Architects In Film

Character building

The way architects are portrayed in film runs the gamut of personality types, from idealistic dreamers to harried workaholics. Gordon Grice delves into the psychology of the big-screen hero


Read on turning pages | Download PDF | sign up to CLAD

Architecture is complicated, which is one reason why hardly any of the movies and television shows that feature architects show them doing any actual architectural work – or spending time in a studio that’s even remotely authentic. The other reason is that architectural practice, although endlessly fascinating to architects, can be deadly boring for everyone else.

And yet movies continue to feature architects in lead roles. On my Architects on the Big Screen Master List – which I have spent many years compiling (100 + 25 Years: OAA Perspectives on a Quarter-Century, Ian Ellingham and Gordon Grice eds.) – there are more than 100 movies. If architecture is so complicated and boring, why are movie architects so popular?

The answer to this question is not in what an architect does, but rather in what an architect is – or is imagined to be. And here, things get even more complicated, although thankfully, more interesting.

Screenwriters employ stereotypes to establish mood and character. After all, time is short: a film typically allows barely 90 minutes to tell a story. So by introducing a puppy dog (unconditionally affectionate), a Tyrannosaurus rex (relentlessly dangerous), a private detective (clever and devious), some necessary storytelling information has already been done. The writer can then build on perceived characteristics.

But when an architect is introduced, what information is conveyed? What exactly is a stereotypical architect?

Evolving stereotypes
Way back in 1926, in the silent film The Temptress, we get our first glimpse of a fictional architect as a leading character: a swashbuckling Argentinian architect-engineer played by Antonio Moreno, who steals the heart of a beautiful woman (Greta Garbo). In these early days, leading characters were virtually required to be handsome and swashbuckling, and the international architect filled the bill perfectly. Movie architects would henceforth be romantic and dashing.

In the 1934 film Peter Ibbetson, based on George du Maurier’s novel, Gary Cooper took on his first role as an architect, playing the film’s romantic, impulsive and idealistic title character. In this morose fantasy, nothing ends well, but the architect remains a quixotic dreamer until the very end.

Fifteen years later, Cooper assumed his second architect role as Howard Roarke, hero of The Fountainhead, based on Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel. Once again the architect was a dashing romantic dreamer, but this time, with an arrogance that aligned more closely with the popular perception of the architectural genius – generously supported by such public personalities as Frank Lloyd Wright. This revised architectural stereotype proved so amazingly successful that even today the profession is often viewed as aloof and insensitive, even by its own members.

Then, in the postwar era, almost unnoticed, a new and far more appealing movie architect began to emerge.

In Stanley Donen’s 1967 film Two for the Road, the new architect-hero is cast as a family man (Albert Finney as Mark Wallace) whose demanding career threatens to alienate his wife (Audrey Hepburn as Joanna Wallace) and damage his family. The film follows a journey of trial and discovery. There’s a demanding client, a rift with old friends and marital infidelity. Just when the marriage seems doomed, the wisdom of the architect and his understanding wife prevails and the family is saved.

The lovable architect
In many later films, this plot is adapted to suit a wide range of actors and stories. There is, for example, the sensitive dreamer (Tom Hanks, Sleepless in Seattle, 1993; Keanu Reeves, The Lake House, 2006); the harried, workaholic parent (Michelle Pfeiffer, One Fine Day, 1996; Adam Sandler, Click, 2006); the charming wit (Jon Stewart, Playing by Heart, 1998); the romantic optimist (Mira Sorvino, At First Sight, 1999; Zach Braff, The Last Kiss, 2006; Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 500 Days of Summer, 2009); and the working class superhero (Luke Wilson, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, 2006).

In every case, the character of the architect – a contemplative, lovable romantic – faces a crisis involving family and friends. Often, it’s the demanding career or the unreasonable client that provokes the crisis. In the story’s pivotal moment, the architect must act decisively to right the wrong, possibly at the expense of his or her career. Finally, the architect emerges as a wise decisionmaker – aware that the sanctity of family and friendship is more important than career – and, predictably, lives to design another day.

People of all professions have often complained about being inaccurately represented in popular fiction and film. “People get the wrong impression about us,” they invariably say. But, for architects, the creators of popular fiction have really come to the rescue, pointing us in the direction of what an architectural identity might actually be and, by extension, what an architect might realistically hope to accomplish in this world.

Maybe the lesson we’ve learned is that it’s not so complicated after all. Architecture is a collaborative profession that brings people together to solve important problems; wisdom and experience can overcome great odds; people are more important than things. Well, that’s what we’ve been trying to say all along.

Gordon S. Grice
Gordon S. Grice

Gordon S. Grice is a creative director at FORREC, an entertainment design company in Toronto, Canada. Grice is also an architect and editor of the quarterly journal OAA Perspectives. Much of his writing seeks to discover what it means to call yourself an architect in the 21st century.

Gallery
Click on an image to open the image gallery
company profile
Company profile: Polin Group
Market leader in design, manufacturing and installation of waterslides and water leisure developments.
Try cladmag for free!
Sign up with CLAD to receive our regular ezine, instant news alerts, free digital subscriptions to CLADweek, CLADmag and CLADbook and to request a free sample of the next issue of CLADmag.
sign up
features
Colli is known for her use of colour
Daniela Colli
"The alternation of light and shadow is essential to give dynamism to a space"

Italian architect Daniela Colli tells us how she looked to classical art for inspiration on how to deal with light and shadow in her latest project

Sustainable projects include the University of Washington’s Life Sciences building and the Philips Academy, Snyder Centre
Din has worked on a range of sustainability-focused projects
"It’s imperative the architecture profession takes a proactive approach to tackling the realities of climate change"

Perkins+Will’s new sustainability director

Architect Bill Bensley
"Our palette was pared down to basics"

The Vietnamese village being created using historic methods

Catalogue Gallery
Click on a catalogue to view it online
To advertise in our catalogue gallery: call +44(0)1462 431385
features
The Gainsborough Bath Spa was originally built as a hospital. It opened as a spa hotel in 2015
Bakos joined Champalimaud in December 2012. He previously worked for the Rockwell Group
"Construction is one of the largest generators of landfill waste, so it is important to create spaces that transcend trends"

It’s time for a new approach to sustainability, argues Champalimaud’s managing director

Profile: Caroline Bos
"I like art that is against the mainstream, slightly off, with a twist"

UNStudio’s co-founder on the unexpected challenges of designing Australia’s tallest skyscraper

CLAD people: Hannah Beachler
"I fell in love with Zaha Hadid"

Black Panther set designer Hannah Beachler

features
West announced the donation to the Roden Crater after a recent visit
"We will all live in Turrell spaces one day"

Musician Kanye West to help fund the still unfinished Roden Crater, designed by American artist James Turrell

Profile: John Rhodes
John Rhodes
"It’s about the celebration of people coming together. If you can manage that well, a venue can become very special"

HOK has been tasked with designing a truly flexible arena for Valencia. John Rhodes is up for the challenge

Deep Ocean Technology’s Water Discus underwater hotel
"The Norwegian coast inhabits such beauty"

The world’s most ambitious underwater buildings

cladkit product news
Aotta launches sound panels made from hemp husks
The panels are designed to maintain 'healthy spaces' and consist of Hemp husks fashioned into a natural porous membrane that absorbs sound
Lauren Heath-Jones
Russian design studio Aotta has developed a range of eco-friendly, sound-absorbing panels made from the waste products of hemp seeds. ...
Baux creates plant-based acoustic panels
Baux has worked with scientists from the Royal Institute of Technology to create Baux Acoustic Pulp, a plant-derived acoustic solution
Lauren Heath-Jones
Baux, an acoustic products brand based in Sweden, has developed a line of biodegradable acoustic panels, using a plant-based material ...
David Rockwell partners with Jim Thompson for dream-inspired fabric collection
Rockwell has designed 12 multi-use fabrics inspired by dreams with long-time collaborator Jim Thompson
Lauren Heath-Jones
Renowned architect David Rockwell has created a collection of fabrics with long-time collaborator Jim Thompson. Called Dreams, the collection was ...
cladkit product news
Mater partners with Ditzel family to create eco-friendly furniture using reclaimed plastic
The furniture uses plastic from recycled fishing nets
Lauren Heath-Jones
Mater, an ethical design brand based in Denmark, has launched a furniture collection made from plastic reclaimed from the ocean. ...
Tredje Natur launches Climate Tile to bring green spaces to urban settings
Tredje Natur has installed the pilot system of its Climate Tile system in the Nørrebro area of Copenhagen
Lauren Heath-Jones
Danish company Tredje Natur (Third Nature) has recently installed the pilot system of its innovative street paving system in the ...
John Pawson reimagines oil lantern for Wästberg
The Holocene No. 4 reflects Pawson's pared-back style and neutral palette
Lauren Heath-Jones
Swedish lighting company Wästberg has expanded its Holocene collection, with a new addition, Holocene No. 4, designed by acclaimed architect ...
cladkit product news
Volvo partners with Reef Lab Designs to encourage ocean biodiversity
The tiles are made from marine-grade concrete and recycled plastic fibres
Lauren Heath-Jones
Car manufacturer Volvo has partnered with the Sydney Institute of Marine Science and Reef Design Lab to create an environmentally-friendly ...
Zaha Hadid Design partners with Royal Thai to create carpet collection celebrating Zaha Hadid's legacy
The carpets capture Hadid's notable use of layering and interweaving as well as her use of light and shadow
Lauren Heath-Jones
Zaha Hadid Design has partnered with carpet manufacturer Royal Thai to create a new carpet collection inspired by the work ...
Water inspires Zaha Hadid Design x Rosenthal collaboration
The collection consists of three smaller collections: Weave, Strip and Lapp. Weave was inspired by 'the fluid lines of Zaha Hadid's sketching hand'
Lauren Heath-Jones
Zaha Hadid Design has partnered with porcelain manufacturer Rosenthal to create a new collection of vases. Called the Lapp collection, ...