Monday, February 6, 2012


If you’ve ever chuckled at how your job is portrayed in the movies, be glad you’re not an architect. On film, we’re either saints or we’re psychos.  Judge for yourself:

Leading off with some early bad press for the profession is the 1934 horror film The Black Cat, in which Boris Karloff is a loony architect who kills the wife of his nemesis Bela Lugosi, preserves her in a glass coffin, and then marries and kills Lugosi’s daughter. Oh yeah, I forgot--when he’s not busy doing all this, he also runs a satanic cult.  

On the other hand, Walter Pidgeon played the consummate gentleman architect opposite Greer Garson in 1942’s Best Picture, Mrs. Miniver. We know Pidgeon is an architect because he carries around a roll of drawings and wears a tweed jacket. Alas, his occupation is incidental to the plot, which was really director William Wyler’s bid to scare Americans out of wartime neutrality. 

In 1949’s The Fountainhead, one of the funniest serious films ever made, we don’t see Gary Cooper’s genius-architect character carrying a mere roll of drawings. Instead, he wields a huge rock drill, which co-star Patricia Neal regards with rather excessive interest.  

Then there’s the moment when Cooper unveils what’s supposed to be his sublime design for a modern house. In Ayn Rand’s book, this ethereal triumph was left to the reader’s imagination, but on film, an actual image was required. Too bad: At a showing I once attended, when this purportedly brilliant creation came on screen, the audience burst out laughing. You could hardly blame them:  The house depicted, no doubt tres cool for 1949, was an over-the-top streamlined job that resembled an old Dairy Queen caught in mid-explosion.  

As the quintessential architect movie, it’s a shame that The Fountainhead is so impossibly overwrought, and that its message is so dumb. Director King Vidor has Cooper and Neal dutifully jabbering Rand’s absurd dialog, trying to justify why Cooper should get away with blowing up his own building. And the lesson we take away from the film? If you love something--I mean, if you really, really love it--you should destroy it. 

Speaking of destruction, let’s not forget a movie architect almost as scary as Rand’s--squinting, mustachioed Charles Bronsen, in 1974’s Death Wish.  The mild-mannered Bronson goes in big for vigilante justice after his wife is killed and his daughter left catatonic by a trio of muggers. Just in case we didn’t get the point the first time, there were four sequels. 

The same vintage year brought us The Towering Inferno, in which Paul Newman plays an architect who’s just completed a 138-story skyscraper right in the middle of San Francisco--apparently under a different planning commission. Newman doesn’t get to go hogwild with a .32, but he does get to blame greasy Richard Chamberlain for cheaping out on the wiring in his building, causing a highrise catastrophe, and that counts for something.  

Amazingly, Newman and Steve McQueen battled over who got top billing in this Irwin Allen extravaganza--probably the first and last time that actors playing an architect and a fire chief will have that privelege.

The image of the architect as a batty artist type was advanced once again in 2002’s indie film World Traveler, in which Billy Crudup is an architect having a midlife crisis.  His solution?  He walks out on his family, hits the road, and ”works low-paying jobs, picks fights, and beds lonely rural women,” according to one synopsis.  

Sounds like just the guy for that kitchen remodel you’re planning.

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