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
latest jobs
24000-27000
Job location: north east
company profile
Company profile: Gharieni Group GmbH
We strive for a seamless integration of functional equipment to create an unparalleled and memorable experience for clients.
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
 Large communal areas such as the living room, kitchen and courtyard bring the family together
"I firmly believe that homes are for children as much as they are for adults"

Alex Michaelis and his partner have seven children. He designed their home to be full of fun

Experience the euphoria retreat
"Come to Euphoria Retreat if you’re looking for a full health-boost, you’ll leave feeling completely rejuvenated"

Wellbeing Escapes and Well Home have partnered to bring you this special offer for the Euphoria Retreat in Greece

Catalogue Gallery
Click on a catalogue to view it online
To advertise in our catalogue gallery: call +44(0)1462 431385
features
Wellness kitchen
"I’ve used my own life as a living lab to study the hurdles from a busy career mom’s perspective"

Veronica Schreibeis Smith couldn’t find a kitchen which worked for her plant-based diet, so she invented the wellness kitchen

The retractable staircase lifts into the belly of the house when not in use
"Even brushing your teeth in the right space can elevate a daily routine into a ritual"

With a lap pool at the heart of the home, this property is a sanctuary for Rene Gonzalez

The Bacots moved to Serenbe in 2014, attracted by the sense of community
"We love being surrounded by people who teach us and make us better. Serenbe has also really enhanced our thinking about the value of nature and being outside on a daily basis"

Eliza Bacot and her husband Benton talk about living at Serenbe with their family

features
"We’re not built for constant comfort. When we live in spaces that connect us to our surroundings, we feel better, stronger and happier – and that is the very definition of being well"

Early-onset MS inspired Adria Lake to explore resilience as both a healing modality and an approach to design in the creation of her new home and company headquarters in Colorado

Shafts of light illuminate the house during the day through openings which align with the stars in the night sky
"It’s important for people to be rooted in place. This is a very special house, with powerful connections to nature"

Jennifier Beningfield has built her dream home in South Africa, using ancient building methods

cladkit product news
Designworks launches new glow-in-the-dark tile collection
The tiles contain light-absorbing luminous pigments so they glow-in-the-dark
Lauren Heath-Jones
High-end tile supplier Designworks has created a range of illuminous mosaic tiles for commercial use. Designed to bring light into ...
Bartok Design installs 'transformative' soaking tubs in SpaFusion at Pallazzo Varignana
Bartok Design creates traditional Japanese soaking tubs
Lauren Heath-Jones
Bartok Design, a Japan-based supplier of Ofuro (Japanese bathtubs), has completed a major installation at the newly opened SpaFusion at ...
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 ...
cladkit product news
Dornbracht launches 'next generation' experience shower
Rainmoon is an innovative sensory shower experience designed for use in the home
Dornbracht is taking experience showers to the next level with its multi-sensory Rainmoon concept. “Rainmoon is a culmination of bliss ...
EAS PREVIEW: Bright Buildings to exhibit BrightOpen designs
Bright Buildings will be showcasing its range of BrightOpen buildings
At this year’s Euro Attractions Show (EAS), design and architecture firm Bright Buildings will be exhibiting its range of BrightOpen ...
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 ...
cladkit product news
Carlo Ratti's 'wonder wall' robot could become reality with kickstarter campaign
Unveiled at Milan Design Week, as part of Ratti's Living Nature installation, the Scribit is the result of Ratti's ongoing investigation into and development of writing machines
Lauren Heath-Jones
Carlo Ratti Associatti has developed an intelligent robot capable of writing and drawing on vertical surfaces. Called Scribit, the device ...
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. ...
Artemide excites with latest lighting collection
Designer Alejandro Aravena created O to 'reconcile the needs of the natural and the urban environment'
Lauren Heath-Jones
Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), Herzog and de Meuron, Neri & Hu, MAD Architects and Elemental, the firm of Pritzker winner ...
x
Email this to a friend or colleague
I am happy for Leisure Media to contact me occasionally by email and understand that I can opt out at any time.
Architects In Film: Character building
Architects in Film: What kind of personalties do architects have, and do the movies hold the answer?