Above: “The Vandamm Residence North by North West: (1959)”
By Craig Leask
Mid-Century Modern (MCM) is an architectural design and decorating style based upon clean lines, clear expanses of glass, open sight lines, a blurring of interior and exterior spaces and a complete lack of clutter. The style was developed and made popular by architects of the time, including Frank Lloyd Wright (Falling Water, Pennsylvania), Philip Johnson (Glass House, New Canaan, Connecticut), and I.M. Pei (John Hancock Tower, Chicago) from the mid-1940’s to the mid-1970s. The style was initially popular in southern US locations (LA, Palm Springs, Miami) but spread to some northern rural locations as architects worked nationally and influenced their clients with their design preferences wherever they worked.
In movies, set designers have the unique opportunity to make their dreams a reality through the sets they design or in the buildings, they select in which to film. Mid-Century Modern design was an interpretation of a standard look often used in 1950s and 1960s films and has been making a huge comeback in recent films set in current time periods. The style has been and continues to be effectively used to exemplify characters: living a carefree bachelor lifestyle (What Women Want (2000)); the strength of empowered working women (Pillow Talk (1959)); lovers retreats (The Lake House (2006)); the lairs of evil supervillains (Diamonds Are Forever (1971)); and even the calm, secluded retreats of superheroes (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)). In fact, there are so many various depictions of iconic MCM design in film, TV, and animation, that I believe this article will require a sequel.
North by North West: (1959), The Vandamm Residence This Alfred Hitchcock directed spy caper has it all: a great plot, perfect script, edge of your seat suspense and top-notch actors (Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, Martin Landau, and James Mason). Most of all North by North West is an action-packed thriller in which architecture and locations act as supporting characters in the complicated plot. What other movies could seamlessly blend a plot line which flows from the New York City’s United Nations Building and Plaza Hotel, through to crop dusting biplane attacks in mid-west prairies, harrowing cliff side car chases, pursuit scenes on Mount Rushmore, and a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired villain’s lair?
Designed to emulate Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house in southwestern Pennsylvania, the perfectly situated Vandamm residence is a spectacular Mid-Century Modern house, perched atop Mount Rushmore. The home of the villainous spy, Phillip Vandamm, was fictitious, having been designed and fabricated from a combination of matte paintings created by artist Matthew Yuricich and physical structures and sets by Production Designer Robert Boyle at MGM studios in Culver City. The house has an idealistic position, open plan living spaces and a spectacular cantilevered balcony, limestone walls and classic MCM interiors.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), Bruce Wayne’s Residence
I need to be very honest in sharing the fact that Super Hero Movies are more my colleague Nick Maylor’s thing than mine. The Superhero movies I have seen I have enjoyed, especially when dark deco styled metropolis sets are involved, or in seeing how historic Wayne Manor is depicted. My younger self is fascinated by the idea of this scenario, where a historic setting is easily adapted into the ultimate clubhouse in which a man of means can fulfill his ultimate fantasy life with caves, toys, and secret passages. No thought, of course, given to the army of engineers, contractors, technicians, and tradespeople required to construct this network, no building plans submitted for a permit and no building inspectors required, thereby ensuring the required ultimate secrecy. But that’s just me being cynical. In each version of the story, the historic and irreplaceable Wayne Manor is destroyed and ultimately recreated, by tradespeople and skills which no longer exist, and accomplished within unrealistic timelines. Sorry, did I mention I was cynical?
In Batman v Superman, Dawn of Justice, the historical Wayne Manor has been destroyed (although not actually explained how or why). Refreshingly though, this time Wayne Junior opted for a light and airy glass-walled replacement of the family’s ancestral home, rather than replicate the ancient building. The stressful action and battle sequences were filmed in Detroit, having received the Hollywood treatment to appear more menacing and decrepit. This filthy, immoral world creates a brilliant contrast to the MCM tranquil retreat of Bruce Wayne’s serine bachelor pad.
Bruce Wayne’s new residence was constructed for the movie on a private 350-acre lakefront property 50 miles north of the Detroit city limits. The house was designed by Patrick Tatopoulos emulating the classic style of architect Mies van der Rohe. Of course, Wayne’s classic MCM home remains conveniently tied to the customary high tech underground cave network so integral to the franchise.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), Cameron Frye’s House
There are very few people out there who do not recall that pivotal moment in the John Hughes film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when Ferris’s friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) knocks his father’s cherished Ferrari off its jack sending it crashing through a glass wall and into the ravine below.
The house used as Cameron’s family home in the movie is known as The Rose House and Pavilion, a 5,300 sq. ft home in the woods of Highland Park, just north of Chicago. The house was designed and built in 1953 by architect James Speyer, a protégé of Mies Van der Rohe. The separate, complimentary glass-walled pavilion which housed Cameron’s father’s prized 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder convertible was added in 1974. Both buildings are spectacularly cantilevered over the edge of the wooded ravine, which played out well for the scene.
John Edward Lautner –Architect:
It is hard to write a piece on Mid-Century Architecture without acknowledging the work of John Edward Lautner (16 July 1911 – 24 October 1994), an American architect who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright. Lautner opened his own architectural practice in California in 1938. I include him here as it is a testament to his design talent when you realize just how many of his houses have been featured in major movies. Here I will focus on just 7 of the many of his residential consignments which have been featured in films.
The Big Lebowski (1998) – Jackie Treehorn’s Malibu Home
Designed and constructed between 1961 and 1963, The Sheats Goldstein Residence was conceived from the inside out and constructed directly into the sandstone ledge of a sloping California property. The layout of the home was expertly executed by Lautner to seamlessly blend exterior and interior spaces ensuring the house is experienced as an extension of the natural landscape. The creative use of elongated, angular lines of the home’s design was a solution to solve the problems of the challenging property.
The asymmetrical, geometric home has been featured in numerous television programs (crime dramas: Southland (2009 – 2013), and Snowfall (2017 to present)), photo shoots (November 2014 Vanity Fair) and music videos (Snoop Dogg, Rihanna and Calvin Harris). More notable, The Sheats Goldstein Residence was featured as the Malibu home of Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) in The Big Lebowski (1998), and as the home of the villainous Eric Knox (Sam Rockwell) in Charlie’s Angels (2000).
Diamonds are Forever (1971) – The Home of Billionaire Willard Whyte
James Bond movies have always set the tone on style and the latest in modern living. From gadgets and tripped out cars to spectacular evil lairs, Diamonds Are Forever (1971) does not disappoint with Lautner’s Palm Springs Elrod House. In Diamonds Are Forever, the Elrod House is used as the winter retreat of billionaire Willard Whyte (Jimmy Dean) where Bond (Sean Connery) is confronted by female bodyguards Bambi (Lola Larson) and Thumper (Trina Parks).
Located at 2175 Southridge Dr, in Palm Springs, CA. the 8,900-square-foot residence completed in 1969 has five bedrooms, 5.5 bathrooms, a large gym, and an indoor/outdoor swimming pool separated by a retractable curved glass wall which opens at the touch of a button. The home is dramatically sited on a rocky ledge, incorporating naturally located boulders as walls and dividers between rooms supporting the Lautner design trademark, blurring the lines between exterior and interior spaces.
Body Double (1984), The Temporary Home of Jake Scully
Labeled “the most modern home built in the world” by The Encyclopedia Britannica, the home is known as “The Chemosphere” is a Lautner designed house planned to solve the common problem of constructing on a challenging site. In this case, a property which involves a 45-degree slope. The spaceship styled house is a 2,200 square foot octagonal home resting on a 30- foot tall, 5-foot wide concrete pedestal, accessed by a private funicular. This uniquely designed home has survived numerous earthquakes and landslides due to the deep anchoring of its central pedestal into the sloping hillside. The home is located in the San Fernando Valley, perched in such a way as to captivate the extensive valley views on the entertaining side of the home, and intimate views of nature and wildlife on the bedroom side of the octagonal structure.
The house is named for the Chem Seal Corporation, one of two sponsoring companies (the other being the Southern California Gas Company) who provided an experimental cladding to the house, offsetting the original $140,000 cost (approximately $1.16 million today) to construct the home.
The house’s unique design makes it a natural for the movies and although originally built to house a family of six, the home is often depicted in movies as the ultimate bachelor pad. First used in The Outer Limits television series in a 1964 episode entitled The Duplicate Man, the production supplemented exterior shots of the house with interiors created on a sound stage. The house was later used in Brian DePalma’s Body Double (1984) as a temporary residence for the main character, Jake Scully (Craig Wasson). The movie, based on the voyeuristic theme of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), makes perfect use of the circular glass-walled home as the perfect perch from which to spy upon neighbors.
The Chemosphere also appears in the end credits of the Disney film Tomorrowland (2015), starring George Clooney, and was animated for The Simpsons television series for a 1996 episode entitled “A Fish Called Selma”.
Less Than Zero (1987), The Clay Family Home
One of architect John Lautner’s favorite commissions was “Silvertop”, a 7,500 square foot residence designed to complement the topography of an unusually contoured property. Built between 1957 and 1963, the four-bedroom home’s main feature is the curved living room window framing the ocean view out over an infinity edged pool.
The movie Less Than Zero introduces the Lautner design brilliantly during the opening credits. Director, Marek Kanievska has the camera follow 18-year old lead character Clay (Andrew McCarthy) returning home to Beverly Hills for Christmas break from Princeton. Clay is shown exiting a taxi cab in the homes circular drive, entering the grand residence and then followed throughout the homes meandering interior. The scene not only displays the obvious wealth of the character’s family but also portrays the director’s love affair with the perfectly designed home.
A Single Man (2009), George and Jim’s Residence
The Schaffer Residence was one of the earlier Lautner commissions received shortly after finishing his apprenticeship under Frank Lloyd Wright, and aptly demonstrates Wright’s influences. It was constructed for the Schaffer family who owned a large parcel of land and desired a home designed to be integrated with the large oak trees on the property. To accomplish this, Lautner designed a remarkably airy space which meanders in and around the existing trees.
The home constructed in 1949 is not large, containing just 1,698 square feet of interior space and two bedrooms; however, with Lautner’s use of an open floor plan and trademark blending of the interior and exterior spaces, the home feels much larger. The architect accomplishes this feat through the use of large runs of pivoting glass exterior walls which merge the interior spaces with expansive decking, and a ceiling that appears to float. Constructed of glass, steel, concrete and redwood cladding the home’s blending of spaces is supported by its incorporation seamlessly into the natural landscape of the property.
Located at 527 Whiting Woods Way in Glendale, CA, the Schaffer Residence stands in as the Santa Monica home of George Falconer (Colin Firth) and his deceased partner Jim in A Single Man. The interiors and exteriors of the house were extensively used by Tom Ford in his directorial debut, who relied heavily on his design training to ensure the house depicted the characters refined taste while ensuring everything in his life has a proper place. To accomplish this, Ford, with design expert Amy Wells (Mad Men) debated and positioned every object and prop shown on screen to ensure the main characters home was a reflection of his personality, and ultimately a depiction of the disruption of his orderly world.
Lethal Weapon 2 (1989) – Arjen Rudd’s Stilt House
Located on Mulholland Drive in the Hollywood Hills Lautner’s 1962 Garcia House was once described by the New York Times as a “Quonset hut made of glass”. Lautner, as mentioned. was known for his ability to design unique residences for properties with impossible terrains, developed a unique approach to secure this home on the sloped lot – he designed it to rest on stilts raising the structure 60 feet above the valley below.
The Garcia House is also known locally as the “Rainbow House” for its 30-foot tall semicircular roof, seamlessly supported by colored glass windows, is positioned such that the house appears to float like a rainbow across the valley. The layout of the 2,300 square foot home is strategically designed as two distinct pavilions divided under the continuous roof by an open-air terrace and cascading staircase. One side of the home contains bedrooms and office space, with the other side housing the more public entertaining areas. As with most Lautner designed homes, the exterior spaces blend naturally with the interiors through large expanses of glass and the use of natural materials (lava rock and wood).
In the movie Lethal Weapon 2, the Garcia House was utilized as the home of villain Arjen Rudd, Minister of Diplomatic Affairs for the South African Consulate. It was this house where vigilante police officer Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) uses cables attached to the bumper of his pickup truck tied to the home’s supporting stilts to send it crashing into the ravine below. To complete this scene, a replica of the house was built on the studio back lot at a cost of over $500,000. Due to the cost and the nature of the shot, the producer had only one chance to capture the destruction of the home on film.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.