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From Towering Inferno to High Rise, film has not been kind to architects

Catherine Slessor
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As Jeff Bridges prepares to portray Mies van der Rohe, Catherine Slessor calls the roll of cinema’s architects

The news that Jeff Bridges is to play Mies van der Rohe in a film about the Farnsworth House adds unexpected lustre to the meagre roll call of architects in movies. Lawyers, doctors, even dentists are familiar cinematic protagonists, but you’d be hard pressed to name an architect, apart from the ubiquitous Howard Roark.

Occupying an especially insular professional milieu, architects have a reputation for being obstinately detached from wider society. So it’s hardly surprising that cinema-goers are unmoved by their celluloid tribulations, whether real, as in the fate of Louis Kahn documented in My Architect, or imagined, as befalling Woody Harrelson in Indecent Proposal. Kahn was discovered dead and debt-ridden in a men’s room at Penn Station, while Harrelson, brought low by ambition, was obliged to embrace a low-rent Faustian pact involving his wife sleeping with a reptilian Robert Redford for $1 million.

In High-Rise, Anthony Royal occupies a glacial penthouse, a kind of metaphorical Versailles-in-the-skies

Viewed through the prism of cinema, the theme of architect-as-megalomaniac is curiously pervasive. All styles served here, from the classic, testosterone-fuelled allegory of The Fountainhead to the more schlocky terrain of The Towering Inferno, Hollywood’s original disaster movie featuring the graphic incineration of a Trump Towers-like skyscraper. Billed simply as ‘The Architect’, Paul Newman grapples with Steve McQueen (‘The Fire Chief’) in a soot-smeared bromance calculated to demonstrate how architectural hubris costs lives. When McQueen has a go at the profession’s penchant for phallic towers, Newman retorts: ‘Hey, are you here to take me on or the fire?’

Belly of an architect

Belly of an Architect

Beyond the car-crash lure of the blockbuster, Peter Greenaway’s The Belly of an Architect offered a more subtle evisceration of foibles. Brian Dennehy starred as Stourley Kracklite, a pompous and corpulent American architect obsessed with Étienne-Louis Boullée, the French Neoclassicist who fantasised a great deal but built very little. Out of his comfort zone in Rome to curate an exhibition of Boullée’s oeuvre, Kracklite is gradually but ruthlessly upended. His young wife decamps with a vulpine Roman and he discovers he has inoperable stomach cancer, prompting much listless moping around the Tomb of Augustus before he finally flings himself off the Vittorio Emanuele monument.

And who can forget Anthony Royal, the monstrous architectural Übermensch spawned from the dystopian imagination of JG Ballard? Played with carnal relish by Jeremy Irons in the 2015 adaptation of High-Rise, Royal occupies a glacial penthouse in one of his quasi-Brutalist pinnacles, a kind of metaphorical Versailles-in-the-skies, from where he presides over the literal ‘lower orders’ with a sneer of cold command.

Reflecting the profession’s hopelessly skewed gender and race balance, the overwhelming majority of cinema’s architectural grotesques are male and pale. Michelle Pfeiffer made a minor dent in the celluloid ceiling when she played a ditzy designer with childcare issues in One Fine Day, a predictably saccharine romcom. More compelling was Wesley Snipes’ portrayal of a young architect in Jungle Fever, Spike Lee’s provocative examination of racism and interracial relationships in early 1990s New York.

What Jeff Bridges will make of Mies is anyone’s guess. Best known for an on-screen persona of amiable stoner hedonism, Bridges faces the challenge of his career. Despite a weakness for martinis, one suspects Mies was probably just as monstrous as Roark or Royal. The long-suffering Edith Farnsworth, who is to be played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, describes meeting him as: ‘like a storm, a flood, or other act of God’. Yet, even with its undercurrents of unrequited love and contractual disputes, the Farnsworth Saga seems unlikely to be big box office. Only if the filmmakers can resist the temptation to mythologise, which again seems unlikely, cinematic truth may yet turn out to be stranger than fiction.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Not forgetting the best role model of them all - Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men, brilliantly directed by Sidney Lumet. Honda plays Davis, an architect, who stands alone against a hostile and prejudiced jury in a 1950's New York murder case against an 18 year old boy from a poor background, alleged to have killed his father with a knife in their apartment. He eventually brings the other jurors round, saving the boy from prosecution and probably the death penalty. His crisp white linen suit stands out against the grime of the ante room and his calm powers of persuasion are a lesson to us all. Classic stuff!

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  • By far my favorite architect in film is Mr. Simms, the hapless designer of Mr. and Mrs. Blandings' Dream House. The 1948 film depicts Simms (portrayed by British actor Reginald Denny) as an earnest professional who can barely contain the haphazard impulses of his clients, who take over with his pencils to "redesign" his design for their country home. Watching Simms, one gets the impression that things have not changed all that much.

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