ARCHITECTS IN MOTION PICTURES

We witness and consume the products of architecture routinely, while we work, play, commute or browse merchandise.  Yet architecture seems to elude the main stream enjoyed by other professions in the realm of social dialogue.  Medicine and law as examples of similarly complex trades are thoroughly represented in novels, books, plays and movies.  Why not also the art of the built environment?  Architecture is a prestigious field that definitely has historical precedence.  Why is it less worthy of a blockbuster Hollywood production, compared with a prime time drama about lawyers?  The answer to this question may very well be the key to repositioning the profession to the place it deserves.
It starts with the perception of the larger public about Architects.  And what better tool to gage this perception than a handful of movies featuring Architects in more or less important roles?  However subjective this endeavor, it can be argued that a great deal of research went into creating these roles and that the writers and directors of these productions mirrored the same public’s perception that represents the object of our quest. Even if my assumptions are missing the mark, you can still read the following paragraphs merely for their entertainment value.

The River Wild (1994, Producer: David Foster)

The movie is starring Merryl Strip as the less-than-happy wife of Boston architect Tom Hartman played by David Strathairn.  At the beginning of the movie, Tom gets home tired convincing the audience that his job is a big strain on his family.  He’s usually late from work.  Today, being late is harder to forgive because the family is planning an outdoor vacation.  However, Tom has bigger problems at work: “Selvagio did not like my drawings… they are not good enough and they gonna give the project to Parker.”  These words spoken rapidly, his perspiration, and the “I’ve had it with you” attitude of his wife, successfully relay the message: this architect’s life is hell.  Tom needs to redo his drawings to the liking of Selvagio but the family is going whitewater rafting. So he compromises by taking the work with him in vacation, and ironically, further distancing himself from his wife and son.  An architect out of his natural environment has a little difficulty adjusting to the outdoors and Tom manages to fall from the boat.

Now he’s being overshadowed by another stereotype: he’s a klutz.  His klutziness however is complementing his wife’s sporty and down-to-earth attitude.  As he’s furiously sketching with a pencil on 11 x 17 paper (architects’ media of choice?) Meryll is thriving in the natural décor, reviving her outdoor spirit and her appetite for romance.  One of the most notable clichés about architects is unearthed during a husband and wife dialogue when she admits to “pretending to like his work”.  Needless to say, he’s deeply hurt.  The architect as a misunderstood or rather non-understood professional is a fact.  The reason, as resulted from this scene is an acute lack of communication with his spouse.

It is this lack of communication that causes the family to fall into the enemy’s hands. In the end Tom has a chance to redeem himself as a husband, as a father, and as a man by using his architectural talents: a crafty mind to engineer a trap and the ability to draw warnings on dead trees.  He manages to re-acquire the family’s helm and to shed his klutzy image in favor of a new one: that of a hero for his son.  The latter’s closing remark: “my dad saved our lives!” sounds like a reference to the safety aspect of architecture as a main concern of the profession.

According to the movie “The River Wild” Architecture is a stressful, competitive endeavor.  Architects often distance themselves from the people around in order to concentrate on drawings and designs.  Sometimes this may seem selfish.  However, it is for the betterment of our lives.  A successful architect doesn’t have to be understood as long as he is loved and his designs affect us in a positive way.

House Sitter (1992, Producer: Brian Grazer).

Steve Martin is charming as always in the role of Davis Newton, a Boston architect working for a large architecture firm.
The firm is built in the image of its’ principal Mr. Moseby.  The grand opening party for a tall office building provides the background for the opening remarks: “…best thing about this project: billable hours!” says one of the architects, enjoying a drink on a sofa with his buddy Davis.  The latter replies: “Yes, but did you enjoy doing it?”  Mr. Moseby makes an appearance cutting through the crowd surrounded by his close entourage.  As many voices overlap, someone confronts him with the idea of “cookie-cutter” architecture of office buildings.  He switches into “press-conference” mode and shouts back: “We are the largest architecture firm in New England.  Obviously, people like what we do”. The fact that Mr. Mosely expects nothing less than recognition and approval from everybody is obvious, too.

We get to see what Davis’ workplace looks like. Contrary to trends, Mr. Mosely keeps people working on acres of drafting tables sprouting flexible-arm lamps. I bet that the movie director insisted on showing drafting tables in lieu of computer screens because they tell the story of design much better than a keyboard and a monitor ever would.  This small detail made me wonder: how much recognition did we lose as designers when our work migrated from huge displays on paper to small, black computer screens?

Although very talented, Davis Newton has not earned recognition for different reasons.  When visiting his boss he takes the elevator all the way to the top and introduces himself as “an architect on the third floor”. The corporate firm that spits out boring building designs for a profit also erases personalities.  Yet, working late and sometimes sketching on paper napkins in eateries Davis manages to find a release valve for his ideas: residential architecture.
His dream house materialized a short drive away from his workplace. I really believed the residence looks like what Steve Martin, the actor, would have designed.  However, the movie credits tell us we owe the nice residential design to New York’s Trumbull Architects. Rooted in a neo-colonial architecture but organized according to modern principles, the house consists of volumes separated into day, public / night, private tied through an enclosed path and brought together by an almost minimalist curved porch.

Davis’ muse was an old flame: same girl he thought he was in love with since high school.  As an expression of his personality the house struck a chord with a totally different female character played by Goldie Hawn.  This naive architect, fallen in love with the wrong person, ends up attracting the right woman’s heart and interest into his life with his art.

Architects and their dream homes are a recurring theme in the movies.  The home is a program easy to relate to, unlike a museum or a theater.  Another actor who played the part is Woody Harrelson.

Indecent Proposal (1993, Director: Adrian Lyne).

Woody Harrelson is David Murphy, a Californian professional married to a beautiful realtor played by Demi Moore.  David finds an opportunity to get in touch with his dream house when an economic recession hits the state.  He is laid-off from the small firm he was working at since graduating from college and suddenly has a lot of time on his hands.  This house in David’s own words: “…summed up everything about architecture that mattered to me”. We get to see him sketching in charcoal (!) on 24” x 36” sheets of paper taped to the wall, forming about twelve feet of exterior elevations, interior perspectives and concept floor plans. The eroticism associated with artistic struggle is reinforced in the scene where the spouse springs a sudden interest in the electric eraser and the heat builds up to the point where the camera has to pan away.

Other forms of family entertainment consist of architectural tours.  David shows his wife buildings “that moved him”.  He makes her look at things differently, telling her: “don’t just use your eyes”.  Sometimes she has to ask: “why are we looking at a stupid car wash?”  The realtor’s question is representative of the public at large, unaware of the certain subtleties in the built environment that only an architect’s trained eye can discern.  Yet, these lofty concepts of the profession are at odds with practical matters such as money and the bread-on-the-table kind of stuff.  While David’s ideals were rolling with the clouds, the bills kept piling up. Demi’s character offers some advice about a real estate investment: “found a piece of property; you can build a house here, make a name for yourself”.  David, telling us this story admits: “It was brilliant, although I didn’t understand a word of it.”

How sad, and how true sometimes: the idea of making a loan, buying a site and building a house to sell for profit eludes architects.  God forbid we would be taken for developers!
Instead, David came up with a real brilliant idea: borrow $5,000 from his dad, go to Las Vegas and gamble it all. Next thing we know, Robert Redford shows up and buys his wife.

In the aftermath of the tragic turn of events, still believing in their marriage, David applies for a teaching position at one of California’s architecture schools.  As he proceeds through the school lobby and studios to his interview, the camera brings to view lots of cubicles stuffed with papers and NO COMPUTERS. His interviewer is an older teacher showing signs of massive wear and tear: gray hair, tired face, big glasses, worn-out suit with a Frank Lloyd Wright tie. Looking at David’s portfolio he makes the following remarks: “you’ve done a lot since USC – the AIA award, the Prix du Rome…” We see that David had a lot of his designs published in architectural magazines (all modernist stuff). The old teacher gives the verdict: “OVERQUALIFIED”. David explodes: “Exploit me!”  He’s hired on the spot.  I will remember this for my next interview.

This little episode in the movie in is tune with reality: the business of architecture is taking a toll on our health because we have to fight on many fronts: budget, schedule, even getting our designs explained. A lot of professionals look at a career in education as an escape from the “meat grinder” of practice. Plus they got a lot to offer to future architects.

David started teaching a theoretical course. After showing a few slides featuring Louis Kahn’s work, he gives the following speech to eager-listening students: “Great architecture comes from your passion.  That won’t assure you a job.  Louis Kahn died in a men’s room in Penn Station.  Nobody claimed the body for days.  The money-men did not weep, because the great ones (architects a.n.) are impossible to deal with.  They are a pain in the ass.  Why? Because they know that if they do their job properly, if they just this once get it right, they can actually lift the human spirit.  Take it to a higher place.  Louis Kahn said: “..even a brick wants to be something, something more than just a brick. It aspires”. That’s what we must be. See you next Friday!”

Eventually love wins and Demi Moore gives up Robert Redford and his fabulous lifestyle to be with her favorite architect.  Congratulations to Woody Harrelson for showing us the very credible profile of an architect.

Intersection (1994, Director: Mark Rydell)

I’m glad that Richard Gere did not miss an opportunity to act in the role of an architect.  With the beautiful Sharon Stone as his partner in life and in business, Gere plays the part of Vincent Eastman from Vancouver BC, principal of the firm Eastman & Eastman.  The name may not be arbitrary, as it reminds us of Peter Eisenman.  Another famous architect name that actually gets mentioned in the movie is Antoine Predock.  During a discussion with her husband, Sally Eastman informs him that: “…you know, Predock is gonna get that thing in Santa-Fe.”  Vincent is not upset: “Predock? He’s good. Do a good job.”  But Sally feels compelled to add: “Not as good as you.”

A well crafted movie about architecture as a profession, and about architects who are fragile beings despite their appearance.  In a moment of weakness and professional boredom, Gere is swept off his feet by a young, attractive writer played by Lolita Davidovich.  However, it’s not the story that caught my attention as much as the details of an architectural marriage intersected with an architectural career.
In one scene, Vincent arrives at the office (we see computer screens alongside drafting tables) passes by a guy who looks like he lives under the drafting table. Very happy he’s noticed the guy smiles at Vincent.  Not stopping, the principal tells him: “Norman, love the elevations.  I love it!  A lot!”
In another scene Vincent looks at a model of an intriguing building, all glass and sharp angles.  He is not happy with the spacing of the columns: “Neal, come here.  Look at this.  What does it remind you of? My grandfather’s radiator!”  Neal argues that nobody will see the building from that angle, except maybe for birds.  Vincent tries to get Sally (Sharon Stone) on his side: “Sally, tell him.”  Sally says” It’s fabulous.  Don’t worry Vincent, it’s a brilliant building”.  Neal turns the tide: “Somewhere out there Frank Lloyd Wright is eating his heart out.  Now, would you please sign off these specs for the Telley project? They are going crazy over there.”
Vincent signs, Neal leaves.  Sally approaches her husband and goes over the agenda:  “The Antonia house is fully enclosed.  The plumbing and electrical are finished on the 10th.  Architecture Digest wants a photo session the week of the 15th.  You’ll drive down the day before; Jerry Fairchild wants to have dinner with you.”  Vincent seems pleased: “How’d you swing that?”  Sally answers proudly: “I had dad call him, they went to school together.”  Vincent smiles: “You are really something.”  She smiles cleverly: “I’m just protecting my investment.”

We understand that Vincent is an extremely talented design architect that depends on people of different talents to succeed. Neal is his right hand, running the jobs and dealing with the construction.  Sally is his partner that runs the business.  A free spirit, Vincent is liberated to work in the conceptual realm. All he needs is a marker, a piece of paper and, at the most, one hour of work a day.  Sometimes, when the going gets tough, Vincent has to go on one of the building sites and gets to wear a hard hat.  The fine suit in combination with the hard hat represents the spectrum of an architect expertise.

Emergency meeting with the lease signer and his representatives (a.k.a. lawyers) about more parking around the Telley building, a tall office tower.  A design change is required.  Vincent and Neal walk on the roof of the building with a few other people. The wind is blowing their ties backwards.  They have to shout at each other to get heard.  Vincent is upset with the new parking requirement: “Why did you hire me?”
“We liked the design”
“You liked the design? Then stay with it!”
The client gets mad: “Read the contract!”
Vincent gets madder: “Read my contract?”
“Our attorney tells us that we have the right to internal….”
For Vincent this is the last drop: “Is that a threat? Are you threatening me? Fuck you! Fuck the contract! How about my contract?”
After this exchange Neal patches Vincent during the elevator ride down. Still upset, Vincent shouts: “They don’t need that shit! They get cute on me.” Neal says in a condescending tone: “They are the clients…”
Vincent disapproves: “Yes, great men of vision…”
“Everybody needs to work for somebody.  Even Michelangelo had to work for the Pope!”
“Yes, but the Pope didn’t ask for parking spaces.”

I doubt that any architect would act out his or her frustration with clients the way Vincent Eastman did in this particular scene.  It helped the story because we understand that Vincent-the-man was in troubled waters looking for a lighthouse long before he saw it in the form of Lolita Davidovich.
Beautiful writer, and a perfect candidate to be a design architect’s muse, she has a bit of trouble understanding him at first.  During one of their encounters, he shifts his focus from her towards the model of a house, mumbling something about “fenestration”.  All the Websters that she consulted in her writing career did not prepare her for this word.  So when she confronts Vincent with its meaning, he shakes his head and translates : “windows”.  Ah, the architectural lingo: the last frontier yet to be conquered by commoners and by the trades that ran architecture into the ground.

We witness the professional prowess of Vincent during the grand opening of a native-American artifacts museum designed and built by Eastman & Eastman. Actually, the credits for the building, the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, BC go to Architect Arthur Erickson.  Despite his attitude about grand openings: “They parade me (the trustees, etc. a.n.) like a trained seal at these things. I’ll just make an appearance and get out.”
However, once in the spotlight, Vincent speech is quite long:
“We stole their land, we decimated their culture. We offered them welfare in exchange. We wanted to do a building that would celebrate, re-assure then us too, I think, the greatness of that culture.  You know, when I started thinking about this project, and every project kind of has its own approach, I really wanted to get into the minds of the people who lived here.  Try, anyhow. I wanted to feel their relationship with nature. This extraordinary feeling of divinity that they had with everything around them. The whole natural world as a divine church.  I’ll tell you a little secret if you promise not to tell anybody: I think that there is something else here besides the concrete, stone and steel that’s holding this place up.”
The applauses covered his exit.

Yet, I can’t help to feel really bad about the kind of architect that becomes so easily a cliché in our culture.  Vincent Eastman is an arrogant prick, with no regard for others, traveling the high road of intellectual monologue.  He is smarter than us, understands things better than us, wants to be left alone to build things that will make us weep in admiration.  But at his core, he is as fragile a soul as an egg shell.  The egg cracks during the final scene of an absurd car accident and all the kings men and both women in his life can’t put it back together again.

Like his useless Congrave clock that kept terrible time but was beautiful, the Mercedes convertible that Vincent Eastman was driving was not the safest car to roll over in.  Translated to buildings, Vincent design perspective and his effort to hold the design line despite the practical implications could have resulted in as tragic a disaster as his own accident.

There are other movies with and about architects that come to mind. I must mention Paul Newmann in the “Towering Inferno” impressing us with simple solutions that only an architect could find such as sticking a pencil into the electrical panel to interrupt a circuit.  I must also mention Wesley Snipes as Harlem, an extremely talented architect in “Jungle Fever” voicing out his frustration when he quits the firm and walks out the door pointing at all the project photographs on the wall and shouting: “I did this! And this! And this!”.  I can’t forget the architect impersonator in “There is Something About Mary.”  To be credible, the stalker shrouded himself in a suit, a bow-tie, and talked about large-scale international projects.  Now that’s a cliché.  Mary’s perception of an architect was of somebody self-employed with a lot of freedom in their life.  Do you agree?