank the IBBC, supposedly in Luxemburg. Following the murder of his associate during investigations of the Bank Agent Salinger, played by Clive Owen, begins to loosen a complex knot of criminal dealings across the globe.
The Groupforum’s distinctive form allows viewers to orientate themselves as the action cuts between cities. Unfortunately we do not get to see the enormous rotating doors in action (apparently the largest in the world), but the glass envelope is used to full effect, captured in 65mm film to emphasise its sharp lines and crisp geometry. At one stage the facade fills the frame and dominates Clive Owens tiny figure as he ascends the entrance stair. The sharpness is juxtaposed against the investigator’s slightly rumpled figure and we are told something of the futility in an individuals attempt to penetrate the slick machine of a banking system. Devoid of visitors and exhibits the size of the Groupforum’s main hall does not make sense – particularly not as a foyer to a bank. It is overscaled and decidedly empty, a fact not lost on audiences as they see Owen’s character making his way to the Banks reception area. Not only is the building intimidating but also hollow and meaningless. Using the building in this way makes a mockery of that well used architectural device of using glass and perforated materials to express transparency and openness. The modern banking world couldn’t be further from this. Ironically, on film the building becomes a set. It is there as a front, giving the impression of accessibility and disguising the fact that the real business is directed by select few and occurs in the safety of ‘clean’ rooms – sound proof and bug proof spaces now commonplace in modern multinational organisations.
The nearby Phaeno Science Centre by Zaha Hadid is cast as the headquaters of Calvini Defence, weapons dealers with whom the bank is attempting to make a deal. The building is transported using CGI to a cliffside location in Lago Iseo, Italy. An unbelievable building in an unbelievable location is perhaps overdoing it a bit – the gravity defying, organic forms are already worlds away from average construction. The addition of such a dramatic site takes it to another level. The kind of money and influence required to make such a thing achievable tells us that these people operate outside standard boundaries. Their morals reside there too.
In reality the opposite is true – this amazing building is also a public one, designed to host hundreds of visitors a day and couldn’t be more accessible. The City of Wolfsburg commissioned Hadid to complete the project following an international competition intended to provide the city with a signature building. It is only right that a place where magic is explained by science is housed in a building where fantasy is made possible.
Both buildings are located in the city of Wolfsburg - adjacent the central railway station.