18: The Architect Plays Himself
Hightower Whenever someone asks me why I became an architect, I always tell them the same thing. I did it for the money. Leonardo DiCaprio remembers it differently:
DiCaprio Not just money. You remember. It’s the chance to build cathedrals, entire cities, things that never existed, things that couldn’t exist in the real world… I need an architect as good as I was.
Hightower That’s from the 2010 firm Inception. In the movie DiCaprio leads a team of professional thieves who enter people’s dreams to extract or implant information. The plot is actually a whole lot more complicated that that, but that’s basically what happens.
Page How did architects become involved?
DiCaprio Someone had to design the dreams, right?
Hightower In the world of film there are entire genres based on professions. Police procedurals tell the stores of what detectives do. Courtroom dramas describe what attorneys do. But no such category exists for architects. That’s probably for the best since most of what architects do is slow-paced and not particularly cinematic.
But while movies rarely feature what architects do, movies often feature characters who are architects.
That’s what we’re going to talk about on this, the eighteenth episode of The Works – a podcast about Architecture, those who create it and those who inhabit it.
I’m Brantley Hightower.
For this episode we’re going to play clips from several films. So first of all, spoiler alert. Also because not all of these films are rated G this will be the first episode of The Works where there will be profanity. You have been warned. Dammit.
Architecture and movies are closely intertwined. A film has a setting that almost always is a building of some sort. The architecture of a film can help establish the tone or reinforce a theme. But movies aren’t about places. They’re about people and their stories. Stories involve characters and with a two-hour-long movie, you need get to know those characters fairly quickly. Often a filmmaker will assign a character a specific profession not because it’s central to the plot but because it efficiently communicates something about the character’s personality.
So what does it say when a character is identified as an architect?
More often than not it’s a shorthand way of saying they are thoughtful. They are creative, but not too artsy. They are part of a respectable, educated profession, but they themselves are not overly intellectual. They are balanced individuals with whom the audience can identify. They’re the good guy that you want to see win.
The 2008 film Momma Mia! is an adaptation of a musical that strung together a bunch of ABBA songs to create – or at least attempt to create – a cohesive narrative. In the film, Pierce Brosnan plays an architect who is also one of the three former love interests of Meryl Streep. We don’t really learn very much about his career as a design professional but we do learn why he didn’t choose a career in musical performance.
Streep OK, here’s the thing. I love being on my own. You know, every morning I wake up and I thank God I don’t have middle-aged, menopausal man telling me how to run my life. You know I’m free and I’m single. And it’s great.
Brosnan Where are those happy days? They seem so hard to find. I tried to reach for you, but you have closed your mind. Whatever happened to our love? I wish I understood. It used to be so nice. It used to be so good…
Hightower Despite the fact he can’t really sing we like Brosnan’s character. He’s a good guy and by the end of the film Streep chooses to marry him.
One of the reasons we tend to like architects in movies is that they are approachable in ways that doctor and lawyer characters often are not. Even though architects are part of a demanding profession, designing a building requires them to listen to and understand others. They need to be in touch with their emotions and that’s one of the reasons why they tend to be sympathetic characters. As a result we feel bad for them when their spouses die: a fate that befalls a remarkable number of architects in movies.
It happens to Tom Hanks in 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle, Mike Brady in 1995’s The Brady Bunch Movie, Michale J. Fox in 1996’s The Freighteners, David Duchovny in 2000’s Return to Me, Liam Neeson in 2003’s Love Actually and Michael Keaton in 2005’s White Noise.
It may be hard to be an architect but it’s downright deadly to be married to one.
The widower architect Liam Neeson plays in Love Actually is a doting father who has an endearing relationship with his son. His professional background has uniquely prepared him to be able to talk about feelings and love.
A different character played by Neeson in the Taken movies has a different background that has uniquely prepared him for other things:
Neeson I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don't have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that'll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.
Hightower Of course, even if he was still playing an architect, Neeson could go on to commit wonton acts of violence. In the 1974 film Death Wish, Charles Bronson plays an architect who’s wife – you guessed it – dies. Actually she is murdered and as a result Bronson becomes a vigilante, roaming the crime-filled streets of New York with a .32 caliber revolver.
Despite the dubious morality of the multiple acts of premeditated murder depicted in the film, the architect remains somewhat sympathetic in a way a character belonging to another profession might not.
But architects can be the heroes of action films without ever touching a firearm. Released the same year as Death Wish, 1974’s The Towering Inferno features Paul Newman as the architect of a 138-story skyscraper. As you may have guessed from the title, the building catches fire.
A surprising amount of the film is dedicated to a discussion of electrical specifications. That’s what happens in this exchange between the architect and the evil electrical engineer:
Newman We had an electrical flare-up in the main utility room and it looked to me like some of the wiring wasn’t exactly what I asked for.
Chamberlain Every piece of wire I put in that building is strictly up to code – inspected and approved.
Newman Code is not enough for that building and you know it. That’s why I asked for insulation that was way above standard.
Hightower Collaboration is a key part of what architects do. They have to work with their clients to develop a design, they have to work with engineers to develop the various systems of that design and they have to work with contractors to make sure the final design is properly built.
To navigate all the competing agendas, the architect has to be something of a salesman.
Warden Are you a salesman?
Fonda I’m an architect.
Warden You know what the “soft sell” is? Well you got it. Believe me!
Hightower That’s Henry Fonda as Juror Number Nine in 12 Angry Men. Fonda’s architect is not the foreman or the judge. He has limited authority and in the beginning of the film, he’s the only one who has doubt regarding the guilt of the man on trial. But he uses his power of persuasion – his “soft sell” – to gradually bring his fellow jurors to his way of thinking.
Of course, just because an architect is persuasive it doesn’t mean he knows how to do everything. This can be a source of frustration for an architect used to designing complex buildings.
Selleck Alright, well, OK. Get me another diaper. I’ll use the tape – I’ll use the tape from the diaper and I’ll tape it up. I’m an architect for Christ sake, I build 50 story skyscrapers, I assemble cities of the future, I can certainly put together a goddamn diaper. Take it easy, kid. Alright?
Hightower That’s Tom Selleck in 1987’s Three Men And A Baby. It turns out that skyscraper design and diaper changing are completely unrelated skills. It also turns out that architects don’t really “build” anything.
By definition architects design buildings. They prepare the drawings and specifications that are then provided to a separate entity – the contractor – who uses those documents to construct the building itself. But that doesn’t stop architects in movies from constantly claiming otherwise.
In the 1992 romantic comedy, The Housesitter Steve Martin plays an architect who drives the woman he hopes to marry to his newly constructed home in hopes of impressing her:
Delany What is this?
Martin Will you marry me?
Martin I have loved you since the ninth grade. Marry me.
Delany You bought this house?
Martin Bought it? I’m an architect: I designed it! I built it!
Hightower No he did not.
Steve Martin’s character may very well have designed the house himself but it’s highly doubtful he built it as well.
It’s an easy mistake to make. Keanu Reeves made the same error in 2006’s The Lake House:
Reeves I’m an architect. I like to build. And while I wouldn’t say my current project is ideal it allows me to be here – in this place – and that’s enough for now.
Hightower In the movie Reeves plays an architect who inhabits the same lake house as a doctor played by Sandra Bullock but two years in the past. Or is it that Bullock is two years in the future? I frankly don’t know – nor do I really care.
Anyway, in The Matrix movies Keanu Reeves doesn’t play an architect, but he does interact with one:
Bakaitis Hello Neo.
Reeves Who are you?
Bakaitis I am the architect. I created the Matrix. I’ve been waiting for you. You have many questions and though the process has altered your consciousness you remain irrevocably human. Ergo some of my answers you will understand and some of them you will not.
Hightower For the record, this how I typically introduce myself to potential clients. It sets a good tone for the relationship.
In The Matrix films the Architect is a computer program that created the simulated reality – the “Matrix” – that gives the films their names. To be honest, the mechanical and detached motivations of this architect seem to be more in line with that of an engineer. Then again his elevated language and sense of self-importance are characteristics sometimes associated with architects. The architect has created something and he is very proud of it.
Although they can be thoughtful, sympathetic characters, architects can also be egotistical megalomaniacs – artists who feel their vision must be preserved at all costs. Take, for example, Howard Roark:
Cooper I am an architect. I know what is to come by the principle on which it is built. We are approaching a world in which I cannot permit myself to live. My ideas are my property. They were taken from me by force, by breach of contract. No appeal was left to me. It was believed that my work belonged to others, to do with as they pleased. They had a claim upon me without my consent -- that it was my duty to serve them without choice or reward.
Hightower That’s Gary Cooper from the1949 film The Fountainhead. He plays a genius architect who blows up the Courtland Housing Project because it wasn’t built exactly how he had designed it.
Cooper Now you know why a dynamited Courtland. I designed Courtland. I made it possible. I destroyed it. I agreed to design it for the purpose of it seeing built as I wished. That was the price I set for my work. I was not paid. My building was disfigured at the whim of others who took all the benefits of my work and gave me nothing in return.
Hightower What a dick.
For an architect, The Fountainhead is impossible to ignore in either its novel or its film version. The character of Howard Roark defines what’s best and what’s worst about architects. They are principled and have a unique vision of the world, but that vision can often blind them to the realities of the world they actually occupy.
Of course, if every architect blew up all the buildings that weren’t built exactly how they liked it, there wouldn’t be that many buildings left. The reality is that the act of design is also the act of compromise. There are many moving parts to designing and constructing a building. There is never enough time and the budget is never large enough. And when the economy is bad, building can stop altogether.
In the 1993 film, Indecent Proposal, Woody Harrelson plays an architect married to Demi Moore. He designs a house for the two of them but during the early 90s recession they run out of money before construction is completed.
This is actually a thing. When a major economic downturn hits, projects are cancelled and architects are laid off. This happened in the early 90s as portrayed in the film and it happened again in the early 2000s after the dot-com bubble burst. The Great Recession of the late 2000s decimated the profession. An entire generation of architecture graduates were unable to find jobs and many left the profession all together.
Anyway, in the movie, the struggling couple takes the meager savings they have left and go to Las Vegas. While there they run into a billionaire played by Robert Redford who offers to pay Harrelson a million dollars to sleep with his wife. This turns out to be a really bad idea.
Towards the end of the film Harrelson becomes a professor at a local university to try and make ends meet. Although he has no experience teaching, he puts on a pair of glasses which makes him appear smarter when he lectures:
Harrelson Great architecture is only going to come from your passion and even that won’t assure you a job. Louis Kahn died in a men’s room in Penn Station. For days, no one claimed the body. Look at that – is that beautiful? The moneymen did not weep because the great ones are impossible to deal with. They’re a pain in the ass because they know that if they do their jobs properly, if just this once they can get it right they can actually lift the human spirit - take it to a higher place.
Hightower One thing that’s interesting about this particular scene is that the students he is lecturing to are remarkably diverse. Well, maybe they aren’t remarkably diverse but they are certainly more diverse than the architects we’ve seen portrayed so far. We see both female students as well as students of color. If you’ve been paying any attention you might have noticed that all of the architects we’ve seen in movies so far have been men – white men to be precise.
This isn’t some bias imposed by Hollywood. It’s actually an accurate representation of the architecture profession. Nearly eighty-five percent of the architects in the United States are men. About that same percentage are white.
It’s an issue the profession is acutely aware of but it’s also one that’s proved difficult to remedy. Although nearly half of all architecture school graduates are women, those graduates tend to drop out of the profession in greater numbers than their male counterparts. There are lots of reasons for this, not the least of which is the difficulty of being a parent while at the same time being a full-time architect.
Just ask the architect played by Michelle Pfeiffer in the 1996 romantic comedy One Fine Day. In the movie she plays a single mother struggling to balance her career as an architect while raising her son after a divorce. This struggle is ever-so-subtly rendered in the scene where she trips over a bag left on the floor by her son while carrying a large architectural model. Like my daughter, her son goes by the name Sammy.
Pfeifer Sammy!... Ugh!
Hightower Didn’t see that one coming.
Hilarity ensues when Pfeiffer accidentally switches the clunky mid-nineties cell phone she was carrying with an identical one carried by the father of one of her son’s classmates. Luckily for her the father happens to be George Clooney.
At the end of the day I’m a white male. I’m also a white male at the beginning of the day as well, but all that is to say I’ll never know what it’s like to feel out-of-place in the profession or the world in which I live. My generation inherited our biased world. It happens to be biased in my favor, but that’s something my generation hopes to improve.
It seems likely that will happen. I personally find myself surrounded by architects who just happen to be women. The other architect I work with at HiWorks is a woman. I’m married to a female architect. The mother of my children is an architect as well. Actually, those last two architects are actually the same person.
At any rate, I hope my daughters are growing up in a world where they see women working as architects, astronauts and accountants as well as teachers, nurses and homemakers. I hope my daughters feel free to choose whatever job they are passionate about regardless of who they see working that job in movies.
In the meantime, though, I hope my Sammy picks her stuff up off the floor so I don’t trip on it while carrying large architectural models around the house.
Sammy Sorry, Daddy.
Hightower Thanks today to all the studios who I borrowed clips from under questionable legal authority. These include Warner Brothers, Universal, The BBC, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, United Artists, Buena Vista and Viacom.
The title of this episode - as well as its general approach - was inspired by the 2003 video essay, Los Angeles Plays Itself. Created by Thom Anderson, the film beautifully illustrates the role that the City of Los Angeles and its architecture has played in movies. I’ll include a link to it as well all the other films I referenced in the show notes. I’ll also include a link to the parody version of the scene from The Matrix Reloaded that features Will Ferrell as the architect:
Farrell You do NOT want me to get out of this chair! Ergo open your yapper one more time and I’m going to architect a world of pain all over your candy ass!
Hightower The Works is a production of HiWorks and you can find more information about it and everything we’ve talked about today at Hi dot Works.
Until next time, I’m Brantley Hightower.